Differentiation of Self

by Rod Smith

Please print this out and spread it around...

Please print this out and spread it around...

Self-Differentiation (a term coined by family therapy pioneer, Murray Bowen) is a progressive, internal interplay between autonomy (separation) and connection (togetherness) while progressing toward developing and known 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) with others and 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 being committed to growing closer to those I love.
3. Intentionally developing, at the same time, autonomy and intimacy. In developing autonomy I set myself towards achieving my dreams and ambitions. In developing intimacy, I allow those close to me to see and know me as I really am.
4. Being willing to say clearly who I am and who I want to be while others are trying to tell me who I am and who 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 requesting help from others without imposing my needs upon them.
7. Being able to understand what needs I can and cannot meet 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 from others.
9. Understanding that I am responsible to others but not responsible for others .statue1
10. Growing in the ability to live from the sane, thinking and creative person I am, who can perceive possibilities and chase dreams and ambitions without hurting 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 Armour who will save me from the beautiful struggles and possibilities presented in everyday living.
16. Paying the price for building, and living within community. I am not suggesting some form of communal or shared living. I am suggesting the differentiated person finds a place with others while also being separate from others.
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 praying for it to be wine), learning to swim (rather than trying to walk on water).

(Please PRINT this page and STUDY it. Spread it around your office and among your friends. Read more writers about this concept. The ONLY thing I ask in return is that you let me know you printed it – by leaving a comment – and you SPREAD the word to others.)

66 Responses to “Differentiation of Self”

  1. I find 5, 12 and 14 really difficult.

    Especially the “taking no heroes” part. I have no religious upbringing so my difficulty with 14 (a) is hard. My heroes are not knights in shining armour so that helps.

    And 3 must be hard for everybody, not just me, and so is 16. What do you think the price is of living in community and building it? This must contribute to some of my difficulties with 5.

  2. Dear Browynkate -=- to Differentiate is the hardest task we all face — thanks for reading and posting. Rod

  3. Read Extraordinary Relationships by Roberta Gilbert. Based on “Bowen Theory.” Murray Bowen’s Theory

  4. … Thanks Dave, I am very familiar with that excellent book — Rod

  5. I am struggling with #5 right now. For me, expressed anger always meant it was time to run away again. I don’t want that to be the case anymore. I want to be able to disagree or argue, discuss it, and then move on with the relationship. I’m praying I can break this cycle now.

  6. ….. Laura – let’s talk about how to break the cycle – I will write some ideas in a day or two — and you send me your ideas…….. Rod

  7. I look forward to our discussion on Thursday about this topic.
    Going over recognizing and setting boundaries would be helpful for me, too. 🙂

  8. Rod, whoever you are, I stumbled upon this site by way of google. I am a former foster child of about 8 years. I was adopted at 17 by a family whom I had not even lived five years with. I am having a struggle with my relationships with them. In the past, I could not form relationships very well, and due to an average move of once every 9 months, I never had a consistant history with most people. So, I fear that I cannot uphold a relationship with someone that I do not live with, even a phone call takes a mental debate of “what will they think?” I usually give up and the turmoil happens. I hurt people, I feel hurt. Really, I feel silly that I struggle with relationships when I am an adult who is happily married but I can’t call my mom and dad or siblings.
    There family dynamics were interupted my me and often times, that makes not talking easier but not helpful in the long run. I literally can not consistantly communicate and upkeep a meaningful relationship with anyone except my husband.
    Do you have any suggestions, I am in school and cannot pay for (indiv.)family therapy, are there books that discuss even simple “relationship skills?”

  9. Wannabe — fell free to call me…… no harm done in chatting……317 694 8669 (If it is off I am asleep)…. ROD

  10. Hey Rod,
    I am currently attending post secondary education with the hope of being a social worker upon completion. I have currently been introduced to Bowen’s theory of differentiation and have relived that i have no concept of self. My main issue is that I commonly react emotionally, and do not reflect over how i am feeling. Are there any steps I can take to develop my internal self and mature to a normal adult level.

  11. … check back in a few days and I will see what I can come up with. Let me think on these things…..

    Please know that I am very pleased you stop by and read my work. I’d encourage you and all readers to spread the word.

