Self Knowledge is Not Necessarily Good News

Self Knowledge is Not Necessarily Good News

The Tao of Self-Differentiation

“Understanding the dark side of ourselves
will allow us to relate more fully to others.”  
– Star Wars

In her book, You Can Go Home Again: Reconnecting With Your Family, Monica McGoldrick cautions that in the process of differentiation of self in one’s family of origin, it is important to manage one’s anxiety, avoid becoming defensive, and be prepared to hear negative feelings and observations. In order to achieve this more differentiated, less reactive perspective, you need learn about your family in a different way, becoming curious about all family members and learning how to ask questions. Unfortunately, you may discover that some family members think about you as,

“….arrogant, spoiled, selfish or succeeding by luck.”

They may even be correct in their observations, and that may be a very good thing indeed, for in real life the only person any of us can change is ourself. Remembering that we all contribute to our interpersonal difficulties, and a change in any one family member’s behavior creates change in the entire family’s relationships, it is clear that we always have the opportunity to make things better.

My mentor and colleague, John W. Jacobs, MD, recorded Betty Carter stating, “The only appropriate motivation for working with the family of origin is for one’s own maturity – becoming more ‘responsible’ for one’s self so that one can act more ‘responsibly’ toward others.” The process includes redeveloping personal relationships with key family members, repairing cutoffs, detriangulating from conflicts, and changing the part one plays in emotionally charged vicious cycles.

Ronald B. Cohen, MD of Family Focused Solutions LLC discusses self differentiation.The generic first task is to help people be less angry and less critical. Conflict must disappear before any issues can be productively resolved. By attending to our own “stuff” we always have the opportunity to make things better. Ultimately we are all responsible for our own emotional well being. Bowen, in a paper on self-differentiation, described the process as changing one’s part in old, repetitive, dysfunctional emotional patterns so that one is able to speak one’s personal views calmly and non-reactively regardless of who is for or against them.

Therapeutic coaching or family therapy with one person focuses on understanding the rules and roles of one’s family of origin and developing the freedom to make one’s own decisions. This is both therapeutic in the current generation, and protective for future generations, thereby giving forward to our children, grandchildren and future descendants a firm base from which to strive to make the world a better place.

Lest we forget, before he crossed over to the dark side,
Darth Vader was Anakin Skywalker.

When all else fails, coaching with a relationship consultant well-trained in Bowen Family System Theory can help avoid the evil empire and keep the Millennium Falcon moving forward in hyperdrive.

Best of luck on your unfolding journey of a lifetime.

Please share your thoughts and experiences about how child is father to the man, or mother to the woman, 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 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. Laura Nolan on May 18, 2015 at 4:01 am said:

    It is probably true that the only goal that one should set to achieve is to improve one’s self. Even though that is a realistic hope of what might be accomplished, that is very difficult to do. I can see that using a therapeutic coach to accomplish it would be most advantageous as it is hard to anticipate the reactions of these changes. Trying to reduce anger and conflict is a worthy endeavor.

    Is there a time that anger can be utilized? I had heard that anger might help a person to be motivated to address an issue such as abuse in the family.

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on May 22, 2015 at 2:59 pm said:

      Hi Laura,

      Great questions. I’d submit that the only goals one can achieve arise out of focus on self. Bowen wrote, “There are two ways to deal with anxiety: one is with drugs, the other is with self —self is better!”

      For those of us who consider it important enough to invest the time and energy, and choose to engage with the goal of becoming an authentic adult, the process requires constant vigilance to the pull of fusion, cut-offs and triangles. Self-differentiation is about setting appropriate limits and boundaries, staying connected to one’s extended family of origin while maintaining emotional independence and self-sufficiency. Tasks include redeveloping personal relationships with key family members, repairing cutoffs, detriangling from conflicts, and changing the part one plays in emotionally charged vicious cycles.

      As for realistic hopes and expectations, you are not doing this to change anybody other than yourself. My mentor and colleague John W. Jacobs, MD recorded Betty Carter stating, “The only appropriate motivation for working with the family of origin is for one’s own maturity–becoming more ‘responsible’ for one’s self so that one can act more ‘responsibly’ toward others.”

      True the work is never easy. It is hard, solitary, and individual. Putting an elegant theory into practice takes hard work and attention to detail. If it were easy everybody would do it. The good news is if one motivated family member changes in the context of relationship dynamics, the entire family’s functioning improves. The goal is to change your relationships with other members of your family of origin to improve your life and your family’s life regardless of what anybody else does. Taking responsibility for what you can take responsibility for and attending to your needs in the context of intimate relationships opens the door to facilitating healing of the entire family.

      As for anger, being critical, pointing fingers, seeking to apportion blame, or demanding apologies and recompense for all of the perceived slights you have experienced is not going to be helpful in making your life better, which is the ultimate goal. A Betty Carter noted, ‘F*ck you! I don’t care what you think’ is rebellion and reactivity, not differentiation.”

      IF you can change your part in the family drama,
      AND maintain your change in the face of your family’s predictable initial negative reaction,
      AND respond to your family’s reaction with new, unexpected, more differentiated behavior,
      WHILE maintaining an emotional connection without taking on anyone else’s “stuff”,
      THEN you set the stage for the possibility that others in your family will also begin to change.
      AND if they don’t, you still end up in a better place for having engaged in the process.

      When all else fails, consultation with a well-trained Bowen Family Systems Theory relationship coach can help keep the process moving forward in a positive direction.


      — Ron

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