Self Differentiation

Transcribed from the sermon preached April 19, 2015

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

 Scripture Readings: Proverbs 12:8-18, Ephesians 4:11-16

Differentiation of Self is a term from Family Systems Theory which refers to someone who is able to define one’ s own thoughts, behaviors and actions while at the same time staying connected. It is being responsible for oneself while staying responsive to others and the group. It is establishing space for oneself without diminishing the space for other selves. The well differentiated self is able to experience the growth and integrity of someone else with joy, rather than by feeling abandoned, jealous, envious or less of a self.

Family Systems Theory understands individuals to have the need to be our unique selves and a need for connection. All of life is systemic; we all live in systems, and the family system is the most important one. In each family system each person plays a role. For every action there is almost always an equal and opposite reaction, often several reactions that altogether trigger and balance each other out. Each and every family establishes homeostasis, or a balance. That balance may allow for relatively strong selves and flexibility or resilience, or it may be rigidly set with strong reactivity if someone deviates from the accepted norm of behavior. People have to watch out that they are not rational, flexible and positive because they are emotionally afraid of feelings. And some of us are rigidly flexible or positive – we are so insistent on being positive that we are afraid of legitimate pain or anger. Systems thinking assumes, whatever the issue or problem is, it is never just one person’s problem. There is something we do to contribute to how things are, to the established patterns of behavior. If you look around someone who doesn’t take responsibility for himself, you will usually find someone who takes too much responsibility for others and someone else who takes too much space and is threatened by equality.

So the best thing we can do is focus on our own behavior. How do we contribute to the problem or solution, to growth or regression? For someone who invades someone else’s space to help by taking responsibility for what another should be responsible for, we can start by letting the other person be responsible for themselves and suffering or enjoying the consequences one way or the other. Rabbi Freidman said, “Most people, when confronted with the fact that what they have been doing to change a problem hasn’t worked, rather than changing their approach, they usually just do the same thing again, but just try harder.” Someone said, “If you always do what you have always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

The opposite of a well differentiated person is someone who is either enmeshed and stuck together or tends to cut-off. We may cutoff with physical distance, or we may check out in some other way, by shutting down feelings, by covering anxiety with some addiction. “They depend so heavily on the acceptance and approval of others that they will quickly adjust what they think, say and do to please others, or they dogmatically proclaim what others should be like and pressure them to conform.”   They may be bullies or chameleons, they demand that others conform to what they want, they may nag or threaten, or throw a tantrum, or they just give up and go along, maybe in the effort to “Keep the peace.” And often a rebel won’t let go of an issue, or will never agree no matter what. The always a rebel pretends to be a self but is rather still emotionally stuck to those he thinks he is separating from.

One of the big lessons I had to learn in order to become an adult was to allow my parents to be my parents without freaking out about it. My father had a habit of telling me the obvious. I would allow it to drive me crazy, and it made me feel like they thought either I couldn’t think for myself or I was simply bad. My sister had a 69 Mustang with a big 350 horse power engine in it. There were only two problems. 1. It wasn’t my car, and 2. The car didn’t have insurance on it. So one weekend my parents decided to get away, saying, “We will be back Sunday night around 6PM.” The very last thing my father said just before he closed the car door and drove away was, “Don’t drive the mustang.” So I had a great weekend, doing all sorts of things that would have made my parents proud. Then about 5:30, just a half an hour before my parents said they would be home, I jumped in the mustang and took it for an hour spin. So how do you think my father responded when I got home? “That was the last thing I said before I left!”

Now if I just wanted to drive the mustang and get away with it, I would have driven it any other time than when I chose to drive it. So it was obvious that it wasn’t about wanting to drive the car but more about showing my dad that he couldn’t control me, or that I didn’t appreciate him treating me like a child. Now the problem was, I was acting and thinking as if in order to prove that I was my own individual who wouldn’t be controlled I had to avoid doing what others wanted me to do, even when others wanted something good for me I was sabotaging myself too. What could I do? One way I could deal with my parents’ incessant need to give me obvious advice would be to cutoff, to break the relationship so I didn’t have to hear from them at all. Or, I could shut down my own feelings, and passively go along. I could give away my self. But differentiation is not isolation or disappearing. So essentially if I wanted to grow up, I had to forgive my parents for giving me advice whether I needed it or not. I had to forgive myself for having parents who seemed certain that I couldn’t survive without their advice. In other words I had to release myself from emotional reactivity towards them. I had to differentiate.