    Rod Smith

  12. Hi Rod,

    As it has been well over a year since the last post, I am unsure if the thread is still being monitored. But as I have gained great insight from your list (found via google), I would like to express my gratitude.

    I am somewhere in the fundamentals of some and still working on understandings with others. This listing helps to concisely reinforce the therapeutic process I am involved in. It also serves as a great reminder of the work of process involved in developing an emotionally mature and authentic individual.

    Deciding to disappear under the influence of emotional duress in the face of turmoil…was huge for me. Reading it here, resonated loud and clear.

    My initial fears of undertaking this process have mostly waned. As my doctor remarked…just continue doing it…it will begin to come more naturally. And so it has begun to.

    Thanks again,

  13. Hello Paul:

    I am still here. I hope you get this reply.

    I am pleased to hear things are going well, or at least better, for you.

    Thanks for writing.

    I’d be happy to send you a book if you’d send your mailing address to me privately.



  14. Hi Rod. I loved this and think you did a great job on the list. I had heard of this concept and was trying to explain it to a friend, and this is an excellent resource to pass on. I just wanted to say thank you. It has given me a great deal to reflect on.

    • Thanks, Kirk. I appreciate your noticing. It is a very difficult issue to teach and to “get” and usually, just when you think you “get” it, you discover you have not! Please, by all means, pass it on.

  15. Rod,

    I am in graduate school to become a Marriage and Family Therapist and was introduced to the Bowen Theories at the starting gate and in almost every class since. I, like others stumbled across your work via Google. I bookmarked the site and will continue to monitor this exchange of ideas. I like to read what others have to say about the Bowen Theories. My course has also helped me understand the reasons I lived like I did for over 50 years. Two things-escapism and abandonment-clouded every decisionj I ever made and I didn’t even know it. Now that I am aware-I guess I have reached the pinnacle of self differentiation!

  16. Hi Rod,
    I have encountered this specific issue most recently! I have lived on my own since 14 y/o and been successful both professionally and personally until recently. Having battled for nearly 6 years to live (due to several surgeries and cancer). During this time I lost both my job while in the hospital and then my home. I was taken in by a dear friend and have been living in the basement since. (Nearly 3 years now.) I am currently here due to finances and trying to rebuild my strength on all levels. But I find that I am increasingly discontent and what I would call fearful of striving out on my own again? I won’t go into the details but I am increasingly aware of what feels like an inability to self-diff. even though I have living the majority of my life being self diff? I am a bit at a loss! I recognize that I have encountered a new season and new healing but I wonder about different levels, phases and stages of self diff due to circumstances? survival? Displacement? What does this look like when trying to recoup ones life? any thoughts or insight you have would be dearly appreciated! Thanks for your writings – what a gift to find this page! Blessings!

  17. I already left a comment…from GottaBme. Thanks I lool forward to hearing back.

  18. hi Rod,
    Thanks for sharing this. I’ve just posted it (with credit to you of course) on my blog at http://www.romancerecovery.com/blog. One of my clients found you after we had been talking about emotional fusion. She’s taken a quantum leap in her self differentiation over the past 2 weeks as a result, yay!! Keep up the great work.
    Love, Johanna

  19. I have a lot of problems with lying to those close to me. I seem to always be searching for praise from those around me and if it isn’t being given I lie and make something I have accomplished look more granduous than it really is. This really hurts me in relationships…both in my family and romantically. Any suggestions?

  20. Hi Rod;
    I have a PhD in psych/mental health nursing and am now reitred. I first came across Dr. Bowen’s theory in the mid-70’s and it made a huge difference in my personal life. I have used the concepts in my work since, but “loaned” my origional papers to another therapist and they were never returned. What a simple thing (this late in my life) to “Google” his name and not only find his theories again, but find them being applied. Learning systems theory and then Dr. Bowen’s sefl diffirentation theory in a one week’s workshop made quite an impact on me. It seemed to provide an organizational framework for where I was in my life and allowed me to move forward in defining myself (in relation to the things I had been raised to believe) without a lot of guilt. Glad I found your website. I do still counsel a little and am making copies of your list for one of my clients.

