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What is Differentiation?
What is Differentiation?

Are you living your life the way you want to? Are your actions based on pursuing the things that really light you up or give your life meaning? Or are you living based on prescriptions you acquired in your past? Differentiation refers to the struggle that all people face in striving to develop a sense of themselves as independent individuals.

A person’s identity is continually affected by interpersonal experiences that are either favorable or damaging to the development of his or her personality. In order for you to live your own life and fulfill your destiny, you must differentiate yourself from destructive family and societal influences. To the extent that you can develop and sustain your unique identity, you will be able to live truly individualistic and fulfilling lives.

Four Steps of Differentiation:
Four Steps of Differentiation:

There are four key steps to differentiation. These steps involve first becoming aware of the ways we are still influenced by destructive experiences and individuals from our past, then taking actions to break with our old identities in order to become our truer selves.

Differentiation: Step 1
Differentiation: Step 1

The first step involves breaking with destructive thoughts and attitudes toward ourselves that we internalized based on painful early life experiences. We can start by identifying these negative thought processes – critical inner voices — that are adverse toward the self. Some of these thoughts may seem self-soothing or self-aggrandizing, while others will seem hostile, self-hating, paranoid, or suspicious. Once we become aware of these “voices,” we can develop insight into the sources of these destructive thoughts. Then we can try to answer back to these skewed thoughts in our own point of view. By learning to challenge this inner critic, we separate from the “parent” we’ve internalized, a step that may cause us anxiety but will ultimately free us to become who we strive to be.

Differentiation: Step 2
Differentiation: Step 2

The second step of differentiation involves changing negative personality traits in ourselves that are an incorporation of the negative traits of our parents, caregivers, or other influential figures. Many people are surprised to find that, despite their best intentions, they are acting in the very ways a parent did that they swore they would never repeat themselves. Altering these unpleasant or toxic personality characteristics — phoniness, vanity, self-centeredness, addictions, a victimized orientation toward life, attitudes of superiority and contempt, among others – is a dynamic way of saying goodbye to our past.

Differentiation: Step 3
Differentiation: Step 3

To differentiate from the more childish aspects of our personality, we need to identify and then give up the patterns of defense we developed as an adaptation to the pain and distress we experienced growing up.  We need to recognize that the defenses we formed to protect ourselves as children might limit us in our adult lives. If we were intruded on as kids, we may feel excessively guarded as adults. If we were rejected as children, we may feel distrusting in our relationships. Many people cling to these defended ways of responding to others and remain emotionally trapped. As adults, it’s important to give up the hope of ever filling the voids we felt as children. We are, in effect, saying goodbye to our “child selves” and living fully as the adult we are now.

Differentiation: Step 4
Differentiation: Step 4

In the fourth step of differentiation, we develop our own values, ideals, and beliefs rather than automatically accepting the beliefs that we grew up with or those of our culture. We must strive to lead a life of integrity, according to our own ideals and in spite of pressures to conform to the standards of others. We should resist influences that are oppressive or restrictive of individual human rights.  It is also important to formulate transcendent goals, those that go beyond ourselves and our immediate family, and to take steps toward fulfilling these goals that give personal meaning to our life.

Dr. Robert Firestone on Differentiation

Dr. Robert Firestone, author of The Self Under Siege, talks to PsychAlive about the steps of differentiation, a process that helps people to discover and become their true selves.

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The Self Under Siege

For more information, read The Self Under Siege: A Therapeutic Model for Differentiation by Dr. Robert Firestone, Dr. Lisa Firestone and Joyce Catlett, which focuses on the process of differentiation and provides examples from their clinical practices and their 35-year observational study of a group of normal individuals, their families and their children. In the book, individuals share their personal stories and their experiences, as they progressed through these four tasks, and the authors share their perspective on the therapeutic development.

 “To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.”
– Robert Louis Stevenson

Differentiating from negative influences and identities from our past is an important aspect of self-development. We should ask ourselves: Whose life am I really living? Am I basing my life on my own personal beliefs, values and desires?

By undertaking the project of differentiation, we are able to more fully become the unique individuals that we have the potential to be.

Watch Dr. Lisa Firestone’s presentation on Becoming the Real You:


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