The well differentiated self will be able to listen to criticism, or alternative points of view from another individual, family, sub-cultural system and discern what is accurate and helpful to the self and what is not, without being derailed or sidetracked from one’s self beneficial trajectory.

Criticism is often hard to take. Most of us know of times when we or someone we knows gets super offended by criticism. One year in Camp Elmwood we talked and learned about respect. One of the things that makes Fred Harvey’s work so special is the degree to which he feels the kids can learn to make good decisions by making decisions rather than being told what decisions they should make. But anyway, some of the kids mentioned how respect was important on the street. To disrespect someone was considered a reason to fight. My question is, where are we going before someone disrespects us? Are we going to allow negative and mean people to stop us in our tracks, to allow a simple slight to make us focus on those negative and mean persons rather what we want to focus on? Even by fighting them we show them how powerful they are for us. They can get us to fight rather than keep doing something important and good for ourselves. When Jesus says if someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer them the left cheek. This is not so much about changing their behavior as it is about not allowing ourselves to get sucked into the cycle of violence or negativity. I think this advice is equally applicable to politics.

Anne Lamott said that not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.

Once when I allowed someone’s criticism to get to me, someone else gave me a great piece of advice. “If the shoe fits, wear it. If it doesn’t, let it go.” Take the time to consider if the advice or criticism is accurate. If we assess that it is, then make the change. If it is not, then ignore it and the emotional energy with which it is delivered. One of the worst things we can do is allow ourselves, our emotions and actions to be directed by negative, manipulative or mean people. Even if we fight them, we are focused on them. So even if we don’t let them win, they win. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” It is good to state our position, our point of view, to establish boundaries, to toss in our vote, but then we want to stay focused on our positive trajectory.

A wife gave her husband a blue tie and a red tie for father’s day. One day not long after the husband decided to wear the blue tie. The wife saw it and said, “What is the matter, didn’t you like the red tie?”

Now the problem with differentiation is that when we grow, those we are connected to will react and try to get us back to the way things were.

Edwin Freidman tells the story of a wife who was working on defining herself in her relationship with her husband. It was suggested to her that instead of trying to coerce her husband or allow herself to be seduced into arguments about right/ wrong or control, she should simply start making plans for herself and invite him to join her. Trying to put this suggestion to work, she said to her husband, “They have invited us to dinner and I have decided to go.” Whereupon he responded, “Why do you force me to do things like this?” Can we allow another to have a different opinion than us without feeling like it is an insult to who we are, or threaten to cut off from them if they don’t change back and let us get our way?

A key tool for differentiation is playfulness. Roger Crawford who I have often quoted tells the story of being in airport and wanting to sit down. As he was tired and carrying two bags, he didn’t remove the newspaper form the seat, he just sat down on it. A woman across the aisle was looking at him. She got up and walked over. As she did Roger thought maybe she was coming over to ask him about his handicap, but she said, excuse me, are you reading that paper? Obviously, he thought, she has a misunderstanding about my handicap. So he said, no I’m not finished, he got up, turned the page and sat back down.

A young pastor from Zimbabwe spoke of the power and freedom Jesus has given him. He differentiates himself from the anxiety and trouble of the world around him. “The die is cast,” he says. “I have stepped over the line.   The decision has been made – I’m a disciple of His. I won’t look back, let up, slow down, back away or be still. My past is redeemed, my present makes sense, my future is secure. I’m finished with low living, sight walking, smooth knees, colorless dreams, tamed visions, worldly talking, cheap giving, and dwarfed goals. I no longer need pre-eminence, position, promotions, laudits, or popularity. I don’t have to be right, first, tops, recognized, praised, regarded or rewarded. I now live by faith, depend on His presence, walk by patience, am uplifted by prayer, and labor with power. That is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus!”