    • I am so pleased you stopped by. When you so desire, please send a phone number and we can chat — email it to me so numbers remain private. I LOVE Bowen and Rabbi Friedman — I trust you have aslo read his work.

  21. googled “relationships differentiation” and came across your list – thank you!!

    I know my feelings and reactions are my responsibility. I want to care for me and be supportive and loving towards my partner (I know the concept extends beyond that).

    One of the issues I struggle with is that when I get angry during an interaction, I recognize it and ask for a break to deal with it on my own and I attempt (but am not always successful) in suggesting a time for when I’d like to continue the interaction or connect in general. In such situations I find it hard to calmly insist, when my partner does not accept the request for a break. Any advice?

    Also I have found that my partner repeat the same topic, when she gets upset; even when I say that I have heard her. She obviously does not feel heard, so how do you break that impasse? Our tactic is that we do take a break and then we write emails to each other initially to explain/explore and then followup in conversations.

    Again thanks for the posting Rod.

    • Dear Mike:

      There are two, no three, things I am pleased about: 1. You found the list and you found it helpful, 2. You took time to write, 3. You are in a growth place with your partner and are battling over important issues. PLEASE read Schnarch’s Passionate Marriage. It is really an essential tool for all kinds of relationships. There are no quick solutions to what you are facing. Please email me and if you would like, we could set up a time to talk.

      Thanks for writing. Be assured this is not an automated response.

      Rod Smith


  22. Hello,

    For years, I have been struggling with a dilemma: I desire a closer, more intimate relationship with my wife of 18 years, and she is very satisfied with status quo. I have been reading excerpts (online through Google books) of various books including Schnarch’s “Passionate Marriage” that introduced me to the term of “differentiation.” I did not completely understand the term (I started reading near the end of the book about reaching critical mass), and additional searches led me to your helpful article on this topic.

    I am definitely interested in better understanding the process of progressing from emotional fusion to self-differentiation and will continue working toward this goal.

    If there are any other resources that you would suggest to aid in this process, please let me know!

    Thank you,

  23. I’m single, friendless and reading “Passionate Marriage”. A lot is falling into place.

    I have been doing some soul searching after a depression that resulted in me cutting ties to everyone I know. I suddenly understand why people run away from their lives.
    I feel like I can’t love anyone and I am amazed by people who have life long relationships. My latest question has been ” Are they reallly relating or just pretending to?”
    The thing I’m noticing now, is that I feel like I’m being jailed when someone tries to get close to me. The dynamics of my former relationships are accelerated with people I’m meeting now. I have people I’ve known a week telling me what I should do and how I should be (Why do people do this?!) Something that has me physically gagging and instantly running in the opposite direction.
    I find it easier to love trees…and animals…and shoes 🙂
    I’m giving myself time to see if we really are supposed to relate as humans. At this point, I’m really not sure…

    • You are not as friendless, I suspect, as you may feel. Hang in there kid.

    • Sometimes people telling you what to do is helpful for them. I don’t mean that you should allow to do it if it takes away your energy, but sometimes it helps that situation if you let them give you their advice, and realise that by letting them do that you are giving them a chance to explore themselves and their own ideas. You can then choose what to do with their advice by your own terms.

  24. I came across this website because I’m testing out of “Human Growth & Development” and needed to understand the concept of self differentiation.
    Wow. This is pretty impressive and I’m printing it off so I can think about it beyond the course. That’s the beauty of study – you stumble across real tools for growth and development!
    This page is kind of like a gem lying in the forest: it’s shiny and attractive and I want to look at it closer to enjoy all its facets.

  25. I printed this off so my mother and I can form a healthier relationship since we both have problems with this with each other and other family members.

  26. Thank you – I find that differentiation can be hard for me, because something in me craves fusion, like it is a natural high. It is hard to come to terms with the fact that trying to hold onto that feeling actually kills it!
    It is also amazing that a truly wonderful relationship brings us so much joy but also confusion, and an opportunity to grow and learn about ourselves.
    Thank you for your insights.

  27. This also frees me from the idea that if my partner does not fuse with me, then I am doing something wrong. But of course they need their space and their life and our love will be stronger when it is given room to grow. I don’t have to be everything for him, and don’t expect him to be everything for me.

