I am a big fan of family systems therapy—specifically Murray Bowen. One of the pivotal concepts he posits is differentiation of self. Level of differentiation of self can affect longevity, marital stability, reproduction, health, educational accomplishments, and occupational successes. This impact of differentiation on overall life functioning explains the marked variation that typically exists in the lives of the members of a multigenerational family (Bowen).
Bowen also explores how the most trying part of becoming emotionally healthy is not over functioning in our relationships.
What do I mean by “over functioning?” By over functioning I mean doing your part and the other person’s “part” in maintaining a relationship.
I think the best thing you can do for yourself and other people is allow them to grow up.
What does it mean to let everyone around you grow up? It means to allow people to be who they are without you swooping in. From a Bowen family perspective, a true “grown up” is a self-differentiated individual–a person who has allowed themselves to grow up and allowed the people in their life around them to grow up (or not grow up).
The truth is some people are not personality wise able to grow up–but most people can, and most people will.
Here are the steps to allowing everybody around you to grow up:
1)Stay connected to others but do not do MORE than your part. This is about knowing where you end and where others begin.
We learn this growing up in our family of origin—if we didn’t learn that well, we can always go back and learn it. Counseling is a great avenue in processing through this emotional minefield. It is not easy for people who grew up in dysfunctional families. The message of self-differentiation is I care about you but no I cannot do that–the message being I cannot do more than I can or want to. This is important for accomplishing self-differentiation.
2)Stop over functioning. If we attract underfunctioners–alcoholics, narcissists, takers, the self-absorbed, the immature, the needy, the demanding–we will be in a relationship system that pushes us to over function. We will find ourselves doing 150% or more of the work in the relationship. This allows these personality types to have a buffer to life’s realities. The truth is we give to others when we have that to give. But the truth is those of us who are overfunctioners, codependents, etc. tend to allow people to take from us when we DO NOT have it to give or do not WANT to give it.
Trying to be perfect is a form of over functioning. Perfectionism is a form of over functioning.
3)Stop figuring people out. The process of figuring people out is a form of over functioning. Now, I as a counselor, am in the business of “figuring people out.” But we should not do this in our personal relationships. We figure people out because they do not want to do the work of figuring themselves out. Sometimes we figure them out to be more self-differentiated but often we are figuring others out to further the over functioning in our relationships. It is unhealthy. Figuring people out in our lives is a form of enmeshment.
4)Stop over empathizing. Having and practicing empathy is not good for those who are not self-differentiated and well-defined (which is probably MOST of us). It is important to become more well-defined before we practice MORE empathy (hence why therapists are pushed to work through their own “stuff” to be effective in their practice). Focus on your thinking process, more than your feeling process to ensure you are not over functioning. Too often other people want us to over empathize and over sympathize to enable us to become enmeshed with them (remember, this is not a conscious process but subconscious). Do not over feel when it is the service of enabling or over functioning—a common issue with codependents. Start thinking more than feeling more.
5)Stop the enabling. Enabling is doing for others what they should do for themselves. It is taking the consequences or life lessons for others when they should be experiencing them themselves. Often, we over empathize and enable (especially with our children). In doing this, we are telling and sending them the message they can’t do life on their own–they are not strong enough, smart enough, capable enough leading to learned helplessness. Everybody has the same tasks in life as I do—we have to deal with unfairness, struggles, adversity, work, relationships, families, this is something we all have to deal with. NOBODY GETS TO OPT OUT and say nope, I can’t do it, so you need to do it! Our enabling helps and hurts at the same time. We often learn to enable at a very young age and from our family of origin. We need to root out this imprinting.
6)Focus on your own maturation process–your own self differentiation process. Look away from others and focus on yourself—certainly not in a selfish way but in a knowing yourself and becoming aware of yourself. We far too often become experts on OTHER people and NOT ourselves. Begin to become an expert on yourself!
