Integration of Differentiation of Self

  • July 29, 2021
  • Ann Depner, LCSW

“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.

      • Was my brother frequently calling at 5:00 AM, depressed and seeking solace?  Though startled awake and groggy, my instinct was to sympathize and comfort.  With an eye toward differentiation, could I set aside my overdetermined “helpfulness” and respond with some reasonable boundaries?
      • As a new wife, was I jealous because my husband spent so many evenings with his old high school buddy?  You bet I was!  Though I held to Khalil Gibran’s counsel to leave “spaces in your togetherness,” this particular space peeved me no end. Could I shed the poor-me, possessive attitude that seemed to drive my husband toward his buddy?
      • As a young therapist, was I privately judgmental toward clients caught in the same sort of emotional binds that I was?  In a word, yes.  So could I invite more curiosity about these binds and become more accepting of both my clients and myself?

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:

      • I set limits with my brother – no phone calls before 9:00 AM – which gave me energy at other times to listen without trying to “fix” him.
      • After a while of pretending not to mind when my husband went out with his friend, I became genuinely interested in some projects requiring time to myself. “Boys’ night out” hardly bothered me anymore, and my husband’s interest in it gradually waned.
      • These days, if I find myself feeling “judgy,” I can usually talk myself down from my high horse, to the benefit of myself and my clients.

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 

13 Replies to “Integration of Differentiation of Self”

  1. Ann, Your nugget succintly describes your long term effort with concrete examples; I appreciate that.

    1. Thanks, Wendy! I find it quite the challenge to describe a long term process succinctly and concretely, so your comment means a lot.

  2. Thank you Ann for making this distinction of the “integration” of DOS…your examples really do point out the process of how it is possible to come to know and manage our emotions to then think more clearly. This process…is life long and, I say, a fulfilling practice.

    1. Rosemarie, I agree that it’s a lifelong process. But for me, that sense of fulfillment has often been elusive. Good thing there’s a lifetime to see it through!

    1. I agree, Norma, but I wonder what you have in mind? Spiritually, for example, one can have an experience of the transcendent, which I would see as a function of the emotional system. And then one can use the intellectual system to choose or develop a conceptual framework to understand that experience. How would you see the emotional-intellectual partnership working in the scientific arena?

  3. Ann, You describe the process involved in differentiating a self, taking it from an intellectual definition to integrating it within yourself. Now it is yours. Your examples help illustrate that process and bring to mind efforts in my own life. What I liked about your narrative is that it is understandable to anyone. A person doesn’t have to be a student of the theory to get what you write about. Somehow, I think each of us can get the idea that within our own self there are choices available that better represent the uniqueness of who i, you, or anyone else is. It takes attention, willingness and curiosity. Nicely done.

    1. Thanks, Catherine. One goal of the WPFC blog is to present Bowen theory and its applications in a way that’s understandable to people unfamiliar with the theory, so your compliment is especially satisfying!

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