Getting to the Core of Self-Differentiation

Getting to the Core of Self-Differentiation

Our species—the human animal—shares a great deal in common with our evolutionary ancestors. But somewhere along the line, a shift occurred that has set us apart—decisively—from every other species that has inhabited this planet from the origins of life itself. The growing complexity of an evolving brain suddenly reached a tipping point that made us capable not only of consciousness—the ability to sense and interact with our environment—but of self-consciousness.

The ancient myth of Narcissus points out the inherent danger of this new-found ability: our self-awareness can breed a fatal fascination with gazing on our own image. But we also know the risk of Narcissus is far outstripped by the potential reward of gaining a better grasp of the nature of our own humanity. We are curious creatures with a restless quest for understanding more and more about ourselves as well as the world around us.

Our understanding of human nature has been like a flowing river, a stream of growing wisdom accumulated across many millennia. Modern science in the 19th and 20th centuries added in significant ways to that body of knowledge, first with Darwin’s focus on our evolutionary origins, and then with Freud’s revelation and exploration of the hidden dynamics of the unconscious. In the second half of the 20th century a Freudian-trained psychiatrist by the name of Murray Bowen introduced a new perspective on human nature by recognizing universal laws at work in the functioning of every natural system, from swarms of bees to multi-generational families to human organizations of every scale. A disciple of Bowen, Edwin Friedman (d. 1996), focused on how the emotional systems of leaders impacted their capacity for effective leadership. In the 21st century, various followers of Bowen and Friedman have applied and integrated their insights in fields as diverse as executive coaching, neuroscience, positive psychology, mindfulness, organizational development and other allied disciplines.

Resilient Leadership LLC, in particular, has recognized the richness of Bowen’s notion of “self-differentiation” (SD) as a key to effective leadership. Bowen Theory defines SD as “an individual’s capacity for independent thought and action (self-definition) while maintaining a balanced connection to significant others (self-regulation)”. The premise of the leadership development initiatives provided by Resilient Leadership LLC is that the higher is one’s level of SD, the greater is that person’s capacity for effective leadership.

The expression “emotional maturity” has sometimes been used in place of SD, but it is important not to equate this with “emotional intelligence”. The significance of emotional intelligence (EQ) for leadership success has been well researched, and there now exists abundant evidence that all things being equal, leaders with higher EQ tend to be more successful than those with lower scores. Many of the skills associated with EQ are certainly also part of SD, but Bowen’s understanding of emotional maturity is a broader and deeper concept.

SD has to do with one’s ability to maintain a healthy balance between two polarities that are foundational to our human functioning. The first polarity is between the rational and emotional dimensions, our capacity for thinking and feeling. The human animal is unique in its capacity for rational thought. Contemporary neuroscience has deployed an impressive array of technologies to explore this most evolved part of the human brain, the neocortex, which is the seat of rational thought. It has likewise advanced our understanding of the parts of our brain where our instinctive and emotional dimensions reside. A narrow focus on either one of these can contribute to a compartmentalization, as if the thinking-feeling polarity was between two completely separate entities. The truth is that the connections between both parts of our brain are vast, and the interplay is constant. The push-pull of reciprocal thinking-feeling forces that we might conceptualize as separate is an ongoing dynamic as our whole brain seeks moment by moment to achieve a healthy equilibrium in light of the external (and internal) stimuli we are encountering and managing.

The second polarity is between two primal needs that we share in common with all life forms on this planet: autonomy and intimacy, the need to be a separate individual, and the need to be in relationship with others. This separate-together/distant-close polarity is an ongoing balancing act that is often described as the “dance of life” as it is played out in the give-and-take of our every relationship.

What, then, does emotional maturity look like in a leader who does a better-than-average job at self-definition and self-regulation (aka SD)? These would be a few of the behavioral manifestations:

  • Capacity to get outside the emotional climate of the day
  • Willing to be exposed and vulnerable: a prudent risk-taker
  • Has a clarity of vision, values, guiding principles
  • Acts in accord with vision, values, guiding principles regardless of challenges
  • Able to offer and ask for help in a balanced and self-aware manner
  • Takes full responsibility for own actions and functioning
  • Sets and reinforces boundaries for self
  • Respects others' boundaries
  • Is as concerned about the success of others as self
  • Able to respect the opinions of others, even those who disagree
  • When challenged is neither dogmatic nor angry
  • Keeps focus on self rather than trying to change others

Unlike adult development models that describe a sequence of stages that one achieves one after the other, SD is a lifelong process of striving to keep one’s being in healthy balance. Emotional maturity is a way of being in the world of relationships, challenges, mishaps and recovery with greater calm, clarity and conviction. Leaders who are present in this way to the individuals and organizations they lead are not guaranteed smooth sailing in their life’s journey. But regardless of the turbulence they encounter, such leaders will experience a higher rate of success than would otherwise be the case; and they will enable others to show up with their “best self” more often and with better-than-expected results. Resilient Leadership LLC has proven resources to support leaders who wish to strengthen and grow their current level of SD. For more information, contact Jim Moyer