Self-Differentiation and Resilient Leadership

Self-Differentiation and Resilient Leadership

Bowen Theory Is a Rich Source for Understanding Human Behavior.

One would think that after a (largely) fulfilling 30 plus year career in what I consider Human Performance Improvement I would be pretty well set in my ways. After all, what else was there to know about learning and development? Then I was introduced to Bowen Family Systems Theory - and WHAM! -  my views of all this changed. Bowen Theory is a rich source for understanding human behavior. Two of the many principles in Bowen Theory immediately jumped out at me; understanding chronic anxiety and self-differentiation. More on that shortly, but first my thanks to the team at Resilient Leadership for this introduction to Dr. Murray Bowen through their coaching and training program. It’s like the old TV commercial where the guy comes on and says, “I liked the company so much, I bought it!” To be clear I didn’t buy the company, but I did “buy in” so fully that I now coach and teach the principles of Resilient Leadership along with other certified professionals.

What is my role in this?

Mike Nowland

I’m of a “certain age” so I was on a journey of deeper self-awareness and knowledge anyway. Resilient Leadership really helped me crystalize my thinking. It started with a simple question as I watched a video of Jim Moyer facilitating a class (live and in-person, remember those?) He was discussing the “Emotional System” when he challenged the group to ask themselves “what is my role in this?” The deeper topic was chronic anxiety and the concept that, in any family, group, team, department or company, your choices and behaviors are going to raise or lower the level of chronic anxiety in that Emotional System. Okay, mind blown! Again, I’ve been teaching versions of this in other programs over many years. However, no one had put this challenge so clearly, so directly, as this. I had to learn more.

Through Resilient Leadership certification I learned more about the Rational System and the Emotional System. I learned that we are generally unaware of chronic anxiety and so we tend to just react unconsciously to it in any Emotional System (think relationships.) I learned reactivity can be managed once we learn to see it. And if we can see it then we can begin to understand it. And here’s where my second major awakening occurred - the concept of self-differentiation.

Dr. Bowen essentially defined Self Differentiation as the ability to be more of a separate self by making clearer distinction between one’s own thoughts and feelings and the thoughts and feelings of others. To be more Self Differentiated means to have more of a solid sense of self even when the pressure to conform is challenging. It also allows one to maintain close and meaningful relationships with others, while not being so close as to lose oneself in the thoughts and feelings of others. In other words, a Self-Differentiated person  can take a step back, see and think about what’s going on among the people and within the activities around them,  and then choose an appropriate response to the anxiety they  see and feel, instead of having an unconscious reaction. This is how we answer the question “what is my role in this?"

I occasionally will let reactivity get the best of me. But…

Don’t get me wrong, I occasionally will let reactivity get the best of me. But not as often, and when it does, I’m aware of it. I learn from it, so hopefully, it happens less often. So here are some things I’ve been working on:

  • Be curious. Your brain will not let you be curious and anxious at the same time
  • Ask questions. What’s really going on here? What’s the root cause of the anxiety?
  • Listen! Covey’s “Seek First to Understand and Then to be Understood” really applies here
  • What is the choice I can make that serves my highest principles and the good of the other?
  • Understand that if I get push back, it’s more likely other’s own resistance to change rather than resistance to my point of view. In other words, I’m learning not to take it personally
  • I’m less concerned about what other people think of me. I still want to be liked, but even in tension filled situations I now can feel confident that I made the best decision I could, with all the information I had available and at the time
  • It’s a journey; there is no “there”, there. The only time we have is the present moment.

Remember to “stay calm, stay the course and stay connected!”

Mike Nowland

Mike Nowland
To learn more about self-differentiation and reducing chronic anxiety and doubt with Resilient Leadership concepts, contact Mike at

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