Moving on from family dysfunction
Moving on from your family dynamics is a lifelong task and the result of family of origin work. The concept of differentiation is central to the ability to live your own life and form healthy adult relationships. In this article I provide a couple of definitions and identify ways you can develop differentiation.
Differentiation is the active, ongoing process of defining self, revealing self, clarifying boundaries, and managing the anxiety that comes from risking either greater intimacy or potential separation.
Murray Bowen defined differentiation as the degree of resilience to the interpersonal contagion of anxiety.
It is important to distinguish between individuality, which these definitions may sound like, and differentiation. Individuality is how we develop as a person and connected to self esteem; what is it that makes us who we are? Differentiation occurs in relation to others, how are we different from them? Differentiation is not about being separate from our family but about being able to tolerate who they are while maintaining our sense of self. People make the mistake of believing that they have left their family dynamics behind by being many miles away and having little to do with them.
I have worked with many clients who are struggling with wanting to change their relationship with a parent/s. Often they are feeling angry, hurt and disappointed when the same dynamics in the family continue. The need to change family members is based on wanting to get something they have never received: recognition, attention, comfort, support. The other side of this can involve trying to change themselves to get needs met. Both of these positions keep the person stuck in the family dynamics.
Some examples of low differentiation:
Jane is living with her parents and her father continually disregards her requests to respect her space and things. She gets angry and withdraws treating him as if he doesn’t exist. Her attempts to speak to him about her feelings end in yelling matches.
Josh lived his life taking care of himself and being independent and rational. He grew up with an alcoholic father. His father has been sober for the last 6 years and their relationship is ‘fine now’. However, they have not discussed what it was like for him growing up and their interactions are superficial.
Peter’s mother constantly calls him asking for advice, wanting to talk when she is upset or lonely. Whenever Peter tries to limit the interactions she gets angry and manipulates with guilt. This ends up with Peter being there for his mother and resenting her.
Changing your interactions with your family can be complex. How do you maintain contact but not get drawn into the dynamics? This is a question many of my clients ask. It is easy to see why many people distance themselves to give the illusion that they have overcome their family dysfunction. However, in adult relationships these same dynamics show up and the way you deal with communication and conflict reflect your degree of differentiation.
Ways to improve differentiation
Dealing with anxiety
Anxiety causes us to acquiesce, shut down, cut off, withhold important feelings and desires, attack others and defend ourselves. Anxiety arises because risking self expression identifies difference. We feel anxious because being different and allowing others to know us, threatens our security in the relationship. We need to learn to regulate the swell of anxiety that arises as we risk being seen for who we are. Grounding, relaxation and learning to be present are all important skills in helping to regulate your nervous system.
Undifferentiated boundary systems in families occur when family members don’t express differences and acquiesce to pressure to conform. Or they will fight to hold onto their identity with self righteousness and protection. Developing healthy boundaries increases differentiation and real connectedness. Even when your family members continue with unhealthy boundaries you can remain strong and clear in their presence by improving your boundaries.
Becoming self-aware increases your choices in relation to your family. As you become aware of how you get drawn into the dysfunction and lack of differentiation you can make different choices. As we become aware of our reactions we can become observing of these dynamics instead of reactive.
In order to move beyond wanting your family to change requires mourning the loss of your needs not being met. Keeping stuck in anger and hurt prevents you from mourning. We have to acknowledge these tragedies in our life to let them go. Often clients have difficulty letting go of anger because it feels like they are letting their family ‘off the hook’. It is important to realize that your family members are either going to take responsibility or not, and there is nothing that you can do about it. By mourning that your family is not the way you needed them to be, you are acknowledging what happened and allowing yourself to heal.
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