The Three Aspects of Differentiation of Self: Part Two

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:

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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. 
    5. 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. 
    6. 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.
    7. 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.
    8. 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.

 

 

 

 

 

Overseeing the End of a Relationship as a Couples’ Therapist

As a relationship therapist, I know I have a few beliefs that are a bit controversial for my field. One of those beliefs is this: the end of the relationship can be a perfectly good resolution to a couples’ therapy.

Let’s say that, after a long and complicated therapy, the partners look at each other and decide that the relationship is over. This is a painful result for both partners and often also for the therapist, but that doesn’t mean it’s a failure.

Consider the goal of increased differentiation of self. Here are the 3 parts:

  • Become able to look inside yourself and identify what you think, feel, prefer, and desire.
  • Develop the skill of holding steady while communicating those thoughts, feelings, etc. to your partner.
  • Develop the skill of holding steady when your partner communicates to you about their feelings and desires…even when you are uncomfortable with what they are saying.

I truly believe that, in order to be happy, live fulfilling lives, and build strong, stable relationships, we all need to continue to develop this skillset. This is the road to congruence, or the experience of having your internal reality (that of feelings and desires) match your external reality (that of actions and words). Without congruence, you can’t have a strong, stable relationship. And without differentiation of self, congruence is just an idea.

Imagine this: a couple in therapy is working toward the three aspects of differentiation of self. They are getting to know themselves and one another more deeply and authentically than ever before. They are discussing the hard truths—the secrets, the unacknowledged differences, the difficult emotions. It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of this process, and most often the experience of seeing one another through new eyes offers fresh energy or even a complete rebirth for the  relationship.

However, sometimes this process results in a realization of incompatibility. What then?

In my experience, people then decide to stay together despite the incompatibility, for any number of reasons, or they decide to end the relationship and go their separate ways.

In either case, I strongly believe that the deeper goal of knowing oneself and showing up authentically in relationship is more important than exactly what happens with the relationship outcome.

I love to help my clients get to the point where they have the clear eyes, the self-knowledge, and the understanding of one another to make the right decision for themselves–even if that decision is to end the relationship.

When partners decide to split up, that doesn’t necessarily mean the relationship therapy is over. The process of disentangling a life together—including shared finances, property, friends, community, and children—is complicated, and can be fraught and painful. A relationship therapist can be a wonderful resource to help facilitate stronger communication and better agreements throughout the transition.

Facts About Anatomy that Your Clients Need (Part 2)

Last week, I shared some useful facts about anatomy that your clients are likely to benefit from. This week, I’m back with more–this time focusing on orgasm and ejaculation for people with penises.

  • Many people with a penis can have more than one orgasm (with ejaculation) in a day. Some can have more than one orgasm/ejaculation in a sex session. If your client is distressed about reaching orgasm “too quickly,” they should know that for many, this is a possibility!
  • It is also possible to separate the orgasm from the ejaculation, and have LOTS of orgasms before ejaculating. This is an interesting mindfulness project involving awareness of levels of arousal, and there are a couple of very good books about it if you know someone with a penis who would like to explore this: The Multi-Orgasmic Man, by Mantak Chia and Douglas Abrams, 1996, and Male Multiple Orgasm, by Somraj Pokras, 2007.
  • Sometimes people use numbing agents in an attempt to avoid ejaculating “too quickly.” I’d never recommend this, as numbing agents don’t promote pleasure. They can also be passed to the partner, which completely defeats the purpose.

You may have a client who struggles with shame or embarrassment about ejaculating too quickly, or too slowly. Anxiety about sexual “performance” is very common, and anything you can do to lower anxiety and decrease any sense of “performing” will be very helpful. Focusing on intimate connection with pleasure, rather than penetration or orgasm, is an important part of lowering anxiety about sex. Normalize the fact that there is no rule book about how to have sex “right”, and that there are many ways to explore pleasure besides PIV. I’ve written many times on this blog before about building a flexible sexual relationship that doesn’t collapse when things don’t go as planned. You can read more about that here:

When Sex Doesn’t Go As Planned

Unscripting Sex for More Connection and Pleasure

Flexibility is the Key to a Satisfying Sex Life