Differentiation is a fancy word for becoming your own person. We start out life literally a part of another human being, our mother. We then are born into a family of one sort or another, where we are dependent on their acceptance and support for survival. Their acceptance and approval, at some level, is necessary for us to stay alive. It is more than a want; it is a need – as much as food and water. This, of course, is not a problem…assuming they provide for this need.

As we grow towards adulthood, the natural healthy direction is towards independence and differentiation. Not all families encourage or require this though. Some families feel threatened by members thinking, feeling, and acting independently. Particularly if that way of thinking, feeling, or acting is contrary to the accepted and expected norm for the family or a given parent.

Differentiation, if not encouraged growing up, requires intentional effort as an adult. 

People with a poorly differentiated self depend heavily on the acceptance and approval of others. They either:

  1. Quickly adjust what they think, say, and do to please others; or
  2. Dogmatically proclaim what others should be like and pressure them to conform.

Bullies depend on approval and acceptance as much as chameleons, but bullies push others to agree with them rather than the bully choosing to agree with others. Disagreement threatens a bully as much as it threatens a chameleon. An extreme rebel is a poorly differentiated person also, but they pretend to be their “own self” by opposing the positions of others.

The Well Differentiated Person

A well differentiated person recognizes a realistic dependence on others, but can also stay calm and clear headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotion.

Thoughtfully acquired principles help guide decision making for the well differentiated person. This leaves you less at the mercy of the feelings of the moment. What you decide and say match what you do.

You can act selflessly but do so out of a thoughtful decision for the best interest of the group, not a response to relationship pressures. Confident in your thinking, you can support others’ views even when you disagree with some aspects. You can also reject views without having to polarize the differences as being bad, terrible, stupid, or evil.

You define yourself without being pushy and deal with pressure to yield without being wishy-washy.

Difficulties of Poor Differentiation

Some common struggles inherited from families that struggle with poor differentiation include:

  • Heightened need for attention or approval,
  • Difficulty dealing with expectations,
  • Tendency to blame oneself or others,
  • Feeling responsible for the happiness of others, or
  • Feeling that others are responsible for one’s own happiness,
  • Acting impulsively to relieve the anxiety of the moment, rather than tolerating anxiety and acting thoughtfully

Emotional Cutoff

Emotional cutoff is when people manage their unresolved emotional issues with their parents, siblings, and other family members by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact with them.

This is achieved by moving away from family and rarely going home, or by staying in contact but avoiding sensitive issues. Relationships may look better if you cutoff to manage them, but the problems are just dormant, not resolved.

You can reduce experiencing tension from family interactions by cutting off, but you risk making new relationships too important. Looking to new relationships to meet your needs could lead to pressuring them to be certain ways or accommodating too much to their expectations, for fear of jeopardizing the relationship. New relationships are typically smooth in the beginning, but the patterns you’re trying to escape eventually emerge, generating new tensions.

Sometimes emotionally cutting off from members of your family of origin can be healthy and helpful. God has given us, in the body of Christ, the opportunity to build relationships forming a new family of our choosing. It is, however, important to be conscious of your reasons for emotionally cutting off from family members and to be aware of the potential dangers of repeating old patterns in new relationships.

Unresolved Attachment

Everyone has some degree of unresolved attachment in their family of origin. Well differentiated people have much more resolution than less differentiated. Unresolved attachment can manifest itself many forms:

  • A person feels more like a child at home and looks to parents to make decisions
  • A person feels guilty when in more contact with parents and feels they must solve the parents conflicts or distress,
  • A person feels enraged that parents don’t seem to understand or approve of them.

People often look forward to going home, hoping things will be different this time. The old interactions usually surface within hours. It may take the form of surface harmony with powerful emotional undercurrents. Or, it might deteriorate into shouting matches and hysterics.

Siblings of a highly cutoff member often get furious at them for upsetting the family. You and your family might feel exhausted after even a brief visit.


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