“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.”
– Robert Louis Stevenson
What gives a person’s life meaning is unique to every individual. At one point or another, most of us find ourselves asking if we are truly living a life that is meaningful to us. In other words, are we really living the life we are meant to lead? Answering this one question involves asking many more. Are we directing our lives based on our wants, beliefs, and values? Do our choices represent the things that really matter to us? Are we the fully differentiated, unique beings we were born with the potential to be? How much are our pasts still influencing who we are today?
Human beings are incredibly adaptive creatures. We are born completely dependent on others to care for us and with brains that are far from having fully developed. In the course of our growing up, particularly very early in our lives, we adapt to the social environments we are born into in a manner to get our basic needs met, so we can survive. These factors result in our internalizing impressions from early caretakers about who we are, how to view others, and how the world works. We often take on the traits of our early caretakers, the good as well as the bad, as if they are our own. Their positive traits are naturally and harmoniously incorporated as a part of our real self. However, their negative traits and the hurtful attitudes they express during our painful interactions with them, act as an overlay on our personality. We refer to this negative aspect of our personality as the “anti-self.”
Throughout our development, we form adaptations to cope or deal with pain and fears. Yet these adaptations, which initially served as survival mechanisms, later come to limit us. In addition, we often take on the value systems and beliefs of the family and culture we grew up in, or we rebel and form attitudes in opposition to these influences. Either way, it can prove difficult for us to be bold enough to develop our own personal beliefs and values and live according to them, thereby creating meaningful and fulfilling lives for ourselves that are not purely dictated by our past.
The question becomes how do we fully differentiate ourselves from our anti-self and become the unique individual we were born with the potential to be? How do we become our real self? My father, psychologist Dr. Robert Firestone, and I explain the steps in the process of differentiation in our new book, The Self Under Siege, which we wrote in collaboration with Joyce Catlett.
The first step in the process is to identify the “critical inner voices” you experience about yourself, others, and the world around you. This critical internal commentary often represents the views of our early caretakers. It can be valuable to reflect on the messages you received from their attitudes toward you, labels you were given in the family, and what each parent actually thought about you. Often, as adults, we are still experiencing our lives through the filter of these negative points of view.
Starting to identify and challenge these critical inner voices in the first step in the process of differentiating and seeing yourself and your life through your own eyes and not through a filter based on early programming. Challenging these views involves developing perspective and answering back to these voices from a more realistic, compassionate point of view toward yourself and others.
The second step of differentiation involves identifying negative traits of your early caretakers and seeing how you may be acting these traits out in your own life. Do you find yourself acting superior and looking down on others in a manner similar to how you saw your mother behaving? Do you find yourself, in a moment of frustration, yelling words at your child that your father yelled at you? Do you find yourself withdrawing from your romantic partner in a self-protective style similar to how your father was with your mother? Or do you find yourself acting without regard for another person’s boundaries in a fashion reminiscent of your mother? These are all examples of common ways that negative traits of our early caretakers manifest as part of our personality. These patterns can also hurt the people in our lives and act to push them away.
It is important to admit to ourselves the ugly truth that we have been acting out behaviors that resemble the worst of our parents, often the very traits we liked least about them. The second step in the process of differentiation involves acknowledging these destructive behaviors in yourself and then making a concerted effort to resist acting out these styles of relating. By breaking these behavioral patterns, you are acting less like a replica of your parents and more like yourself and the person you want to be. In essence, these first two steps are breaking with your parents in the sense of needing them as parents. This does not imply not being close to your parents as people. It just means seeing them realistically and, more importantly, seeing yourself realistically, as an adult who no longer needs parents in the way you did as the dependent child you once were.
The third step in the differentiation process is to break with the defenses/ coping behaviors/ adaptations you made to survive in your childhood. These self-soothing mechanisms may initially have helped you, but they may now limit you in your life. Common examples of these behaviors are eating to push down emotions, buying yourself treats to make you feel better, keeping emotional distance from others to feel safer, taking care of yourself and not asking for what you want and need from others, doing things to try to please others in an attempt to get their love, having to be “perfect and the best” to feel worthwhile, and being demanding and intrusive to get what you “need” from others. All of these patterns of defense may have been adaptive in our families, but they no longer serve us as adults. In essence, they perpetuate our reliving our childhood throughout our adult lives.
The third step in differentiation involves identifying these defenses in yourself and rooting out behaviors that were once adaptive but are now limiting your life. Breaking these patterns will cause anxiety, but it’s important to know that you can bear it. You may have to stop self-soothing behavior patterns or take chances by acting in unfamiliar ways. This step essentially means saying goodbye to your child self, no longer viewing the world through a child’s eyes, and seeing yourself as a competent adult, who can go after the things you want and get your needs met. It means no longer having to be self-protective, or to avoid feelings for fear they would be overwhelming. It means recognizing that you are now an independent adult who has little to fear from others and who can tolerate strong emotions.
The fourth step in differentiation involves developing your own moral compass, value system, and meaning in your life. What are your real beliefs and values? Are you living according to those values and with integrity? Are you pursuing the things that light you up and really matter to you? Asking yourself these questions and answering them honestly is the beginning of this process. Do your actions match with your values? Do you admire the type of person you are?
In developing ourselves, it is important to look for role models, people we admire. We can emulate and take on traits we admire in others as our own. People we encounter and respect can help us identify behavior we want to adopt. This does not mean giving up our selves and becoming another person. It is simply a part of developing ourselves and evolving into the person we want to be. Pursuing the activities, people, and lifestyles that light us up, that make us feel more in touch with ourselves, is another aspect of this process. Having transcendent goals beyond our own limited self-interest creates a sense of meaning in our lives. Kindness, generosity, and compassion toward others are fundamental for creating a meaningful life. When we act on these principles, allowing our actions to be guided by them, we feel good about ourselves and fulfilled in our lives.
Undertaking the project of differentiation of self takes concerted effort, and it is a continually evolving process that can be arduous at times. But what other endeavor could be as valuable and worthwhile, both for yourself and for those you love? Becoming more fully the unique individual you have the potential to be is worth the effort. When we engage in this process, we can begin to live our lives as opposed to reliving the lives of others or living out prescriptions of others. Most importantly, we can lead a life that is genuinely and uniquely meaningful to us.