Differentiation and Identity

Many of the difficulties of relationship – marriage, parenting, friendship, etc. – have a common source.

A lack of differentiation.

The root problem can manifest itself in many ways: rigid relational systems, enabling, and abuse among other dysfunctions of varying degree of severity.

Differentiation is not independence. That is counterfeit differentiation. Independence is the sense of doing what you want to do and be who you want to be regardless of the consequence to the relationship.

A lack of differentiation is evidenced by an inability to define your Self or your worth apart from the relationship. So you become who your Self needs to be in order to receive affirmation – seeing a positive reflection of who you are in the other. (see The Reflected Sense of Self)

Often this degrades to just doing what it takes to keep the peace.

It is about identity. (see Why Do We Adopt and Identity?) In non-differentiated relationships, one’s identity is supported by the relationship. A weight that marriage, parenting, friendship, or being a boss/employee was not meant to bear.

Because identity rests on the perceived quality of the relationship – Am I a good wife? Am I a good dad? Am I a valued employee? Are we best friends? – it becomes harder and harder to have a non-anxious response to the other’s emotions. If they are angry, then your own anxiety – caused by the shame at not being good enough – leads to anger or resentment or panic.

Your non-differentiated emotional state will be directly tied to the other.

The process of differentiation is tough. Particularly when you must learn new responses and avoid the behaviors that seem comfortable because they are familiar.

While difficult, the process is not complicated:

1. Develop a secure foundation for identity.

The problem with a relationship as a foundation is that the other – being a broken human – will not live up to our expectation. The problem with career being foundation is that hardly ever do we experience a straight climb up the corporate ladder. The same could be said of almost anything.

Identity needs to be based on something unchanging. Secure. We were designed to have our identity fulfilled in God. In Christ we live and move and have our being.

The truth of the Gospel, rather than being based on our performance, won’t change and will answer the lies that have formed in us that we attempt to create an identity around. (see What is the Gospel?)

For more on building an identity in Christ, start here and here.

2. Love your Self.

Jesus himself said that the second greatest commandment is the love your neighbor as yourself. This is a great statement of differentiation. We cannot love without expectation until we love the self we are intended to be in Christ. (tweet that!)

Renewing our mind with Truth. Denying our false self daily. (see The Lie)

The enables differentiation because the truth of who you are will not change. As the other deals with their hurts and disappointments, and processes their own brokenness, you will have the ability to hold onto your Self. When disappointment is reflected back to you, you will not feel like a disappointment – you will feel like one continually receiving grace.

Similarly, as you process your disappointments and brokenness, another will not be required to sooth you. You can rest on who you are, and who you continue to be regardless of relational setbacks.

3. Accept the other in the relationship.

This is more a result of differentiation, but it is important to mention. The other is a broken person. Designed differently than you. Flawed differently than you. (applied to marriage see The Accepting Marriage)

I am curious to hear of your experience of differentiation or non-differentiation.

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