This is the second post in a deep dive into the three aspects of differentiation of self. In my last post, I wrote about the first aspect, which is identifying what you feel, think, believe and prefer. You can read it here.
This time, I’m focusing on the second aspect of differentiation of self—holding steady while expressing unique and individual thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and preferences to someone else. There are two distinct and important aspects to this:
- Holding steady, by which I mean getting grounded and remaining calm while saying your piece. This skill is foundational to effective communication, and underlies all aspects of differentiation.
- Stating thoughts, beliefs, feelings, perceptions, and preferences as clearly, deeply, and fully as possible, regardless of what reaction is likely from the listener. Depth is important. Often people make the mistake of staying on the surface of the topic, rather than going deep. That’s because it often seems like depth would be more difficult for the listener to receive gracefully. More often, the opposite is true: providing enough depth helps the listener access empathy for the speaker. A full communication should cover not just what was perceived to have happened (framed as a perception, not a “truth”, since partners may very well remember events differently), but also the feelings that occurred for the person who is speaking, and the stories or meaning made by them about the events and feelings. It is important that this communication be explicitly framed as being about the speaker’s perceptions, feelings, and meaning-making.
The second aspect of differentiation is tricky because it exists relationally, as part of a dynamic between people. Consider:
- Someone might be very worried about how their partner will react to something they want to share. They might be able to figure out what they think, but have a lot of difficulty sharing their thoughts.
- If the listener begins to show emotion about what the speaker is saying, for instance by getting angry or starting to cry, the speaker might backpedal, soften, or completely change what they are saying in order to avoid a difficult discussion.
- If the listener has a history of becoming upset during a difficult conversation, someone might choose not to disclose difficult things. This is a real pitfall if the listener becomes quite dysregulated. It can be very challenging to speak up when your partner tends toward extreme responses. Nonetheless, the downside of not speaking up is undeniable: an upsetting interaction will have been avoided, but the person who decided not to speak up will not feel seen, understood, or accepted for who they are in this relationship.
There are many reasons a person might have difficulty holding steady and expressing themselves deeply, calmly, and fully. They could be responding to echoes of past trauma, perhaps having been punished in some way for speaking up, or for individuated non-conformist thinking. They may have gotten subtle but pervasive messages that children are to be seen and not heard. Their parents may have modeled never discussing difficult topics, or difficult topics discussed by family members may have led to chaotic interactions, drama, anger, or abuse. It is also possible that their current partner engages in dramatic responses to difficult discussions, or even shuts down some conversations entirely.
Whatever the cause, as a therapist, it is important to help clients identify how they want to be in their relationships. Do they believe in creating relationships where both partners feel seen, heard, and known? Do they believe in creating emotional safety so everyone can figure out their deeper desires, thoughts, and feelings, and discuss them? If so, the therapy will need to support the development of all three parts of differentiation.
Here are some tips for increasing your ability to express your beliefs, preferences, and feelings:
- Take a deep breath. If speaking up makes you anxious, take some time to notice how you’re feeling. Breathe deeply (concentrating on a long exhale) and relax your muscles. Blink slowly. Exhaling and blinking slowly tells your limbic system that you are safe, so you can gather your thoughts more effectively.
- Take a few minutes to get clear. Don’t start talking until you think through what you want to express. You could even take notes or rehearse, if you’re really concerned. Get your message boiled down to one topic or one aspect of a single topic. Biting off too much at a time is a great way to flood yourself and your partner, and create confusion that makes it hard to get anywhere.
- Recognize that you can’t control your partner’s response. Maybe what you have to say is going to irritate or disappoint your partner. That’s survivable. “No tension ever” isn’t realistic, so don’t make that your outcome goal. Keep your eye on the real goal: saying what you intend to say.
- Remind yourself what kind of partner you aspire to be. Do you believe in being honest? Do you want to be fully and deeply known by your partner? Fix your focus firmly on the long term goal of building the kind of relationship you want to have, rather than the short-term goal of avoiding an uncomfortable discussion.
- Keep it relatively brief. Particularly if this is a big challenge for you, keep it to 10 or 15 minutes. Don’t get distracted by other topics.
- Ask your partner to say back what they are hearing. This is important because it makes it so you can clear up any misunderstandings right away. People mis-hear things all the time when stressed, so don’t skip this step.
- Thank your partner for listening to you. Positive feedback actually works. If your partner listened well, said something insightful, or responded in any positive manner, be sure to take the time to appreciate it. Even if it went badly, thank them for showing up and trying.
- Find something connecting to do after you talk. A relationship that involves constant processing leaves no room for fun. Develop the ability to intentionally create some positive experiences together. Go for a walk or bike ride, watch something fun on Netflix, or just snuggle on the couch. Pet the animals. Hush and connect.