The Concept of Self-Differentiation or (How Differentiated Are You?)


I have been reading Peter Scazzero’s “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality”, and I got to the part last night where he begins to talk about living from our true selves in and through Jesus. He uses Dr. Murray Bowen’s term “self-differentiation” to talk about this.  He says, “One very helpful way to clarify this process of growing in our faithfulness to our true selves in a new way is through the use of a new term: differentiation. Develped by Murray Bowen, the founder of modern family systems theory, it refers to a person’s capacity to ‘define his or her own life’s goals and values apart from the pressures of those around them.’ The key emphasis of differentiation is on the ability to think clearly and carefully as another means, besides our feelings, of knowing ourselves.”


Differentiation is about knowing yourself and who you are and who you are not and holding on to that self.  The goal is to hold to your self and your values and goals apart from all the anxiety and pressure around you (separateness) while remaining close to those in your life (togetherness).  These two forces of separateness and togetherness are what makes the tension in differentiation.


Scazzero writes, “People with a high level of differentiation have their own beliefs, convictions, directions, goals, and values apart from the pressures around them.  They can choose, before God, how they want to be without being controlled by the approval or disapproval of others. Intensity of feelings, high stress, or the anxiety of others around them does not overwhelm their capacity to think intelligently.”


Mr. Scazzero has simplified a scale of differentiation found in Dr. Bowen’s theory.  He says of it, “On the lower end of the scale are those with little sense of their uniquie God-given life. They need continual affirmation and validation from others because they don’t have a clear sense of who they are. They depend on what other people think and feel in order to have a sense of their own worth and identity. Or out of fear of getting too close to someone and thus swallowed up, they may avoid closeness to other completely. Under stress they have little ability to distinguish between their feelings and their thougth (intellectual) process.”


Considering that Jesus was 100 percent true to Himself, or “self-differentiated,” where might you place yourself on this scale? (This is Mr. Scazzero’s scale, not mine)







Can’t distinguish between fact and feeling

Emotionally needy and highly reactive to others

Much of life energy spent in winning the approval of others

Little energy for goal-directed activities

Can’t say, “I think….I believe….”

Little emotional separation from their families

Dependent marital relationships

Do very poorly in transitions, crises, and life adjustments

Unable to see where they end and others begin




Some ability to distinguish between fact and feeling

Most of self is a “false self” and reflected from others

When anxiety is low, they function relatively well

Quick to imitate others and change themselves to gain acceptance from others

Often talk one set of principles/beliefs, yet do another

Self-esteem soars with compliments or is crushed by criticism

Become anxious when a relationship system falls apart or becomes unbalanced

Often make poor decisions due to their inablility to think clearly under stress

Seek power, honor, knowledge, and love from others to cloth their false self


50-75  (This is where I am beginning to live. I’d put myself around 60-65 of this part)


Aware of the thinking and feeling functions that work as a team

Reasonable level of “true self”

Can follow life goals that are determined from within

Can state beliefs calmly without putting others down

Marriage is a functioning partnership where intimacy can be enjoyed without losing self

Can allow children to progress through development phrases into adult autonomy

Function well–alone or with others

Able to cope with crisis without falling apart

Stay in realtional connection with others without insistenting they see the world the same


75-100 (Few function at this level)


Is principle oriented and goal directed–secure in who they are, unaffected by criticism or praise

Is able to leave family of origin and become an inner-directed, seperate adult

Sure of their beliefs but not dogmatic or closed in their thinking

Can hear and evaluate beliefs of others, discarding old beliefs in favor of new ones

Can listen without reacting and communicate without antagonizing others

Can respect others without having to change them

Aware of dependence on others and responsibility for others

Free to enjoy life and play

Able to mainatin a non-anxious presence in the midst of stress and pressure

Able to take responsibility for their own destiny and life



On which part of the scale are you?


Do not fret! If you are at lower levels of functioning you can work your way up with very hard work, dedication, and lots and lots of prayer!


Begin to ask Jesus to reveal to you where you are weak? Ask Him to reveal to you where you need growth? Ask Him into the hidden places of your heart, so that His light will shine in on those parts and His healing balm will restore those wounds. Ask Christ for His grace and mercy as you seek to grow.


Ask Christ to show you how He sees you and I promise He will show you!


“Oh, that God would give us the very smallest of gifts

To be able to see ourselves as [how He and] others see us

It would save us from many mistakesand foolish thoughts

We would change the way we look and gestureand to how and what we apply our time and attention.”


A helpful resource:

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