On Differentiation

On Differentiation

The Mindfulness of Murray Bowen

“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass.
It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
— Vivian Greene

In response to my blog post Doing “Bowen”, Rebecca Chesin, MA, LAMFT of Twin Cities Relationship Resources, LLC noted and requested, “Nice thumbnail sketches. Would love to see each one expanded into their own post.” To briefly review, the following are Bowen’s eight interlocking concepts:

  1. Triangles
  2. Differentiation of Self
  3. Nuclear Family Emotional System
  4. Family Projection Process
  5. Multigenerational Transmission Process
  6. Emotional Cutoff
  7. Sibling Position
  8. Societal Emotional Process

In this blog I will focus on the concept of differentiation which my theory coach Jenny Brown considers the primary, fundamental and most important of the eight concepts. The journey of self-differentiation may be described as “growing in the ability to be fully responsible for my own life while being committed to growing closer to those I love.” Autonomy and emotional connection become congruent and not adversive.

Work on differentiation of self begins with taking a researcher’s stance, becoming curious about one’s current life situation. This then creates opportunities to increase one’s level of both functional and basic differentiation.

Jenny suggests that the two most productive questions to be constantly considering in our work are:

  1. What interventions are most likely to facilitate differentiation?
  2. What interventions are most likely to produce fusion and/or cutoffs?

Ronald B. Cohen MD of Family Focused Solutions LLC focuses this blog on the Bowen Theory concept of differentiation.Tasks to increase differentiation include:

  • Developing self focus – Giving up the search for the arrival of a Knight in Shining Armor who will save me from the beautiful struggles and possibilities presented in everyday living.
  • Becoming aware of the emotional processes in the family – Being willing to say clearly who I am and who I want to be while others are trying to tell me who I am and who I should be.
  • Developing the ability to not be governed by anxiety and emotional reactivity – Staying in touch with others while, and even though, there is tension and disagreement.

The process is guided by steadfastly avoiding the terrible horrible no good very bad therapist triangle trap. In general, the therapist accomplishes this by giving less attention to specific problems presented, and more attention to family patterns of emotions and relationships, as well as family structures of dyads and triangles. Towards this end the therapist works to:

Somewhat akin to the mindfulness understanding of “practice,” commit to doing what you are doing in the present moment with clear understanding and dedication to attend, in a thoughtful way, to both autonomy and connectedness.

When all else fails, coaching with a therapist well-trained in Bowen Family System Theory can help keep the process moving forward in a positive direction.

Best of luck on your unfolding journey of a lifetime.

Please share your thoughts and experiences about theory and its application to practice in the “Leave a Reply” box below. To request more information and/or schedule an initial consultation, click here. If you found this post helpful, please don’t keep it a secret. You are encouraged to click on the buttons at the bottom of the page and share this article with your own networks. Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

Ronald B Cohen, MD, PC www.familyfocusedsolutions.com Ronald B. Cohen, MD
Bowen Family Systems Coach
1 Barstow Road, Suite P-10
Great Neck, NY 11021
(516) 466-7530

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  1. Laraine Haswell on January 8, 2015 at 11:04 pm said:

    I too am passionate about drawing my clients attention to the fundamental of a differentiated life, being curious as to what triggers their emotion or not, what brings feelings of security or not, why we are drawn to certain people or why we are not. I continue to attempt various interventions asking the curious questions or exploring patterns of behaviour but my favourite at the moment is the creation of a platform where the client can watch thoughtfully to their daily interactions reporting back on their surprises and more interestingly coaching the client to become the expert and then “what do we do with this”, I ask interested ready to pounce with a mindful of ideas, this is the point I need to hold back. What are other professionals doing that I could include in my interventions?

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on January 9, 2015 at 6:33 pm said:

      Hi Laraine,

      Thank you for contributing to the conversation. The answer that jumps most immediately to mind is work on differentiation of self in your own family of origin. As I wrote in The Clinician as a “Solid Self”, “Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Murray Bowen’s ‘family systems theory of emotional functioning,’ for practitioners, is its emphasis on the primacy of therapists defining themselves more clearly in the extended family they grew up in”.

      Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) gives a high priority to understanding the rules and roles of one’s family of origin and developing the freedom to make one’s own decisions within that context. Carter and McGoldrick advise us all to remember “if you haven’t worked on differentiation yourself in your own family, you will probably be prone to misjudge the intensity of systemic reaction to your client’s moves and also prone to accept the client’s resistance.”

      Be forewarned, the work is slow, often painful, and charged with intense anxiety and emotionality. I would counsel that you not be daunted or overwhelmed, as a little change goes a long way. For those of us who choose to engage with the goal of becoming an authentic adult, the task is its own reward. Hope this helps.


      — Ron

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