I've still been thinking a lot about the concept of differentiation. The idea was advanced by Dr. M. Bowen, who developed a practice model called Family Systems Theory. I vaguely remember learning about this in college. I've discovered, though, that different notions strike a chord at different times. In college, for example, when I was first introduced to Bowen's ideas, I was not particularly impressed by them. I didn't (and still don't) want to do family therapy so a family systems theory just wasn't that interesting to me. Fast forward six years. I am exposed to the same information at a different point in time and I realize it is the link that ties all the other clinical knowledge and skills I've gained over the years together. It's like a light bulb went off! Differentiation is most of the therapy process is all about! When a person comes to me for help, what I'm really trying to do is help that individual develop the skills he needs to increase his level of differentiation!
I know, it's not exactly a revolutionary idea. It's just that it's all coming together in my mind and I'm excited...
Anyway. The ultimate goal of a child's psychological development is a healthy adult identity. If parents meet the child's basic emotional needs during each stage of development the child gains confidence in himself as a person. He develops a clear, solid sense of who he is and what he stands for. The child becomes a well-differentiated adult.
If, however, the child's basic emotional needs are not met (for whatever reason), he will not have the inner resources he needs in order to feel sure about who he is as a person. Instead of becoming a healthy adult, he develops a "false self."
What is a false self? It's essentially an adopted or borrowed identity that changes depending upon the context. Having a false self is like wearing a thin shell that provides just enough of an exterior to allow you to blend in with everyone else. The shell itself is hollow; because of its thin skin and empty interior it is extremely fragile and easily broken. It needs to fill itself up and become more solid in order to ensure its survival. It cannot do this alone; it needs other people to fill it with substance and increase its solidity.
So what does a false self look like? A person with only a false self constantly changes his attitudes and beliefs to promote a sense of comfort and stability in his relationship or relationships. He has virtually no idea what he actually believes or values; it's irrelevant. His primary concern is to prevent conflict in important relationships so that they remain intact. (After all, he needs these relationships to "fill him up," i.e., to tell him who he is). His beliefs therefore can and often do change quite rapidly. A belief is quickly abandoned if it no longer supports and preserves an important relationship. Beliefs that do seem to support important relationships tend to be rigid and resistant to change, even in the face of irrefutable evidence that the beliefs are unreasonable or even false.
(I once had a roommate who jumped from relationship to relationship. It baffled me how within a week of ending a purportedly "serious" relationship she was always able to find someone else with whom she quickly became "serious." Her interests and extracurricular activities changed with each boyfriend. Each new boyfriend was also accompanied by a new set of "friends." She did have two or three friendships that did not appear to be dependent upon her romantic relationships; I noticed that these friends frequently expressed concern about her behavior and often tried to encourage her to take a temporary break from dating).
A person with only a false self is dominated by his emotions. He has little or no insight into his thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. He identifies completely with his emotions without ever stopping to consider what assumptions or beliefs might fuel them. He has difficulty accepting responsibility for how he feels; rather, he blames others for "causing" his emotions. His feelings are his Truth (with a capital T). For someone with a false self, his emotions at any given moment are a direct reaction to what is transpiring in his primary interpersonal relationship (or relationships). Therefore, his emotional stability is completely dependent upon the stability of this (or these) relationship (or relationships).
Everyone has a false self, to one degree or another. People who are more differentiated, however, also have a true or "solid" self. The higher a person's level of differentiation the more his true self is in control. The true self is everything the false self is not. When the true self is in control, a person's beliefs are guided by his individual goals and values. His beliefs might change in response to new information; they do not, however, fluctuate in ways that ensure stability in an important relationship (or relationships). The personal worth of someone with a true self comes from within; it is not dependent upon other people for validation. When a person operates in "true self mode," he takes responsibility for calming his own emotions instead of expecting others to make him feel better or alleviate his distress.
To me, mindfulness plays an invaluable role in strengthening our true selves. The more we learn to observe our emotions without judgment the less reactive we become. If we can adopt a curious and accepting attitude towards our feelings we can learn to contain them ourselves; this decreases our reliance on others for soothing our negative emotions.
I think I've written more than enough today. I'm pretty sure, though, that I have a lot more to say on the subject:-)