Can You Dance? Differentiation of Self: Observing is the First Step

Authored by Kelly Matthew-Pluta, M.S.W.

Very often clients are puzzled by Bowen Theory’s concept of Differentiation of Self.  Clinicians are often stumped on how to make this crucial concept, upon which the theory is based, understandable and useful to clients.  The first step is to observe self.  If one cannot identify what and how one is thinking and responding to self and others, understanding, and possibly making lasting changes, will be impossible.  The idea that one is only in charge of oneself is both liberating and frustrating.  Liberating in the realization that our responsibility is to managing ourselves, in how we think, respond and behave.  It is within self that we have agency.  We have no control over others.  That lead us to the frustrating part; becoming conscious that we have no control over others is hard to accept. I often hear from clients, “if only they (important others) would do this or that, our relationship with them would be so much better”. The vast majority of clients who enter therapy have a focus on others and not themselves.

How then can a therapist help a client see that the useful route to improved relationships is through work on self. It is the only place we have any modicum of control.  So, if a client wants to understand a relationship and maybe change it, it must begin with work on their self-knowledge.  A simple analogy is taking a dance class.  Learning to dance is almost always done in front of a mirror.  The student is instructed to move and watch themselves in the mirror.  A teacher will remark and tell the student to make corrections.  The student keeps moving and watching (observing self) and making changes.  A dance student moves slowly until they are sure of their steps.  This is repeated over and over.  No one becomes a good dancer in one class or 10.  It takes practice and time, missteps and correction.  So goes the solo project of working on self.  It is hard work that takes time.  It is full of many missteps and corrections.

Another idea is watching a toddler put on a snowsuit.  It is complicated work to put heavy outerwear on top of clothes.  There are many items, difficult closures for small, relatively new, fingers and hands.  It takes lots of time.  Most importantly, the concentration shown in their faces is a clue to the level of attention on self that is needed.  They have to focus if they want to play in the snow.  Teachers of small children set aside a good deal of time for the work on self that children need for this task.  The children need time, lots of practice and focused attention.  Here again, good tools for differentiating a self.

Differentiating a self is hard work that requires focus, patience and time.  It is a project that, if committed to, results in higher levels of self.  This translates, typically, to relationships with others becoming more functional and satisfying.  Dr. Roberta Gilbert has a chapter in her book, Extraordinary Relationships, called “Growing a Self”.   Dr. Jenny Brown titled her book Growing Yourself Up.  Both phrases are helpful in describing to clients the critical direction and focus of Bowen Theory.  It is paramount to become an expert on yourself, as much as that is possible.  Then we may have a chance at using that knowledge to advance our relationships to more functional levels.

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