Self-Differentiation in 3 Puzzle Pieces

Self-Differentiation in 3 Puzzle Pieces February 25, 2016

Systems thinking is not like memorizing the periodic table.  It’s like learning how to play violin.  The concepts are not difficult, but the application can take a lifetime to master.  Of Murray Bowen’s 8 inter-locking concepts, perhaps the most well-known is “triangles,” for which people often use the word “triangulation.”  Maybe the second most familiar is the concept of “differentiation of self.”  In this post, I’ll describe Bowen’s differentiation of self scale; then, I’ll share 3 “puzzle pieces” that help me work on my own differentiation.

You can think of differentiation by thinking of Christmas tree lights.  Christmas tree lights are in a series circuit: if one goes out, they all go out.  That automatic connection of one to the group is undifferentiation.  Conversely, if you have lights strung together in a parallel circuit, all but one can go out, and the last one will keep working.  That ability to function independent of the rest of the group?  Differentiation.  Of course, human beings aren’t light-bulbs.  We’re more than “on” or “off.”


To describe a dynamic range of human functioning, Bowen proposed a “differentiation of self scale.”  The scale was not an actual instrument, nor objectively measured.  It was a way to talk about a range of differentiation, using a notional spectrum, from 0 to 100.

At the lower level, Bowen said, “The greater the degree of undifferentiation (no-self), the greater the emotional fusion into a common self with others.”  Maybe you’ve heard the expression, “If Mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.”  That’s an apt illustration of relative undifferentiation–if one person’s emotions determines the emotions of others.

And the top of the scale, at 100?  Bowen said that someone with a higher level of differentiation of basic self was able to say, “These are my beliefs and convictions.  This is what I am, and who I am, and what I will do, or not do.”  The basic self, he said, might change based on new knowledge and experience.  But it is “not negotiable in the relationship system in that it is not changed by coercion or pressure, or to gain approval, or enhance one’s stand with others.”  Hear that, people pleasers?  (Though, of course, rebels are just as hooked as people pleasers, as their functioning is dependent on others.)

People new to Bowen might be tempted to assign themselves a relatively high number on the scale.  But Bowen said it was his impression that “those above 60 constitute a small percentage of society.”  Remember: differentiation of self is not about smarts, or education, or wealth, or health.  It’s about to what extent the fog of relationship around you controls your behavior.


Because differentiation of self is so hard to recognize and assess, it can help to break it down into simpler components.  Three puzzle pieces help me reflect on aspects of differentiation of self.  Before going on, I’ll tell you that, when I’m teaching systems thinking, I typically ascribe these three ideas to Rev. Joe Clifford, Senior Minister of First Presbyterian Church of Dallas.  About ten years ago, Joe was a fellow student in the Leadership in Ministry program.  Once, in conversation, I remember him saying something to the effect that he saw the process of differentiation requiring that we each do three things: take a stand, keep in touch, and keep cool.  (These weren’t his words, exactly, but the general idea he was sharing, and how I’ve carried them into the world.)

So, if you’re wanting to work on your differentiation of self:

1. Take a stand: Clarify your goals.  Set your boundaries.  Say what you will do, and won’t do.  Speak your mind.

2. Keep in touch: Don’t cut off connection from others.  Be aware of their goals and boundaries.  Stay in contact, however light.  Be curious.  Ask questions.  Consider perspectives different from your own.

3. Keep cool: Hard as the two others may be, this may be the hardest.  For some, it’s easy to take a stand.  For others, it’s easy to keep in touch.  But it is the rare person who can “take a stand” and “keep in touch” at the same time without a significant level of anxiety.  So, the third puzzle piece is “keep cool.”  In other words, regulate your anxiety.  Work toward some calm, as you both state your position and also become aware of, and connected to, the different position and perspective of another.  There is no end to ways to practice keeping cool, staying calm.  Those who are motivated to improve their ability to keep cool will find ways to measure their anxiety and learn what feedback mechanisms (like bio-feedback) help them practice.


When differentiation becomes foggy to me, just another long word, I try to remember these three inter-locking puzzle pieces, which help me reflect on how and if I am working on my own differentiation.  Notice how I say that?  “Working on it.”  Often, people will describe themselves or others as “differentiated.”  Or they’ll describe behavior as “differentiated.”  It’s inaccurate to talk about differentiation as an accomplished state.  Better to see it, and us all, as a work in progress.  Good luck.


Jake Morrill is minister of the Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church.  He is a student in the Post-Graduate Program at the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family.  Twice a year, in East Tennessee, he hosts a training to help clergy apply systems thinking to their ministries.

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