Healthy Relationships, 1.1: Solid Self, Part 2

Solid Self Scale

Yesterday, we discussed the Solid Self, the differentiated self—the person who is able to separate out his or her thinking and feeling, particularly when under stress. In order to make this concept more concrete, Psychiatrist Dr. Murray Bowen (1913-1990) developed a “Differentiation of Self Scale” that can help us identify where we may be on the scale and a picture that we can aspire to achieve.

Level 1: O-25

The scale describes a continuum of differentiation from low (0) to high (100), with four levels along the continuum. At the lowest levels (0-25), the individual operates in a feeling-dominated world and is totally relationship-oriented, rather than governed by well-thought-out principles. At this level, much energy goes into seeking love and approval, and in keeping the relationship system in balance so as to achieve comfort and freedom from anxiety. Having grown up as dependent appendages of their parents, they seek dependent relationships in which they can borrow strength to function. In so doing, there is little energy for life-directed goals.

Level 2: 25-50

At a moderate level on the continuum (25-50), the individual makes some distinction between thinking and feeling, with most of the self still expressed as pseudo-self. In times of low stress, the distinction between the emotional and intellectual systems is clearer, but during times of high stress, the behavior of a moderately differentiated person can resemble that of a person with a low level of differentiation.

Like those lower on the differentiation scale, the lives of people at a moderate level are relationship-oriented rather than goal-directed, and much energy goes into loving, being loved, and seeking approval so as to bolster self-esteem. Lacking a solid self-conviction about the reality of the world, they draw on their pseudo-self for their opinions and use other people or belief systems as their authority, taking information out of context to make their points. They lack intellect about personal matters and their personal lives are chaotic, but they are forever in pursuit of the ideal close (fused) relationship, which motivates them to read moods, expressions, and postures. People in this group develop a full range of physical, emotional and social illness and dysfunction.

Level 3: 50-75

People with a moderate to good level of differentiation on the continuum (50-75) separate their emotional and intellectual systems enough so that the systems can cooperate as a team. This person has learned that automatic emotional decisions create long term complications, and has gained some discipline over the feeling system.

During periods of calm, he or she has cultivated a comparatively solid self, using logical reasoning to develop beliefs, principles, and convictions, which he or she then uses in situations of anxiety and panic to overrule the emotional system. Those in the lower part of this group can be thrown into the behaviors of people in the 25-50 range during stress, while those closer to the 75-100 range can participate fully in the emotional world, knowing that they can extricate themselves with logical reasoning when necessary. They are less relationship-oriented and more able to follow independent life goals, without the need for the approval of others. This has the by-product of preventing defensiveness when discussing beliefs.

As at other levels, individuals at this level naturally partner up with others at the same level of differentiation because those at a lower level would be considered emotionally incompatible. A partnership on this level on the differentiation continuum is a functioning partnership, with a full range of intimacy without the emotional demands of pseudo-selves. Both the male and female are able to function in their gender without having to debate biological and social roles. They take responsibility for their failures and credit for their successes, understanding that each contributes to the success or failure of the team. They can function well with others or on their own, whatever the situation requires, and they can allow their children to grow and develop their own beliefs, even when they differ from their own. This group remains relatively free from a full range of human problems.

Level 4: 75-100

The highest level of differentiation (75-100) is hypothetical, and can be mistaken for the “rugged individualist,” which is actually just an exaggerated pseudo-self struggling against emotional fusion. Highly differentiated people are simply able to participate in a full range of human emotion while remaining aware of others and the relationship systems all around. Because no one can know the full range of forces operating within every individual at any given moment, the best one can do is be able to gain access to one’s intellectual system when needed.

Togetherness and Autonomy

Each person embodies opposite impulses toward togetherness and autonomy, and healthy individuals and relationships move toward the instinct of differentiation and growth against the instinct toward fusion and status quo. When one family member can do this, the other family members automatically take similar steps, although systemic forces are so strong to maintain the status quo that any step toward differentiation is often met with vigorous disapproval. The solid self then needs to be strong enough, solid enough, to sustain the differentiation for a long-term goal.

While efforts to differentiate don’t always diminish tension immediately, the focus on fundamental change within the self over time, and within the family system over even more time, produces lasting and sustainable change, not a quick fix for a conflict that will jump out from the bushes just around the bend.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about how the emotional system of a family can become even more complicated when the individuals in it aren’t careful with boundaries.

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