A few years ago, I came to realize (through hardship and a great therapist) that I had a problem with self-differentiation. In my most important relationships I was being driven by a deep-seated fear of rejection and abandonment. My sense of self was WAY too tied up in others and outside forces.
Self-differentiation is a concept introduced by Dr. Murray Bowen, and here I’ve copied some text from The Bowen Center to describe a well-differentiated self.
A person with a well-differentiated “self” recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality. Thoughtfully acquired principles help guide decision-making about important family and social issues, making him less at the mercy of the feelings of the moment. What he decides and what he says matches what he does. He can act selflessly, but his acting in the best interests of the group is a thoughtful choice, not a response to relationship pressures. Confident in his thinking, he can support others’ views without being a disciple or reject others’ views without polarizing the differences. He defines himself without being pushy and deals with pressure to yield without being wishy-washy.thebowencenter.org – Differentiation of Self
This is hard shit if you didn’t grow up in a family with healthy attachments. Honestly, it’s hard shit for anybody.
With the help of a this therapist, I began to try and rewire my brain, in what I now recognize as my first steps into mindfulness training. It began with a constant reminder that became a mantra: Orient Self To Self. My aim was to move away from looking to others/outside to see if i’m okay, Rather I can look to myself (hello, mindfulness!) and also commit to being the kind of person that I am proud to be, giving myself grace and forgiveness when I don’t live up to my own expectations or the commitments i’ve made to others. To be free to be okay when others may not act in the way I expect or hope for.
I’ve made some progress. Most day’s I earn a “B” in this category. Some days and strings of days, I really lock into a healthy mindset that’s even better. But on the occasions when my more intense anxiety surfaces, and my ability to access these new skills becomes compromised, I can actually observe myself getting pulled away from wise mind, sucked into fear and muddled thinking, feeling unworthy and unloveable.
Tara Brach, in her excellent teaching on the RAIN of self-compassion, refers to this as a trance, “a narrow, distorted reality that lasts for a time.” The trance narrows one’s focus to only see what’s wrong, forgetting the larger context of life. She proposes that the only way to widen perspective from the narrow focus on what’s wrong, is to shine a light on the trance itself, which I suppose is what i’m attempting to do here.
I’m going to write more another time about how I’ve been attempting to integrate the RAIN concepts into my life this year. It is slow and vulnerable work, and rewarding.
These last couple of weeks I have been battling the trance with some big wins and some sad losses. Wish me luck.