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A Woman’s Perspective on Differentiation

by Mary J. Simon, Psy.D.

DIFFERENTIATION, as I think of it, is the ability to maintain a solid, clear sense of myself while being connected with others in a meaningful, fulfilling way. This is something that most of us – both male and female – have difficulty doing both parts of. One reason for this is that our culture programs us to over-develop one aspect and under-emphasize the other. In general, men tend to be programmed to sacrifice connection in an effort to maintain a sense of self. Most women, on the other hand, are programmed to maintain a connection at the price of giving up their sense of self. Neither strategy results in mature Differentiation because each aspect complements, and is necessary to, the other. Nor is one pattern necessarily better than the other. Whichever pattern we’ve learned, it helped us to survive and function in our family and our culture. AND each one costs us an important part of ourselves. Our growth edge is to develop the aspect we have neglected. This paper, however, explores only the aspect of maintaining a clear sense of self because that is the aspect with which women are most likely to have difficulty.

My thoughts on the women’s work in differentiation come primarily from my own journey as a woman and my work with other women on this journey. Parts of what I have to say may also apply to some men and may not apply to some women. What I do know is this is what it’s like for me and for many of the women I talk to.

In my experience most women have pretty well developed skills in connecting. Our skills in maintaining a clear sense of self are much less developed. This is not to say that women never have any problems in developing true, deep connections. What I believe is that, when we do, the difficulty is usually rooted in the lack of a sense of self. My experience has been that the more I develop and hold on to a clear sense of myself, the more deeply and meaningfully I am able to connect with others.

One way to understand the difficulty women have with a maintaining a sense of self is through the concept of boundaries. Many women’s boundaries (which define and hold our sense of self) look like this: The many gaps in the boundaries allow anything and everything from the outside — events, other peoples’ actions, needs, feelings, expectations, judgments — to impact us directly with no sense of choice on our part. They also allow others’ needs, feelings, and demands to preemptively ‘suck’ our energy. In addition, since we don’t believe we have the ability to choose what comes into our (psychological, sometimes physical) space the only way most of us know to protect ourselves from the outside is to attack it with our energy. We try to ‘fix’ or arrange things and people outside of us so that they won’t hurt us. There are at least two problems with this style of coping. One is that IT DOESN’T WORK! We just don’t have the power and control to arrange things and other people the way we need them to be. The other is that we give away our precious energy in this futile enterprise and there is little left “at home” for us to use to nurture our sense of self.

I visualize this experience as “mucking around in other people’s circles instead of keeping my own circle well tended.” The idea of COMING HOME TO YOURSELF is to call my energy or my spirit home to nourish and develop my own real, essential self. The paradox is that, if I am out “mucking around in other people’s circles”, there is no one home in my circle to truly connect with another so I really don’t get a connection either! Actually I believe that I can truly connect with and 69 intimate with others only to the extent that I have this piece of being connected with myself in place. When I try to connect with others without it, there’s something missing — ME!

I see being truly HOME WITH MYSELF as living within and taking charge of my personal space–my circle. It means feeling in charge of what, who, when and how for I let anything inside it. I like to think of my ideal circle or boundary as a semi-permeable membrane — like a cell membrane. It’s flexible and gentle but intact and able to filter, make choices about what kind of energy (ideas, words, feelings, demands, etc.) come in, how much of my energy goes out, and where and when it goes.

Living within my own circle also means taking full responsibility for my own thoughts, feelings and behavior. It means ceasing to put my energy into what others are or are not doing. Instead I need to focus on what I am doing or not doing that doesn’t fit for me and results in my being uncomfortable or distressed. When I ask myself, “How can I get him (her) to. .. “, I know I have ‘left my own circle.’ I am probably being reactive and giving away my precious energy. In addition, I also know that the answer to this is almost always, ‘I can’t!’ so I have set myself an impossible task.

In addition to sending my energy out to “muck around in other people’s circles”.. there is another way we can experience losing ourselves. That is when I let something other than me occupy my circle, the space that is rightfully mine. I shrink or give up my space in favor of others’ wants, needs, ways of seeing or doing things. I get small and shape myself the way I believe others want me to 6s rather than being the size and shape I really am. In order to do this I have to constrict, 6ury, in some way get rid of parts of myself.

My picture of what happens to a woman’s boundaries in this instance is that the above picture gets squished together so that there are no longer gaps in the boundary. It’s a bit like a shell but because it is made up of pieces, not solid, it feels very fragile and easily crushed. The woman inside feels she could at any point loses her shell and is totally vulnerable. One woman described this as I feel like a snail. I have this shell but it’s very fragile and when it gets smashed, I am totally defenseless.”

Developing and maintaining a solid sense of self in this situation can be seen as building an intact circle, filling it up with my energy, and taking up the space that is mine. It also means speaking up and saying “No” or “I must do this” rather than shrinking and hiding.

An important aspect of Differentiation is being able to SELF-VALIDATE. What many women tend to do is either silence our voices or argues and tries to convince others that our reality is valid. Self -validation means of firming that my reality, my feelings, my wants and needs are valid just because they are mine. It means speaking my truth even when I know important others may not like it. In addition, I do not justify how I am or argue and try to convince others that what I think, want or feel is RIGHT. I stay with what is RIGHT FOR ME even if I seem to be the only one who sees it that way.