  28. Dear Rod,
    Just stumbled on your site whilst researching for my essay on attachment theory. I am currently working towards becoming a couples counsellor. Really enjoyed your article and reading a little about you.What impresses me most about you his your selfless concern for others.It reminds me of the Buddhist belief that Darma should be taught to all without payment.
    Self differentiation is very similiar to the Buddhist concept of non attachment.
    The constant interplay of autonomy and intimacy is reccurant throughout all stages of life, to be aware of self as differetiated from the other allows the space for true intimacy.
    Thanks again Rod and wish you and all on here love, peace and true intimacy.

  29. Hi: I will print out the text. So clear the way you put it. But very hard to do for some of us. I grew up in care. I have taken time to understand the dysfunction in my family and my part in it. My adopted daughter is causing so much pain as she is manipulating and punishing me for my failure to parent her and she does it undercover she has turned a lot of friends against me. It seems to be she is unable to tell me to my face or even show me her real self. Yet, she does to others. I wonder if there is a way to reach her or to stop the damage that is being done?

  30. Thanks for this. A counselor introduced the concept of differentiation to me a couple years ago and I have found it tremendously helpful in growing my marriage, parenting a “spirited” child, and just everyday relating. I plan to read some excerpts from your article in a presentation my mother and I are doing to young mothers about building healthy lifelong parent/child relationships. In fact, I may as well print and distribute to all of them!

  31. Thank you for the valuable information. We can not truley move forward until we know where we are going, why we are going, and what it will take to get there.

  32. I actually researched the term self-differentiation because it was used in an article I was reading about pastors and their churches/ministry. I thought I knew what it meant but was looking for clarification and this article definitely clarified it. Still not sure if what I look for or call intimacy is “emotional fusion” or if why I am so dis-satisfied in the depth of relationships around me is because I struggle with self-diff. or if others are just so goal-oriented and self-absorbed they lack the capacity to go deeper or even desire it. I plan on printing this out and studying it more. #3 seems to be the key — I want that for myself and others. I don’t want to fear having dreams and losing relationship (intimacy) and I don’t want others who have dreams to ignore the people around them. I think I react to that by not dreaming or reaching for goals, because people have always been more important to me.

  33. Differentiation between mother and son. No more thinking he is a mirror of me.

  34. Just what I needed to hear again, this time I’m desperate enough to really listen……

  35. I am printing this and sharing it with others. Thanks.

  36. I am printing this and sharing it. This is helpful clarification of this topic, a necessary skill for establishing healthy detachment in any relationship, a vital key to genuine maturity.

  37. Rod, thank you so much for making these extremely insightful, soul mending tools just out there where it really makes a difference! Thank you so much! I am sharing this one too. There really are like self awakening tools that help so much! thank you thank you thank you! And I really thank God for you!

    • P.S. I am also thankful you said that we could share it… I linked it on face book and am printing and sharing… this is such a wealth, I cant say it enough, thank you! How unselfish of you…really

  38. Thank you, Rod. This is very well organized and teachable. I lead groups of Domestic Violent Offenders helping them to become aware of their beliefs and the need to change their Power and Control beliefs over others. I mostly work with men, but recognized they are only half of the problem, as their partner’s contribute to the dysfunction also. Therefore, I’m preparing a workshop for women, to be followed by life skills coaching, that will aid them in building loving relationships. I am asking for your permission to use your eighteen points of differentiation in the workshop. May I?

    • Gerry you have my FULL permission to use, modify, add-to, sell, enjoy, anything I have written for the edification and the empowering of people anywhere and at anytime. Thanks for asking. Full permission granted.

      Rod Smith

  39. Hi, Rod. I came across this website today when I googled “differentiation of self” in response to a therapist’s recommendation that I work on that concept in my journey to becoming a happy, well-adjusted and fulfilled adult. Your article was very helpful in getting down to the “nuts and bolts” of what it means to be self-differentiated, and it provides a guide to some things I can specifically work on. I hadn’t found that in other articles. Thanks!

