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What is Self Differentiation and Why Is It So Important?

Self-differentiation is a word you probably don’t hear in everyday usage. But it’s a crucial process to living (and eating) well. It’s happening when you hear people speaking their minds with thoughtful conviction even though others might disapprove. It’s lacking when someone spends her life rebelling against the views and values of her parents and clinging to their opposite. It’s missing when someone stifles his feelings and thoughts in fear of hurting others or being rejected or shamed by them. Get the picture?

Murray Bowen, MD developed the self-differentiation theory which applies to human development and family dynamics. His theory has two major parts. 1) “Differentiation of self is the ability to separate feelings and thoughts. Undifferentiated people cannot separate feelings and thoughts; when asked to think, they are flooded with feelings, and have difficulty thinking logically and basing their responses on that. 2) Further, they have difficulty separating their own from others’ feelings; they look to family to define how they think about issues, feel about people, and interpret their experiences.”

“Differentiation is the process of freeing yourself from your family's processes to define yourself. This means being able to have different opinions and values than your family members but being able to stay emotionally connected to them. It means being able to calmly reflect on a conflicted interaction afterward, realizing your own role in it, and then choosing a different response for the future.” (Bowen Family Therapy,, accessed 3/14/19)

Self-differentiation involves being able to possess and identify your own thoughts and feelings and distinguish them from others. It’s a process of not losing connection to self while holding a deep connection to others, including those you love whose views may differ from yours. If you grow up in a family in which everyone maintains attachment (or has only brief disconnects) in spite of having different thoughts and feelings, you can begin to self-differentiate. Alternately, if the parental dictum was my-way-or-the-highway or let’s all think the same to show we love each other, self-differentiation is very difficult.

The importance of differentiation is articulated by Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. in “Differentiation: Living Life on Your Own Terms”: “Although we are born genetically unique individuals, we internalize our early environment, so that when we grow up, we are not really fully differentiated selves. In many ways we are reliving rather than living.” (Psychology Today, 11/19/09,, accessed 3/14/19)

Dysregulated eaters often lack self-differentiation. Sometimes they’re too nice, go with the flow, fear disapproval, or aim solely to please, which leaves them disconnected from self. Other times, they develop an identity by choosing (consciously or unconsciously) their feelings and thoughts precisely because they are different from families.

Moreover, dysregulated eaters often go along to get along in some instances, then disagree and take arbitrary oppositional stances in others, especially with authority figures. Neither reaction is rooted in deliberate exploration and critical thinking skills about what they think of feel. Reactions are based on fear of becoming totally detached from someone, leading to doing what others want, or of becoming totally enmeshed with someone, leading to fighting to be viewed (and view oneself) as a separate individual.

Not only do problems with lack of self-differentiation make healthy adult relationships impossible, but they cause tremendous inner turmoil which can often lead to comfort eating. You may get furious because you feel controlled by someone who wants you to do something you don’t wish to do but believe you’re unsafe expressing your feelings openly and use food to emotionally re-regulate. Or you may silence yourself around others and feel inauthentic, unheard, or invisible, and with needs unmet, seek food for solace.

Reread the definitions and descriptions above of a differentiated self and see if that is what you have. If you want to move toward differentiation, focus on being more authentic at the expense of approval and staying connected to others while still disagreeing with them. This is another area where therapy can be tremendously helpful, because it’s a unique relationship, one of whose underlying clinical goals is supporting you in developing a differentiated self.



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