Three Aspects of Differentiation of Self: Part 3

This is the third post in a three-part series about differentiation of self. Earlier, I discussed the first aspect of differentiation of self, which is the ability to look within yourself and identify what you think, believe, feel, and prefer; you can read that post here

In my last post, I wrote about the second aspect of differentiation of self, which is the ability to express what you think, feel, believe, and prefer, even if you think the person you’re expressing it to won’t agree. The third (and final) aspect of differentiation of self is the reverse of that equation. It’s the ability to hold steady when someone expresses their feelings and beliefs to you, even if you have some uncomfortable feelings or don’t like what you’re hearing.

Before I dive into how you can develop this aspect of differentiation, I’d like to discuss a bit about why it’s so important. Think back to the second aspect of differentiation. Have you ever told a little lie to avoid starting a fight? Have you ever hastily changed what you were about to say after seeing a certain look in your partner’s eye? Have you ever decided to postpone a conversation when you just know it’s not going to be received well, and then somehow forgotten to get back to it? 

Now put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Do you want to be in the position where your partner isn’t telling you everything, or is avoiding bringing up important topics, because they’re worried about how you will respond? 

Developing the third aspect of differentiation of self is about creating an atmosphere of safety in your relationship. It’s about being a person who encourages others to identify and express their truth. 

Consider the kinds of reactions and responses that are likely to discourage honest disclosure. If you happen to have a conflict-avoidant partner or loved one, pretty much any dramatic response will do it. For some people, even a small gesture, like an eye roll or crossed arms, can result in them deciding not to talk about a difficult topic.

Having an emotional response to something your partner is saying is probably not going to change your partner’s opinion or behavior. It’s more likely that they’ll continue to think whatever they think, and even possibly dig in a little deeper–and they might decide to stop telling you about it. 

If you want to get the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, you need to show your partner that you can handle hearing it. 

Of course, aspiring to hold steady when your partner tells you something it is hard for you to hear is easy enough. But in the moment, when you’re blindsided by a hurtful revelation, and your mind is leaping ahead to all sorts of horrible conclusions, it’s a different matter. Fortunately, just like the other two aspects of differentiation of self, this gets easier with practice. Here are some tips to get you started:

    • Get clear on why you want to get good at holding steady. This may be the most important part. How will your life, level of happiness, and relationships improve when you are in control of your reactions? Get specific. Make a list. “When I am great at managing my automatic reactions, my life will be better because…”
    • Come up with a mantra, power word or image to remind you of why you want to do this. When your brain is in freak-out self-protective mode, and you would prefer not to go along for the ride, you will need some strong motivation to do something different, and it will need to be something you can grab onto with half your brain tied behind your back. What word or image would get your attention and remind you of your “why”? Cement it in your brain. Think of it often. Use it frequently, including in less extreme situations, over and over. Train your brain.
    • Recognize your reaction. Notice very early body signs that indicate you are starting to get activated. Do you feel nauseous? Tension in your neck or shoulders? Headache? Get familiar with your earliest possible warning signs, and take a small breather when you first experience them. Waiting will result in you needing a huge time out to hit “reset;” while that strategy is fine if you need it, it is not really the goal. The ultimate goal is to learn how to calm while the action unfolds so you can stay in the game. 
    • Calm your body. When you notice your emotions rising, and you are practicing managing your automatic reactions early, try breathing with a long exhale. Also try blinking slowly. Use your mantra or power word; call your image to mind. These are all strategies to tell your body and your brain that you are safe. Look around for evidence of safety. Put your feet on the floor. Breathe. Take a bathroom break and splash water on your face.
    • Take a connection break. Ask your partner for a little safety break; just hold hands and connect without talking, hug for two minutes, or maybe put on some music and do a little dance together. You could walk the dog together, or make a nice soup before you continue. Not exactly a time-out, but a break in which you work together to change the atmosphere to something relaxed and positive. Reassure yourself and one another that all is well; you’re just having some conversation and some feelings. You’ve got this. 
    • If you’re really having trouble, take a time-out. Sometimes despite trying all of the above, we just need a time out. Here are a few signs that indicate you could benefit from a substantial break:
      • You or your partner are getting mean
      • You or your partner are having trouble thinking
      • You feel confused and can’t figure out what’s going on
      • Your heart is racing, or your face is flushed
      • You are pointing your finger at your partner and saying “You….” at the start of your sentences, or your partner is doing that
      • You are thinking your signature negative thoughts that you have come to realize are probably actually catastrophizing
      • You feel like you might be digging yourself in a hole or making it worse

 

 

For more on how to use time-outs to work through conflict effectively, check out this post.