It is especially hard to self -validate when important others are saying that I’m wrong, bad, selfish, for being how I am, seeing things how I see them, wanting what I want, doing what I do. AND THEY WILL! –at least at times. These are the times when it’s essential to be able to ‘Filter out’ others’ opinions and views and remind myself that MY TRUTH is a part of the larger, universal truth and it doesn’t serve anyone — least of all me — to deny it, hide it, give it up. These are also times when it’s important to have a support system — others who will support me in holding onto my reality. AND who will confront me lovingly when I justify, try to convince, etc.

Flowing from the ability to self-validate is the ability to act with INTEGRIT’Y — being able and willing to acknowledge and act from my own truth, even when that may mean others (or my own inner critic) will be unhappy with me. It means I don’t distort myself — do things that don’t fit for me or not do what is right for me — in order to avoid causing others discomfort or to be what someone thinks I SHOULD be. I just am who I am. This doesn’t mean I don’t care about others or their feelings. It also doesn’t mean that I don’t do or give anything to others when that’s what my truth says I must do. It may mean that at times I will need to say, ‘I know this is hard for you and I need to do this anyway.’ At other times, I may need to be more forceful and say something like, ‘I will not do this anymore! It doesn’t fit for me!’ In all cases it means that I value others and myself too much to lie about who I really am, what I really f eel, what f its and doesn’t fit for me.

Acting from a place of integrity also means that my goal in my actions is to be true to myself and my own growth rather than to get a particular response from you. It means acting for me instead of reacting to you (either for OR against you, your expectations, etc.) It means being conscientious about keeping my own circle clean — keeping myself truthful and responsible. I don’t presume that I know how your circle should look so I don’t ‘muck around in it’ or judge it. I let you be responsible for your circle and decide what I need to do given whatever you are doing. This doesn’t mean I won’t negotiate to see if we can find solutions that fit for both of us. It does mean I don’t compromise myself to “make it work’.

This commitment to and knowledge that I can act with integrity no matter what makes it easier to acknowledge and accept others for who they are and how they see things. This is precisely because I know that I don’t have to change my shape to fit with them. I don’t have to change or leave my circle. Therefore I feel much less need to try to change or arrange their circle. It can be an immense relief to give up trying to do something that I absolutely can’t do anyway. Trying to do the impossible is so tiring! It really is so much easier to concentrate on what is within my control, i.e. my own behavior. That’s a big enough job!

A difficulty with all this is ‘How do I know what is my real essential self, my truth, and what is my reactivity?’ It is easy to get these mixed up and react to my shoulds or my fears. We all have personality patterns that ‘feel like me’ but are really constrictions and adaptations that we learned in childhood. Knowing the difference takes much discipline, self-observation and truthfulness. One way to tell the difference is to check whether my thoughts and feelings are focused on what the other person is doing rather than on my own behavior and choices. If I am upset and thinking mostly about what s/he is doing and how I might get him/her to change, I know I am reactive. It is important then to be able to go inside, center myself, and calm my reactivity. Until I can get my energy back in my circle, I can’t know what my Truth is or what I need to do. Tools that can help with this centering and calming are meditation & solitude, letting go of my pictures of how things should be, and talking with friends who are also on a path of self – discovery. It is also important to be aware of my personality patterns, my shoulds, oughts, judgments and my favorite ways of deluding or sabotaging myself. We’re not talking an instant cure here! This is a lifelong journey towards wholeness.

One caveat to all these exciting ideas is that you need to know that if/when you start pulling your energy back, holding on to your truth and acting from that, your important others will react! That’s because, when you stop accommodating their issues by giving up yourself and your energy, it puts their issues back in their laps. I can pretty much promise you they won’t be exactly ecstatic about this. They probably will squawk and complain and try to get you to ‘CHANGE BACK!” The reason for this is that your change forces them to feel the discomfort caused by their own unresolved issues. (By the way, if someone else important to you embarks on this journey, your issues will also be ‘in your face’!) Actually, this reality is one of the ways in which our relationships provide both the opportunity and some strong motivation for each of us to do what we need to do to grow. Of course, another option when faced with the discomfort our own issues cause us is to go away, leave the relationship. It’s important that you know that a possible outcome of doing this work is that some people may choose not to relate to you any more.

Of course, it’s also a possible outcome if you don’t do it. Back to that one! We’re just never in control of what others do! Again, what I have control of is my own growth and integrity — not how you respond to me.

When others are reacting negatively to me, or even when I anticipate that they might, I tend to get very reactive and anxious. It’s even harder to stay with myself, hold onto my reality, etc. It is vital at these times to have available ways of using my energy to soothe myself, know that I will Ir be OK no matter what. The tools for this are very similar to those mentioned above in the section on recognizing reactivity. In addition, relaxation, self-nurturing and centering activities, etc. are useful.

To summarize, I believe the work of Differentiation for (most) women needs to include the following:

  1. living and being centered within my own boundary/circle;
  2. being willing to he guided by my own reality, even tho’ I know it is only one reality and is subjective;
  3. self-validating/valuing my truth whether or not the other person is doing so at the time; and
  4. self-soothing my own reactivity and anxiety so that I can be 5) focusing on my own integrity and growth acting FOR me instead of reacting to you (for OR against).