Compassion Matters

How to save a life

Differentiation: Living Life on Your Own Terms

Whose life are you really living?

imageAs a therapist, I often hear people recount instances in which they said or did something that they just couldn't believe. As soon as the words slip out of their mouths, they recognize their unfamiliarity, as if they're suddenly speaking a foreign language. For a friend of mine, this moment came when her husband, with whom she was deeply in love, made the adoring declaration that one day he would love to have a baby with her. Without giving it a thought, my friend blurted out "Well, you'd have to take care of it too, you know!" This came as quite a shock to her husband, who was simply expressing a loving sentiment and had no intention of not taking care of his baby, should they mutually decide to have one.


My friend too was startled by her statement. Neither the words nor the emotion behind them felt like they came from her. After thinking about it for a while, she recognized that her response reflected the attitude of her mother, who consistently showed resentment toward the practicalities of raising her children. Even though my friend was in a totally different relationship and had her own feelings of wanting a baby, her mother's attitude still resided within her.This incident marks a clear example of how a lack of differentiation from one's parents or one's past can influence their behavior.

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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. This dichotomy can influence us to act in ways we don't even like or say things we don't even mean. We are especially susceptible to these feelings in times of stress and in situations that trigger primal feelings, in our intimate relationships, at work or as parents. When triggered, these overlays influence how we see the world, and how we see ourselves. We engage in behavior that is not our own, which can be destructive to our own best interest.


Every one of us possesses a division within ourselves, in which we have internalized the point of view of our parents or those who took care of us as children. How you perceive yourself in your present life, whether in your job or in your closest relationships, is often based on projections from old feelings from childhood interactions. Even the best of parents can't be perfectly attuned to their children at all times.


Unfortunately, it is when parents are at their worst, in moments when they lose their temper or ignore a need, that they have the strongest influence on their children's negative attitudes toward themselves. When people grow up, they can only get to know themselves by getting to know this critical point of view that lives inside them.


Because people take on their parent or caretaker's point of view as their own at such an early stage in life, it's possible that a feeling they have felt for what seems like forever or an attitude they've long held isn't even their real feeling or attitude. For example, a friend of mine who spent much of her adult life believing she disliked kids and had no real interest in having children woke up one day to the realization that she actually enjoys kids.

Through therapy, she came to identify this critical voice that told her she didn't want to have children as her mother's and not her own. As a powerless child, with a mother who frequently referred to her two daughters as "little brats," abusing them both physically and verbally, it felt safer for my friend to identify with the aggressor and take on the point of view of the person who scared her. By aligning herself with her mother, she was able to alleviate some of the fear, hurt and trauma caused by her mother's outbursts and rejecting attitudes.


As an adult, having learned to separate a great deal from her mother's identity, my friend eventually had two children, who she cares for and enjoys. However, she still has moments where she finds herself saying and doing things of which she doesn't approve. When she looks back at the incidents, she recalls that she "can't tell where she ends and her mother begins." In those moments, though not conscious of it, she is still not fully differentiated from her mother.


When we project scenarios from our past onto our current life, we not only alter our own way of thinking but our way of perceiving others. For example, we may project old attitudes onto our boss, friends or partners, assuming they think of us in some of the negative ways that we think of ourselves. We may then overreact to them.


To catch on to these patterns, it helps to think of a moment when your mood changed for no apparent reason or your attitude toward something shifted significantly. It's important to look back not only on what happened but what you were telling yourself at the time. Ask what might have triggered these reactions. You may begin to notice how these negative thoughts infiltrated your way of thinking.


For example, situations in which someone has power over you can bring out parental elements in one's personality. You may be provoked by a boss who acts pompous and vain, but your anger may also be exacerbated by old feelings of submission. In the same way, it's possible your boss was made to feel little and inferior as a child. As a result, his or her feelings of superiority might also have risen from a lack of differentiation from past experiences.


The most valuable aspect of recognizing a lack of differentiation is that once we're aware of it, we can start to question cynical or hostile attitudes toward ourselves or toward others. We can recognize these attacks as someone else's point of view and develop a deeper understanding of ourselves by identifying where these thoughts come from. Even when we slip up, it is beneficial to have compassion for ourselves and for others. The more we recognize and stop acting from the point of view of this destructive, internal enemy, the more ourselves we will become.

Read Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice by Robert Firestone, Ph.D. and Lisa Firestone, Ph.D.

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Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association.

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