Helping Your Clients Find the Courage to Make a Vulnerable Disclosure

Have you seen this scenario play out in your therapy room? One partner gathers their courage and shares something vulnerable, or reveals a secret, or a private desire. And then their partner feels hurt and freaks right out with a big emotional response.

The hurt partner’s feelings are usually perfectly understandable. But, at the same time, it is also understandable that their partner has not been eager to share deeply. It’s hard to come clean or get vulnerable when you have reason to expect an intense, dramatic reaction in response.

I think a really beautiful differentiated stance for any relationship is “I really want you to be honest with me, and I promise not to punish you for anything that you tell me.” That’s a big ask for a lot of people. It’s a courageous promise to make, and a difficult one to keep. But that’s the kind of courage that a differentiated relationship ultimately requires.

“Not punishing” means not blowing up, not sulking, not seeking revenge, and not holding a grudge. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have and acknowledge your feelings. But discussing your feelings and responses is an art form, especially when you don’t want to discourage your partner from honestly talking to you about hard things.

Some conflict-avoidant partners need a lot of encouragement to open up, and part of effective encouragement is getting skilled at managing reactive emotions in the face of distressing disclosures. One strategy might be to make a pact to thank one another for sharing, try to access curiosity, and hold the reactions and/or responses for a later time.

Or you could try saying something like “I’m having a bunch of feelings here, and I want you to know. I don’t need you to change anything, and I’m really glad you told me that, I just need a little time to think and adjust.” Compare these responses to “How dare you say that to me?” or “Don’t ever bring that up to me again.” One opens the door for further conversation and increased depth and connection, and the other slams the door shut and makes further sharing much less likely.

Taking the leap to the differentiated stance of welcoming disclosures, no matter how challenging, requires you to answer to this question: Do you want to know your partner? Really know them? Or are you ok with only seeing the sanitized, people-pleasing facade most of us present when we aren’t ready to really get vulnerable?

The facade might make for fewer uncomfortable feelings–at least for awhile, until something comes up that must be discussed. Many people can have a whole relationship without uncomfortable disclosures. But when the rubber meets the road, those relationships often end. Long term, healthy relationships, full of evolution, growth, and change, require deep trust in one another’s ability to share, and also to hold steady and get curious when the other shares.

This is the kind of challenge that calls on both partners to be their best selves: brave, patient, and compassionate.Think of it as the “growing pains” of a relationship moving towards differentiation. If a couple can get through it, they will emerge with a stronger, more resilient connection than ever before.

The Power of Checking Your Assumptions With Your Partner

In many ways, human beings are narrative creatures. We make sense of our world by telling stories about it, by picking out patterns and weaving them into the overarching narratives of our lives. Stories help us understand who we are, and how we fit into the world. They help us create meaning, identity, and connection.

Sometimes, though, you may find yourself telling a story that hurts you. You may attach your identity to a narrative that diminishes your self-worth: “I’m always passed over, always second-best.” “When people see what I’m really like, they leave.” “I’m such a disappointment. I never do anything right.” These stories can start from a single bad experience or a series of painful interactions, or they can come to you in messages from your culture. But as you retell them over and over, they start to feel like they reflect an essential truth about who you are and how you relate to the world.

These stories are pernicious because they color your perceptions of how other people interact with you. For instance, if your narrative is “Everyone gets sick of me eventually,” how will you react when your partner says, “I would really like some alone time tonight”? Will you think, “That’s ok, everyone needs alone time now and then, and I’m sure she’ll want to see me soon,” or will you go down a dark tunnel: “She’s finally started to get bored with me and now she’s distancing herself. She’s probably preparing to dump me.”

Telling this story prevents you from hearing what your partner is really saying, which is much more likely to be about them than about you. This then creates unnecessary stress, pain, and conflict. You’re acting out a conflict with yourself through your partner–and your partner may not even know the role that you’ve cast them in. But how do you fight a narrative that feels so instinctively true?

The first step is recognizing what negative stories you tell yourself. When you’re feeling bad, what messages do you give yourself? Once you identify the harmful narratives, it will be possible to notice when one of them starts running through your head.

Being more aware of the stories you tell yourself will give you the opportunity to pause and check your assumption with your partner, before you start to spin out. “Sweetheart, sometimes I worry that (fill in the blank.)” “Sometimes when I’m down, I start to think that (fill in the blank).” By doing this, you’ll give your partner the opportunity to let you know what they’re actually thinking in those moments–and it’s likely to be much, much less scary than you think. It requires a leap of faith to share your scary, vulnerable, revealing fears, but it’s worth it.