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Differentiation of self

Self portrait. 18×24 inches, acrylic on paper

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.

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the Work is never done

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a problem with anger.

Once, as a grade-schooler, I was walking home from school and got roughed up by a couple of neighborhood bullies. During this episode, I landed zero meaningful physical punches but delivered a few insults that ultimately saved me and sent the other kids packing. I walked home marveling in my new found super-power: hurting people with words. I made the kind of mental note that was significant enough that i remember it today. “I can protect myself this way, with words that hurt.”

I made the kind of mental note that was significant enough that i remember it today. “I can protect myself this way, with words that hurt.”

Skimming through the innumerable explosions of my teens and twenties, you’d encounter young Benjamin dressing down a variety of characters with foul mouthed rage. Family, friends, lovers, passersby, authority figures, coworkers, bosses. Nobody was safe from me, including me. I was no longer ignorant about my childhood coping mechanism turned against me, but I felt helpless about finding lasting change.

Fortunately, in my late twenties a few good things happened. (1) My boss at the time told me in no uncertain terms, “You’ve got what it takes to lead this team, but I can’t promote you to leadership if you don’t get a handle on your anger.” Providing for my family and advancing professionally were really important to me, so this was a huge motivation. (2) My (now ex) wife found a book about “rageaholics” that helped me. Essentially, it framed my challenge as “addiction to rage,” and expained how, for folks like me, a lot of the conventional advice about dealing with anger was counterproductive. I started learning about my “point of no return” (once a rage-prone person passes this, self-control is often practically unavailable) and finding ways to avoid getting there. (3) With the help of therapists and a men’s group, i started coming to terms with what was driving my generalized anger (and depression) and managing myself better. I was making progress. I managed to do the difficult personal work that took me from having 2 or more outbursts a week to having 1 or maybe 2 a month. I felt like I had arrived. Turns out I hadn’t. I felt like a new person. Turns out I wasn’t.

Now, fast forward with me past the shit-storm that was marital separation, dislocation from my children, loss of friendships, and divorce. Fast forward past new love and new marriage. Fast forward to that new love and marriage hitting the rocks amidst the backdrop of new children, job stress and my own depression. I was slipping fast back into anger as a coping mechanism, driving myself further into shame and depression and away from love, kindness, acceptance and patience.

I was sad, angry, depressed, and having suicidal thoughts pretty regularly. In that space, I was doing more than my part to ruin the marriage and limit my other relationships. After years of looking outside myself for answers, I decided to look back in and I didn’t like a lot of what I was seeing. Turns out 1 or 2 angry outbursts a month was more than enough to make me miserable and the people around me afraid. So I got to work again.

With a focus on dealing with my depression (and the role that disappointment and anger play in it), I started back into therapy, and headed down the track of what I can now identify as mindfulness training. Observing and noting what I’m thinking and feeling. Observing and noting patterns, and doing little things to change them for the better. Not “owning” my thoughts, etc.

Over the last few years I have managed to claw my way out of that depression, rebuild my self-confidence, and further reduce my reactivity across the board (including anger). Thanks to the hard work of therapy and especially through mindfulness meditation practice, I am now able to process my thoughts and emotions in a non-reactive fashion, and I can do this in extremely difficult or stressful environments. Anger no longer has a death grip on me. I am able to receive the emotion and let it go. I am able to see what’s beneath the anger and pain and bring healing to those parts of me that I wasn’t able to sit with before. I am in so many ways, a new person.

But I’m not.

This morning I popped off in reactive anger when something went wrong at work. I was harsh and unkind to one of my absolute favorite employees (ugh!). I have apologized sincerely, but there is not much else I can do other than commit myself again to the life I wish to lead. Commit myself again to love above all things.

I will never arrive, and the Work will never be finished until I am.

So it strikes me that, as much as I have changed, and continue to change, I will always make mistakes. I will never arrive, and the Work will never be finished until I am. For now, I will forgive myself and do my best not to pull the hoodie of unworthiness over my head. I will grieve the moment and continue on the path of peace, loving myself and others the best that I can, and always better.

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