  40. Rod, my friend just hooked me up with your site and it looks amazing. Do you have any suggestions for…
    My husband and I have been in counseling for 6 years after we realized his inability to be emotionally intimate. He is working tremendously hard and committed to his ADHD/BPD support group, his psychiatrist, his dialectical behavior therapy, his sobriety. One hurdle that he can’t seem to make, is when the moment arises for him to express his vulnerable needs to me, he cannot walk through that door. Anxiety and dissociated behaviors ensue…after 6 years I am feeling so discouraged. Any readings or suggestions you have?

  41. Thank you for posting this. I know I will find it helpful in my life and the relationships around me.


  42. Thank you for posting. I think this is one of the best pages on differentiation I have read alongside the work in Passionate Marriage.
    I will print and share.

  43. Hi Rod,
    My therapist suggested I research differentiation today and I found your list. Thank-you so much for this. It gives me specific things to look at and work on. I have come to the realization that at 26 years old, I have never differentiated from my mother. She was verbally, physically, and emotionally abusive towards me growing up (still is in some ways), and I am only now seeing that her words and actions were unacceptable. I have two children and I don’t want to hurt them the way she hurt me. I don’t have many of the skills on your list, but now I have something to look at, point to, and say, “that’s how it should be.” Thank-you from the bottom of my heart.

  44. Rod,

    I really love your points on Self Differentiation.I have to confess I really struggle with and I am not sure I agree with item number 6. I see the wisdom in it most of the time but don’t you believe that there are some situations where cutoff might be warranted?

    I have a situation where a female friend of my husbands was very resentful of our marriage. They were friends from college and while he viewed it as a friendship I see signs where she would have liked for it to be more. Being married herself that would not have been appropriate, so she found ways to insert herself into my husbands life as possible to vicariously be involved with him without having to actually be seen as being inappropriate.

    When I came along there were troubles of course and this friend of his is the tyoe of person who will never admit they are in the wrong about anything. She kept trying to insert herself into our lives again in inappropriate ways. We finally saw no other alternative but to cut her off, she was causing so many problems between us.

    So that is one example. Other examples I wonder about are people who have serious substance abuse problems who won’t address them and end up encroaching on your life. Or people who are so controlling or malicious that they can’t be reasoned with. I think you get the idea…am I obligated to try to keep a relationship going with them.? Sometimes I think cutoff is warranted and probably a healthier way to go. I could be wrong though. I am interested in anyones thoughts on the topic.
    Perhaps I am not applying enough Bowen theory here LOL.


    • LS: I trust you have seen my clarifications. Thanks for your response and for your help. Rod Smith

      • Rod,

        If you mean by clarifications, the 18 points you have listed above, well yes I have., otherwise I would not have posted my question. Perhaps I am mistaken about what you mean by clarificiations. Also I am not sure what you mean by thank you for my help.

        I have to confess your answer feels brusque. I am disappointed because I feel you have some valuable insights on here and I was looking for some help on fleshing out Item No 6. I will seek the answer elsewhere.


      • Dear LS: Please go back and see I have modified #5 since your initial comment. Thus my expression of gratitude. It is not I who is being brusque and if it appears as such I apologize. I trust you will get any help you desire on your journey toward greater differentiation. It is a great journey and I again thank you for helping me make point 5 a little clearer. Rod Smith

  45. Rod,

    So I did misunderstand what you meant by clarifications…you didn’t say specifically that you modified that item. I understand better now. Thank you for that. I want to be sure I understand. Cutoff is a tool I use too often because it is the only thing I know how to do when things get to uncomfortable. Bowen theory has been very helpful in showing me that there are different and better ways to handle those situations. Your points above really help to make those theories applicable.


  46. Thank you for the information. I first heard the term self-differentiation this week and I am 60 years old. As the adult child of alcoholics, I find that I am at a crossroads in my life – retired and looking for a new direction for my ministry. I mostly desire to be emotionally healthy. I have a way to go. BRM

  47. Sharing

  48. I have referenced your helpful post on my blogpost here: http://johnbenloy.com/2018/01/differentiation-of-self/
    Thanks for your work!

  49. Thanks for sharing wonderful thoughts.

  50. Wow! Very insightful and well written. I’m new to this self-differentiation and I can’t wait to share this article with my coworkers. Thank you so very much!


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