Learn the lessons of self-differentiation. Learn more about that and how it works. When we are immature, we tend to focus on our fears and neediness AND others’ problems, issues, and immaturities. We need to get focused on OUR fears, our immaturity, and not get all focused on THE OTHER. We will be much more effective as people and be able to help in much more mature way.
7)Stop the one-sided relationships. If we have a relationship that is a combo of giver and taker, with us being the giver, this can become toxic and abusive. One sided relationships are the result of our low self-esteem, fear of abandonment, family of origin issues, fear of rejection, worthlessness, shame and reveal we are looking for love and acceptance from others –specifically others who are immature–no matter what the emotional cost to us. This is when it becomes a problem for us. WE CHOOSE RELATIONSHIPS THAT FIT OUR LEVEL OF SELF-DIFFERENTIATION OR OUR LOW SELF OR FEAR OF ABANDONMENT. Heal your self-esteem and you will heal your relationship choices and how you play your role in relationships.
8)Stop our illusions, naivety, fantasy thinking and feeling. We believe we can change others: FANTASY/NAIVETY. We believe we can make our parents be who we want them to be or fantasize if they will behave as we always wanted–an illusion. We put conditions on the relationship–if I only work harder, than THIS GOOD will come of it. If I do more, love more, become more–whatever the more “is,” I will change my spouse, my parent, my child, etc. No! Those are illusions. We need to root out the nativity in us. Learning about your own naivety is a good way to grow up. We continue to believe we have self-worth when everything points to us not having self-worth–this is denial. Our unresolved family of origin issues make us naive and immature because that is the family system, we grew up in. It is still inside of us regardless of our chronological age. To allow others to grow up, we FIRST must deal with our illusions and fantasy thinking.
9)Step down so other people can step up. Use the under functioning leverage for others to step up. Intentionally try to under function. This places the pressure, pinging, and systemic pressure on the other to step up. Or not. THEY MAY NOT. But the pressure is on THEM to GROW UP. If they don’t choose to, it is time for you to start dealing with your illusions and beliefs about the other. The best way to find out if they can change is you step down so they can step up. If they are not going to STEP UP that tells you something very important which you may not want to hear or know. But is important to our emotional health.
10)Get out of others way. If you’re a caretaker, fixer, overfunctioner, you’re getting in the way of others’ lives. The universe is trying to speak to them to grow up and be more mature and stop under functioning. We get in their way by stepping up too much.
11)Stop defending yourself with others. Defending yourself is a way that you enable other people not to look at themselves. Whenever you defend yourself, others don’t have to look at themselves because you are filling up all the noise with your defensiveness. Your defensiveness only furthers their denial and keeps the focus on you not them. Defending yourself will not bring about change in others but only will reinforce you on low self-image. REMEMBER DEFENDING YOURSELF EQUATES WITH ENMESHMENT. Do anything but defend yourself with those who do not want to grow up. Behave with boundaries, maturity, and calmly. More talking, more defensiveness, more explaining will only stress you out more and not accomplish your goal with the immature around you who do not want to grow up. If you stop the defending, they must deal with you and the situation more.
12)Exit triangles. Triangles are formed to keep the immature around us from growing up. If you told the other, time and time again, something you want them to know or understand and then you go to a third party and go communicate these things—now we have a triangle. Triangles are fundamentally unhealthy in relationships especially in families.
Remember a person can have all the trappings of adult life–marriage, mortgage, career, kids. This does mean they are an emotional grown up.
Letting someone grow up is the BEST gift you can give someone. Letting yourself grow up in the best give you can give yourself.
These are just a few steps in the process of differentiation but there are probably many more. If you find you are struggling with any of the components of being an emotional grown up, counseling can be a great way to explore the differentiation of self-process.
If you find you are struggling with a self-differentiation in YOUR LIFE and would like to schedule a counseling session with me (AND if you are a reader who lives in New Jersey):
Erin Doyle Theodorou, M.Ed, LPC, NCC
Theodorou Therapy LLC
590 Franklin Ave, Nutley, NJ 07110