Sunday, August 14, 2011


I've been thinking a lot recently about the concept of differentiation.  Differentiation is an outgrowth of normal psychological and emotional development.  It gradually develops throughout childhood and adolescence.  If all goes well, the process culminates in an adult with a well defined sense of self and the capacity for intimate relationships with others.  Different people achieve varying levels of differentiation.  The Bowen Center ( explains the difference between a well-differentiated individual and someone who is poorly differentiated.

A person with a poorly differentiated self needs frequent approval and validation from others in order to feel good about himself and to maintain an inner sense of stability.  Without it, a poorly differentiated person feels unworthy, insignificant, and even empty.  Because he needs others' approval and validation in order to feel stable, a poorly differentiated person tries to control the people in his life, either overtly or covertly.

These are the people you know with "control issues."  They are the ones who cannot tolerate disagreement from others.  They are easily overwhelmed by their emotions and look to external sources (such as alcohol, sex, eating, shopping, etc.) for comfort when they are distressed.  They are those who go along with what "everyone else" says and does and who are not able to stand up for themselves or to speak their minds.  They often have problems in interpersonal relationships because they expect others to meet their emotional needs and feel angry or rejected when they don't.

A well-differentiated person recognizes the importance of interpersonal relationships and acknowledges their influence on his thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  He has, however, a clear set of values and goals that guide his decisions.  He experiences strong emotions but is not controlled by them.  He is comfortable accepting or rejecting another's viewpoint based on its merits, not on his desire to influence the other's opinion of him.  He is able to comfort himself when he is upset and copes with negative emotions in ways that are not harmful to himself nor to others.  He is comfortable with himself and so has no anxiety about revealing his true self to other people in the context of an intimate relationship.

So what determines an individual's level of differentiation?  This is one instance where the cliche that all adult problems have their origins in childhood actually applies.  The level of differentiation you achieve depends upon the degree to which your family of origin meets your emotional and psychological needs throughout your childhood, thereby endowing you with the inner resources needed for you to grow and develop as an individual.  Dr. Robert Noone describes this as "the degree to which the emotional unit of the family has been able to allow that individual to grow toward emotional maturity."

The theory is that individuals achieve about the same level of differentiation as their parents and that by the time an individual reaches adulthood, his or her level of differentiation is pretty well established.  It is very difficult - but NOT impossible - to achieve higher levels of differentiation after a person reaches adulthood.

There is actually a scale that measures an individual's level of differentiation.  Here's the link, if you're interested:,%20Development%20and%20initial%20validation.pdf 
It's a PDF file; the scale is on the last page (pg. 12 of 12).  I haven't taken it yet, but I'll share my score as soon as I do.


  1. Will pass this along to my daughter.

  2. Really glad I found your blog, this is super informative and an interesting theory I hadn't heard of before. You're officially "followed". :)


  3. A critique this theory often receives, however, is that "differentiation" is a very westernized ideal. For communal rather than individualistic cultures, healthy development may not appear like our image of proper independence. In fact, this idea has been used by professionals to disparage families and persons of color. So, everything in context!

  4. Natalie --
    I have thought about that, actually. Your comment speaks to the differences in individualist versus collectivist societies, I think. I know there have been some studies that have examined whether the concept of differentiation holds up in non-Western cultures. I have to admit, though, that I haven't actually read any of the studies -- I just glanced over the titles as I was searching for something else. I might have to go back and see what I can find out. I'll let you know if I learn anything interesting.

  5. Regarding the topic raised by Natalie, my opinion is that differentiation is about being mindful and being able to set proper boundaries. And I have no doubt that healthy people, who are mindful, do set boundaries in any culture, present our past.

  6. Regarding the topic raised by Natalie, my opinion is that differentiation is about being mindful and being able to set proper boundaries. And I have no doubt that healthy people, who are mindful, do set boundaries in any culture, present our past.

  7. I think Self-differentiation is a great concept. I once read somewhere that it starts when you see people in terms of the interactions & activities you engage with them, not the roles they/society have assigned to them.

    For instance, instead of seeing someone as MY MOTHER, it might help to see such a woman as,

    "This is a woman with whom I live in the same house. She sometimes cooks food for both of us, while I sometimes run her errands. I usually tell her in great detail about my activities while away from her, while she volunteers her opinions on these stories. Whenever I won't return that day, I tell her in advance I won't come home."

    This method helps many people handle emotional fusion in families and marriages. As emotional fusion is not closeness!


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