Posted by: faithful | August 30, 2007


Differentiation of Self, with appreciation to author, Rod Smith (click link)

Originally published June 6th, 2007  

Self-Differentiation is a progressive, internal interplay between autonomy (separation) and connection (togetherness) while progressing toward established and evolving goals.

Being an authentic adult is hard work and a never completed task. The pathway is paved with difficulty and challenge.

To become an adult, every person faces the task of the differentiation of self.

Not to differentiate is to fuse (the failure to become a separate person) and is evidenced by the propensity to place responsibility on others (or on situations, predicaments, and hurdles) for the way in which our lives develop. To differentiate is to provide a platform for maximum growth and personal development for everyone in your circle of influence.

Differentiation is described in many ways in the following points:

1. Growing in the ability to see where and how I fit into my family, the position I hold and the power that is, and is not, given to that position.
2. Growing in the ability to be fully responsible for my own life while also being committed to growing closer to those whom I love.
3. Intentionally, and simultaneously, developing increased autonomy and deeper intimacy. Autonomy: I move toward achieving my dreams and ambitions. Intimacy: I authentically and appropriately reveal who I am to those whom I love.
4. Clearly defining who I am and who I want to be while understanding the natural tendency that exists for others to try and tell me who I am and who and what I should be.
5. Staying in touch with others while, and even though, there is tension and disagreement.
6. Being able to declare clearly what I need and being able to request help from others without imposing my needs upon them.
7. Being able to understand what personal needs can and cannot be met in my own life and in the lives of others.
8. Understanding that I am called to be distinct (separate) from others, without being distant or cut off from others.
9. Understanding that I am responsible to others but that I am not responsible for others.
10. Growing in the ability to live from the sane, thinking and creative person I am, who can perceive possibilities and chase dreams and realize ambitions without unnecessarily hurting other people in the process.
11. Growing in the ability to detect where controlling emotions and highly reactive behavior have directed my life, then, opting for better and more purposeful growth born of creative thinking.
12. Deciding never to use another person for my own ends and to be honest with myself about this when I see myself falling into such patterns.
13. Seeing my life as a whole, a complete unit, and not as compartmentalized, unrelated segments.
14. Making no heroes, taking no victims.
15. Giving up the search for the arrival of a knight in shining amour who will save me from the beautiful struggles and possibilities presented in everyday living.
16. Paying the price for building and living within community.
17. Moving beyond “instant” to process when it comes to love, miracles, the future, healing and all the important and beautiful things in life.
18. Enjoying the water (rather than trying to turn it into wine), learning to swim (rather than trying to walk on water).

Differentiated People

1. Achieve their goals and keep strong relationships.
2. Know when “I” is “I” and “we” is “we” and the difference between the two.
3. Live in their own “space” and “skin” without invading the “space” and “skin” of others.
4. Maintain individuality and embrace others at the same time.
5. Avoid siding with people even if it appears helpful.
6. Resist telling others what they need, think, feel or should do.
7. Say “I” rather than “you” or “we.”
8. Appreciate differences in people, seeing no person as “all good” or “all bad.”
9. Recognize emotional bullying (all kinds of bullying) and refuse to participate in it.
10. Refuse to be manipulated into rescuing others.
11. Hold onto their positions and beliefs without being rigid or defensive.
12. Be clear-headed under pressure.
13. Cope in difficult situations without falling apart.
14. Know how much they need others and how much others need them.
15. Keep their voice under pressure without confusing thinking and feeling.
16. Be free of spending time or energy winning approval, attacking, blaming or maneuvering in relationships.
17. Resist playing games with people in order to feel loved or powerful.
18. Have learned that the voice of “they” is better ignored if “they” will not identify who “they” are – and – if others who know who “they” are, refuse to give “them” a name. (In other words ignore the THEY if THEY won’t, or cannot, say who THEY are).

Differentiation is Difficult

Thinking that ordering ginger ale because everyone else is ordering orange juice, or, going left because everyone is going right, in the name of  self-differentiation is to misunderstand and trivialize the concept. Differentiation is much more difficult than going against the grain. Any rebel can do that and rebellion usually requires quite little when it comes to wisdom. Differentiation can, and will often look like total conformity.

Differentiation is not first, about behavior; it is an emotional process, involving an inward transformation that can indeed become new ways of behaving. It is a realization of one’s uniqueness and the seeing one’s role, goals, and calling with an “internal” eye. The inward process proceeds to find outward expression in every aspect of our life and relationships. It is not a set of rules about how to behave a little (or a lot) differently from others.

Differentiation is not:

1. Trying to be different, unusual or controversial for the sake of impact alone.
2. About making a statement, resisting authority, defying or disrespecting cultural norms, challenging the values of others. The process of differentiation might include an appearance of all the above, but it is more than “the road less traveled” or some statement of independence, defiance or difference.
3. A completed task but an ongoing internal condition that monitors oneself in relationship with all others.
4. “Lone Ranger” behavior, but self-awareness and self-assuredness that might appear “lone-ranger-ish” to others.



  1. I am so pleased you have used my writing. Of course, the real thanks must go to Murray Bowen who defined the concept in the first place. Also, you have referenced a site I use when I travel and teach — you might want to consider looking at which is the site where I post the bulk of my writing.

    It is because of mentions like your mention of my site that my website has enjoyed such braod readership — thank you.

    Rod Smith

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