“The Bowen theory involves two main variables. One is the degree of anxiety, and the other is …the level of integration of the differentiation of self.”
Murray Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, p. 361
My “Bowen nugget” is a dense phrase I noticed in an early reading of Family Therapy in Clinical Practice – “integration of differentiation of self.” On first encounter, I considered it redundant, or perhaps contradictory. Wasn’t the goal just plain differentiation? Did “integration of differentiation” even mean anything?
So I put the ambiguous “integration” aside, setting my sights instead on differentiation, which Dr. Bowen described in detail.
I learned that differentiation of self involves “the degree of fusion or differentiation between emotional and intellectual functioning.” (FTCP, p. 362) I understood this to mean that persons high on the scale of differentiation can identify when their attitudes and actions arise from the emotional system – their instincts and feelings – and can use their intellect to choose whether to give those emotions free rein. A well differentiated person distinguishes emotion from intellect, not mistaking one for the other.
I wasn’t there, but I wanted to be.
With naïve determination, I set out to scrutinize my emotional system and “make it behave,” clueless as to how subtle and intractable my instincts and feelings could be. I soon detected them everywhere, deeply entangled with what I had thought was untainted intellect.
It turns out that eventually I could rise to these challenges of differentiation, but only through a long apprenticeship of professional consultation and personal practice. In the various relationship systems of my life, I sought to recognize the pull of emotion and work through or around it when indicated. For example:
Though challenges to differentiation still surface and sometimes get the better of me, I find them less daunting after decades of practice. In fact, I think I’ve circled back to the “integration of differentiation of self.” I no longer have to work so hard to determine if my emotions are pushing me in a different direction than my intellect. When I notice a clash between the two, it’s more or less automatic for me to pause, figure out what the problem is, and decide what to do. This habit is integrated in me.
I’ve come to see “integration of differentiation of self” as the extent to which a person’s intellectual and emotional systems work collaboratively, each making a unique contribution to living the good life, and each facilitating the work of the other. My “Bowen nugget” is an alloy comprised of intellect and emotion, distinct as elements in themselves, but together forming a stronger, more flexible whole.
Ann Depner, LCSW
WPFC Faculty Member