Self-Differentiation: Part I

(This series will be multiple parts and lay out the basic understandings of Self-Differentiation from Family Systems Theory and suggest strategies to grow in this area. I have seen this knowledge and these tools be a huge help in my clients’ lives in all types of relationships. I hope you find it helpful too!)

I remember when I was eight years old, my family made a move from a city of about two hundred fifty thousand people to a town of barely twenty-five thousand people. They made the move for many reasons. Most of them had to do with safety. Looking back, it was a great decision my parents made for our family. However, there were plenty of troubles along the way. The one that stands out most is the years-long struggle I had with one question. “Who am I?” That question would haunt me for years, and to this day, it creeps in on my bad days. Not having an answer was the source of a lot of shame and doubt in my childhood. Was I a cool kid, an athletic kid, or just a good kid who (mostly) obeyed my parents.

I found myself just hoping to get lost in the right crowd. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I just wanted to be associated with the right people, and by proxy, be accepted. I know now, this is a question that most people struggle with at some point in their life, but it is rarely talked about. No one says, “hey, I’m really struggling with confidence and shame today”. That’s too scary, but we all do in some form or another. It wasn’t until years later that I was able to reflect on what was happening in those early years. Not knowing who I was, I was trying to live vicariously through other people who I wanted to be like. I was trying to borrow some of their identity and make it my own.

This is a major component of one of my favorite counseling theories, Bowenian Family Systems Theory. The thought is that we get through childhood with a certain amount of “self”. These are things we know about ourselves, principles we live by, or just things we have great confidence in as a child. For me, I knew my parents loved me, they wanted good things for me, and I was worth their time. These are all great and important things, but when you move to a new town as an eight-year-old kid, it’s tested. I knew how mom and dad felt, but I didn’t know how other people would feel. So, to shore up these doubts, I tried to “borrow” other qualities from my friends. The cool ones. So, I tried to be good at soccer (which was a lost cause), know where and when the sleepovers were happening, and even wear the right clothes. One instance sticks out from about sixth grade. This is the first time I remember hearing about Dr. Martin’s boots. All the cool kids had them, and this meant I had to have them too. So, I asked my mom for some and she bought me a pair of boots. In case you don’t know (or never cared) yellow stitching was the hallmark of Dr. Martins. When I saw the boots, they were the right color brown. The style I wanted. They even had cool, rugged looking soles. At any other time in my life, they would have been great. But, the yellow stitching my little sixth-grade self wanted wasn’t there. I was sad. I was angry. Over a pair of boots…

Think about that. Because of the color of some stitching, I was unhappy. Yes, this is as silly as it sounds. However, this is what happens when we try to borrow our identity from other people. All the cool kids had these shoes and I wanted to be cool. Instead of figuring out who I truly was and finding a place I could thrive in life, I tried to short the system by emulating people who had something I wanted. This is what we do. This is a sign of a lack of what Family Systems Therapists call Self-Differentiation. And the secret is: we all struggle with this to some degree.

In the coming weeks, we will unpack what Self-Differentiation is, how it affects us in both good and bad ways, and how to become more Self-Differentiated yourself. My hope for this series and this site, in general, is that it will be a resource that is continually growing and answering common questions about mental health, happiness, and relational health.


Kyle Purcell is a counselor based in the Conway, Arkansas area, specializing in helping those who struggle with shame and other kinds of relational issues.

(501) 358-7607 Ext 104


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