Integrity is a word we typically use for moral or character strength. In its most basic form, integrity means that something is well integrated. When something is, then it has inner strength. That is what we mean by emotional integrity, an inner strength to be able to experience emotion, even intense emotion without letting it derail you and your relationships. Differentiation of self is the key ingredient to getting in control of your emotions so that you can positively experience and control them without them controlling you.
Differentiation of Self
What is differentiation? Differentiation describes a person’s ability to operate from their true or “basic self” as opposed to a pseudo self. It is the emotional capacity to make decisions for self in light of the influence of others in a relationship. Essentially the higher the level of differentiation, the lower the influence of other relationships on decision making. Edwin H. Freedman put it poignantly when he defined differentiation thus: “Differentiation means the capacity of a family member to define his or her own life’s goals and values apart from the surrounding togetherness pressures, to say “I” when others are demanding “you” and “we.” (Friedman, GTG, 27.)
The opposite of differentiation is undifferentiation. The more undifferentiated a person is, the more susceptible she or he is to the social pressures of their relationships. Moreover, the more fused a relationship is, the more influence it will have over the decision making of the person. So as an example, if one is far more fused with individual X than with individual Y, it will be very hard to listen to individual Y, even if she or he provides the much wiser counsel.
Another way to understand differentiation is in relationship to the emotional system. Bowen family systems theory is marked by eight basic concepts all covered in this study, but very helpfully outlined in The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory: A New Way of Thinking About the Individual and the Group. For the reader who wants more, I highly recommend this invaluable study. In this study, Roberta M. Gilbert says the following:
Of all the eight concepts of Bowen Theory, seven are concerned with describing the characteristics of the family, or the group. The scale of differentiation is the only one that considers in depth those of the individual. It is fundamental to grasp this concept in as complete a way as possible if we are to ever engage with the important effort that it implies. That work is to differentiate self from one’s emotional systems . . “ (Gilbert, TEC, 28.)
In the emotional system the individual encounters the forces of emotional togetherness and relational fusion. The “work to which Dr. Gilbert refers is the process of freeing one’s self from the emotional fusions that prevent independent creative thinking.
Loss of True Decision Making Power
The more undifferentiated a person is, the more their personal relationships influence or even override their personal decision making process. As Gilbert says, the most “important guiding influence is simply the relationship system itself, with all of its pressure to be included, liked, or a “team player.? As goes the system, so goes the self.” (Gilbert, TEC, 39.)
Differentiation is the capacity to make decisions without regard to tyranny of relational fusion and public opinion. However there is no person who is 100% differentiated. Thus the differentiation process is the intentional work of increasing the personal capacity to make principled decisions with increasingly less social influence from others.