How to determine and refine your identity.
Many couples come through my door struggling with feelings of hurt and disrespect. They have expectations of their partner that go unmet. Expecting a partner to know what you want and provide it without prompting, is one complaint. Reading a partners mind based on observed actions happens frequently. Generally, speaking, the interpretation is mostly negative. They observe a behavior and make a supposition, internalizing the negative thought and reacting based on the supposition: “Oh, he must be mad at me”, “Here we go again”, “How dare she be upset with me after I worked all day for her and the family” are examples. When I point out that perhaps the observer may have mis-read their partners actions, I get a response like: “After all these years, I know him/her pretty well”, or “No, I know what I saw”. One of the biggest mistakes couples make is reading each others minds. You do not know what goes on in your partners mind unless you ask and offer a summary of what you heard, asking for verification and clarification. Communication is shoddy and humans are subjects of their own filters.
Additionally, couples rob each other of their responsibilities. When I see a couple who both make decisions based on what they perceive the other partner to want or need, it sets up lots of space for miscommunication and missteps. Assuming responsibility FOR how your partners feels is robbing them of their independence, autonomy, or differentiation. We can be responsible TO our partner FOR how we feel and vice versa. This is different than making a partners happiness a priority. That happens when your partner has been responsible for how they feel to you followed by you using that information to make choices to assist or provide them with things or situations that increase their happiness. There is clear understanding by each partner for what makes them happy and how they prefer that happiness to happen. The other partner then participates, lightens the load, for the achievement of that happiness. It is not a guessing game with many attempts and lots of misses, resulting in hurt feelings and lesser levels of happiness on both parties.
This starts with healthy differentiated individuals. Each person knows who they are, what they want, and how to they wish go about getting or receiving it. Below is some information on differentiation. Healthy, differentiated individuals are better prepared and more capable of caring out successful relationships, with the proper communication skills. More on communication to come.
What is Psychological Differentiation?
Are you living your life the way you want to? Are your actions based on pursuing the things that really light you up or give your life meaning? Or are you living based on prescriptions you acquired in your past? Differentiation refers to the struggle that all people face in striving to develop a sense of themselves as independent individuals.
A person’s identity is continually affected by interpersonal experiences that are either favorable or damaging to the development of his or her personality. In order for you to live your own life and fulfill your destiny, you must differentiate yourself from destructive family and societal influences. To the extent that you can develop and sustain your unique identity, you will be able to live truly individualistic and fulfilling lives.
Four Steps to Differentiation:
There are four key steps to differentiation. These steps involve first becoming aware of the ways we are still influenced by destructive experiences and individuals from our past, then taking actions to break with our old identities in order to become our truer selves.
The first step involves breaking with destructive thoughts and attitudes toward ourselves that we internalized based on painful early life experiences. We can start by identifying these negative thought processes – critical inner voices — that are adverse toward the self. Some of these thoughts may seem self-soothing or self-aggrandizing, while others will seem hostile, self-hating, paranoid, or suspicious. Once we become aware of these “voices,” we can develop insight into the sources of these destructive thoughts. Then we can try to answer back to these skewed thoughts in our own point of view. By learning to challenge this inner critic, we separate from the “parent” we’ve internalized, a step that may cause us anxiety but will ultimately free us to become who we strive to be.
The second step of differentiation involves changing negative personality traits in ourselves that are an incorporation of the negative traits of our parents, caregivers, or other influential figures. Many people are surprised to find that, despite their best intentions, they are acting in the very ways a parent did that they swore they would never repeat themselves. Altering these unpleasant or toxic personality characteristics — phoniness, vanity, self-centeredness, addictions, a victimized orientation toward life, attitudes of superiority and contempt, among others – is a dynamic way of saying goodbye to our past.
To differentiate from the more childish aspects of our personality, we need to identify and then give up the patterns of defense we developed as an adaptation to the pain and distress we experienced growing up. We need to recognize that the defenses we formed to protect ourselves as children might limit us in our adult lives. If we were intruded on as kids, we may feel excessively guarded as adults. If we were rejected as children, we may feel distrusting in our relationships. Many people cling to these defended ways of responding to others and remain emotionally trapped. As adults, it’s important to give up the hope of ever filling the voids we felt as children. We are, in effect, saying goodbye to our “child selves” and living fully as the adult we are now.
In the fourth step of differentiation, we develop our own values, ideals, and beliefs rather than automatically accepting the beliefs that we grew up with or those of our culture. We must strive to lead a life of integrity, according to our own ideals and in spite of pressures to conform to the standards of others. We should resist influences that are oppressive or restrictive of individual human rights. It is also important to formulate transcendent goals, those that go beyond ourselves and our immediate family, and to take steps toward fulfilling these goals that give personal meaning to our life.