Staying connected to people who are different from us can be stressful! It is so much more comfortable to stay in circles of friends and family who see the world the way we do. How well we cope with differences actually has a lot to do with the family we grew up in. While we are, to a significant degree, products of the choices we make, it is not the whole story. Families are like systems with interdependent parts. As part of a larger system, our sense of self is significantly shaped by our original families and the roles we played in them. Birth order, the presence or absence of a parent, our parents’ unresolved issues, and the mental or emotional health of other family members shape us more than we often realize.
The Impact of Family
Individual personalities and personal “issues” are often a byproduct of family-of-origin dynamics and structure. This makes even more sense now that we understand, through neuroscience, how much our environment and those we interact with, literally change our brains. Emotions are contagious. People who spend a lot of time together become similar over time, emotionally and otherwise. This applies to any relationship, not just family members.
An important aspect of family systems theory is “differentiation of self.” In spite of our connection to our families, we are unique. Differentiation is about developing a strong sense of self, and our ability to hold on to that in the context of a family that differs from us. A well-differentiated person is aware of his internal state, separating thoughts from emotions, and is also aware of interpersonal differences, distinguishing his experience from the people he is connected to.
How Different Are You From Your Family And How Do You Navigate Those Differences?
A person with a strong sense of himself is able to be calm and confident in spite of criticism and pressure from others “to get in line”. A person who does not have a well-defined sense of self often will resort to conflict avoidance and people pleasing, to lessen the discomfort of disagreeing with the family’s collective thinking. He may align himself with his parents’ values and behavior to manage his anxiety, not because he agrees but because he fears their disapproval. Over time, this dishonestly chips away at his self-respect and genuine connection with the family.
Enmeshed families lack clear boundaries. Relationships are so tangled it is not clear where one ends and the other begins. The more enmeshed a family is, the less independence is tolerated. Conformity is required; other points of view are not acceptable. If differentiation levels of family members are low, the family system will not adapt well to stress or change, and anxiety will remain chronically high.
Change brings anxiety. If a member of the family dares to take a position that is not sanctioned by the group, collective anxiety is high, and there is tremendous pressure to change back to what the family finds acceptable. Systems resist change. When highly emotional issues come up, perhaps about religion, sexuality, politics or even how to relate to an estranged member of the family, the person with the differing view is pressured to change back and maintain the status quo.
Harmony or Authenticity?
When our children were young, it was our job to train them and give consequences for their poor choices. Our love for them was never in question. Once our children are adults, however, they have the right to make their own choices. Hopefully, they will remember what we taught them! If we disagree with their choices, we have every right to make our views known, but it is a mistake to make our love and acceptance conditional on their complying with our wishes. If parents take a hard stance against a child in an effort to get him to align with their views, the child is put in the untenable position of having to choose between harmony and authenticity. At this stage, lectures, scolding, guilting, or manipulating our children just chip away at genuine intimacy and any influence we hope to have.
Some people just cut themselves off physically or emotionally from their families if the difference causes too much stress. The issues are not gone, they have just gone underground. Holidays and family reunions are often tense because unresolved “buried” issues surface.
What Does Lack of Self Differentiation Look Like?
Overfunctioning “helicopter” parents can inadvertently give the message to their children that they are not able to function without the parent’s constant guidance. As a result, the child may become dependent, align with the parent, and have a less developed sense of himself. Parents might feel like this is a good thing. Who doesn’t enjoy a child who lives life exactly as they do? A person raised in this environment may grow up to be easily influenced or manipulated, depending on others to validate their worth, and being what others want them to be. Or, because they cannot tolerate differences, they may try to control or change others by over-functioning and manipulating them into conformity. In either case, they will struggle to set healthy boundaries with co-workers, partners, and their own children.
Being a rebel and defying everything you were ever taught OR cutting yourself off from your family does not mean you are well-differentiated. It just means you are being reactive to the perceived pressure to conform. People who cannot manage the anxiety that comes from standing their ground might choose to rebel, move away, or even cut themselves off from family. While this brings temporary peace, as mentioned before, the conflict has not been resolved, just buried. The emotional void this creates may show up in other overburdened relationships.
We carry our unresolved family-of-origin issues with us, and they affect our career choices, our choice of marriage partners, our parenting, and our friendships. Our sense of self was determined by our primary relationships when we were children or adolescents. It will not change unless we make a concerted effort to do so. If you did not have a healthy family-of-origin, the good news is that change is possible. We can break generational patterns.
Healthy Self Differentiation
A well self-differentiated person is emotionally mature. They may not agree with others, but they accept them. They are able to stay calm in the middle of conflict or criticism, and they can hear alternative viewpoints without feeling compelled to align or reject those views. They are proactive and thoughtful, making decisions based on principles and facts, rather than emotions. They speak the truth in love, as scripture advises us to do. Their words match their actions. They balance care for themselves with care for others. Their acts of service are done with intention, based on choice, not pressure or manipulation.
There are ways to increase our self-differentiation.
- First, we need to be mindful of our internal experiences in the context of our relationships. Journaling and meditation can help with this.
- We need to watch for signs of poor boundaries such as poor self-care, people-pleasing, being overly responsible, or conflict avoidance.
- We need to listen, rather than reacting.
- We need to grieve our unmet expectations.
- When we are anxious because we are trying to balance truth and love in the presence of heavy pressure to conform, separating ourselves for a period of time helps us to address emotional dysregulation and find balance again.
- And finally, start small and take a long-range view of change. Over time the family may get better at accepting their differences, though not necessarily agreeing with one another. Today is not the end of the story.