Finally, master self-differentiation and be crystal clear on thoughts versus feelings, and your thoughts and feelings versus those of others. Defuse conflict by taking responsibility for your perspective while seeing the other person’s for what it is. Most important of all, have the maturity to maintain intimacy with others despite differences in opinion. Routinely ask what is your “business” versus theirs and what is observation versus evaluation.
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One final mindset we’ll consider is the ability to self-differentiate, which is a concept not many are familiar with. Simply put, it’s the capacity to separate out your thoughts from your feelings, as well as separate your thoughts and feelings from other people’s. If you’ve ever had trouble thinking clearly because you feel flooded with emotions, you were experiencing difficulty with differentiation. If someone ties up their opinions and beliefs with others’ or cannot decide what they think and feel without consulting others, it also signals a lack of self-differentiation.
Relating with other human beings is a delicate dance—we are always separate, unique individuals, but we also mutually influence one another. Healthy connections occur when both parties are sufficiently self-differentiated yet still connected. When they’re not, all kinds of entanglement and “bleeding over” of identities, thoughts, and feelings occur. How do you know if you are properly and healthily differentiated in a relationship? Simple: ask yourself whether you are able to be different without losing emotional connection.
Connection based on sharing identical opinions and values means both parties are mutually defining one another rather than each one defining themselves first and then encountering one another as separate beings, with respect and curiosity. If we are differentiated, we can calmly reflect on any difference of opinion or conflict without jeopardizing the connection. If not, difference will become a source of conflict or threaten the connection. When differentiated, we take responsibility for our own contribution, and recognize what “stuff” belongs to the other person. If not, we may be over- or under-responsible, enmeshed, or liable to confuse our own thoughts and opinions with those of others.
The trick is always to maintain a clear relationship with yourself. For some people, relationships of any kind are always total and devouring—it’s a question of being themselves, OR being in a relationship. To maintain a relationship where differences are contained comfortably, however, takes maturity and self-awareness. This is why an indicator of an undifferentiated relationship is all-or-nothing, my-way-or-the-highway thinking. If you are a rebel and choose the opposite of everyone else’s opinions, don’t be fooled into thinking that you are well-differentiated—you are still basing your thoughts, feelings, and opinions in relation to other people’s.
Other examples of poor differentiation:
• Feeling smothered and controlled by a person’s intrusive, dominating attitude. • Being unable to say what you think or feel without checking the opinions of others first. • In a relationship, if one person feels something, the other person cannot help feeling the same as well. • Being unable to express a different opinion because from fear of causing offense or friction. Going along with whatever’s happening and forfeiting one’s own opinion. • Seeing negative emotions in a person you love and feeling personally responsible. Even worse if the unhappy person is ready to blame you! • Having concerns, boundaries, or misgivings but feeling unable to speak out, or you do and are not heard. • Feeling other people’s emotions as your own . . . but being unsure of what you yourself feel. • Any relationship where the unspoken rule is, “To be in this relationship, you cannot be your authentic self.”
If you want to improve your relationships, get into the habit of asking yourself, what is my stuff, and what is theirs?
Being authentic, self-defined, and conscious of your unique thoughts and feelings take courage and honesty. What is your opinion, regardless of how others respond to it? What do you think independent of the beliefs and worldviews of those around you?
Once you clarify this for yourself, you can do the next important step: cultivate relationships that can tolerate normal differences in feeling and opinion. Don’t make complete agreement a condition of intimacy, and don’t accept these terms from others who would rather engage with a copy of themselves than a unique person who is different from them.
One useful way to get better at this is to learn the difference between observation and evaluation, which we will explore in more detail in later chapters.
The way to express difference (of thought or opinion) with others while still maintaining closeness with them is to use observations rather than judgments and evaluations. To explain the difference: “it’s raining” is a neutral, objective observation, but “I can’t believe it’s this godawful drizzle again, I HATE IT!” is an evaluation and judgment.
If we approach communication with an attitude of evaluation, we are instigating defensiveness in the other person. We’re making value judgments and indirectly positioning our perspective as right, whereas theirs is wrong and needs to change. Problems also occur when we state evaluations as though they are observations (i.e., positioning our opinions as facts) or mixing the two together.
Teasing out what is observation and what is evaluation takes awareness and a degree of self-differentiation. When emotions are running high, things can get very confusing and people can get hurt long before they realize what’s happened and why. But just like the neutral observer who tells the “third story,” we can use observations to ground us and reach compromise and understanding.
We can ask ourselves not only what is our business and what is the other person’s, but also what is objective fact and what is evaluation and opinion?
This can help us avoid misunderstanding when we communicate with others, but also help us untangle other people’s communications when they may be coming from a not-so-differentiated perspective. Let’s return to our example of the couple with different ideas about weddings. She might say to her fiancé, “Why are you so obsessed with serving everyone real champagne? We can just serve them something cheaper. The world’s not going to end just because you buy budget booze, you know.”
If he is undifferentiated and triggered emotionally, he’ll probably respond in defensiveness to such a statement. But let’s imagine he instead asks:
What is my stuff here, and what is hers?
What is fact and what is opinion?
He can take a step back and realize that the idea that he is “obsessed” is not objective but her evaluation of his emotions. If he confidently and comfortably knows himself, he knows that he is not materialistic or obsessed or petty. He knows that he is simply excited. If he only responds to the judgment dripping from her statements, things will escalate into an argument. But he could also remain differentiated and anchor himself in the objective. In his fiancé’s world, caring about champagne is a little shallow and silly. But in his world, it’s not. If he can stay within his own thoughts and feelings, however, he will not get triggered by her unkind remark and will be able to assert boundaries, stand his ground, and seek to understand what she feels—without letting her dictate what he feels. And he can do all this without having the differences mean that the relationship is doomed!
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