This article is the third of a five-part series Become a Great Senior Living Leader by the TALA Workforce Development Committee. Stay tuned each week for the next in the series.  

Differentiation of self is a psychological state in which someone can maintain their sense of self, identity, thoughts, and emotions when emotionally or physically close with others, particularly within intense relationships.

What Is Differentiation of Self? 

Differentiation of self means separating personal feelings and thoughts from those of co-workers, friends, or other networks. Doing so may sound simple, but this ability is not innate and rarely employed.

For example, emotions like anger, lust, sadness, and jealousy can override thoughts and actions. The higher the level of differentiation, the higher the ability to acknowledge these feelings without becoming misguided by them. The differentiated individual can process and address these feelings while maintaining decision-making or problem-solving skills.

You will not find codependency in a highly differentiated relationship. Instead, you will find a relationship built on interdependence. A differentiated partnership consists of two solid individuals with their thoughts, opinions, feelings, and beliefs and a mutual appreciation for those of their co-worker.

Differentiation of Self in Relationships

Our level of differentiation is highly dependent on our family of origin. We are all born reliant on a caregiver and their emotional cues, nourishment, and state of mind as our sole means of sustainment. Therefore, we find ourselves in a state of “fusion” when entangling our emotions and reactions with others.

Conversely, “cut-off” is the opposite of fusion and the propensity to disengage. Sometimes, this disengagement is obvious, like quitting a job without notice or working in a work environment of constant chaos.

Differentiation is about maintaining individuality within the workplace. Highly differentiated individuals learn these skills independently. Unless people are lucky enough to be raised by caregivers with high levels of differentiation, patterns developed in childhood continue and transmit to the next generation. Instead, differentiation grows through conscious effort.

How to Measure Your Level of Differentiation 

You can often determine your level of differentiation by exploring your behaviors. Differentiated individuals view themselves separately from their co-workers, taking responsibility for their own actions, feelings, and beliefs.

Below are questions to ask yourself to determine your level of differentiation:

  • Do you always see your co-workers as the problem?
  • Do you mostly work on letting go of problems rather than solving them?
  • Do you let feelings fester until they explode?
  • Do you feel pulled to match your co-worker’s emotional state, such as when they’re in anger, crisis, or sadness?
  • Do you conceal how you really feel about things?
  • Do you console yourself through substances or other unhelpful methods?
  • Do you say what you know others want to hear?
  • Do you talk to your friends about your work problems instead of your co-workers?
  • Do you lose yourself in your job?
  • Do you continue in a career that you no longer want?
  • Do you agree to things you have no interest in doing?
  • Do you demand, directly or indirectly, compliments and praise?
  • Do you seek to control others instead of controlling yourself?
  • Do you concern yourself with the needs of others but disregard your own?

Differentiated individuals tend to answer “no” to these questions. While these questions are not diagnostic of you specifically, they do tend to be diagnostic of undifferentiated behaviors, which may help give you a sense of where on the spectrum you may hover.

Common Characteristics of Differentiated Individual 

Here are some typical characteristics of differentiated individuals:

1. Solid Sense of Self

Differentiated individuals can maintain their beliefs and attitudes in the face of pressure to conform. They do not tailor themselves to avoid conflict. They are usually fairly good at managing these situations and prefer others to see them accurately.

2. Seeking Understanding Rather Than Agreement

Differentiated individuals do not typically keep the peace for the sake of peace. These people resolve problems rather than let them fester. They expect their partners to behave similarly, even if they do not see things eye-to-eye.

3. Ability to Self-Validate

A hallmark of differentiation is self-validation. Most often, we seek validation from others based on how we look, live our lives, or think. Someone dependent on external validation may tailor and tweak themselves to the person or the situation. This behavior inevitably leaves them feeling empty.

While validation feels nice, differentiated individuals do not depend on others for their worth. They only want validation based on their true selves. However, they know people will not always agree or approve—and they feel just fine with that.

4. Ability to Self-Soothe

Differentiated individuals do not self-soothe with substances, reliance on their partners, or unhealthy coping mechanisms. They do not expect others to help with everyday anxieties around difficult conversations, authenticity, or conflict. They possess an ability to manage and tolerate difficult feelings.

5. Tolerating Short-Term Pain for Long-Term Growth

Differentiated individuals are willing to take on short-term discomfort for personal or relationship growth. People without this willingness often feel stagnant as they invest in maintaining the status quo rather than tackling short-term anxiety, pain, or discomfort. Differentiation of self moves you forward.

Why Is Differentiation of Self Important? 

Someone consciously working on their level of differentiation quickly experiences increased confidence, congruence within themselves, self-pride, assertiveness, and many more positive elements of personal growth. These feelings become self-perpetuating.

For example, the self-satisfaction after one makes positive changes can be incredibly rewarding. The outcome becomes less important when the individual feels pride in handling a difficult situation.

Differentiation has no end point, and people rarely return to their previous behaviors after learning the benefits of honoring self-worth.

How to Improve Your Level of Differentiation

Improving differentiation of self starts by accepting yourself and honestly portraying your personality to others. Avoid relying on external validation for internal self-worth. Focus on reaching your own goals and honoring your values.

Here are ways to help you monitor and boost your self-differentiation:

Increase Your Willingness to Self-Confront

A better understanding of yourself and your values is often the first step toward change. Who do you want to be? What kind of worker do you want to be? Are you meeting your own standards? How do you want to live your life? Focus on building a life that makes sense based on your thoughts, needs, and wants.

Don’t Change Based on Who You’re With

Always show your true self, especially with people who matter to you. Doing so can be very difficult for individuals who struggle with conflict, codependence, agreement, or validation. Ask yourself if you would prefer others to approve of a fake façade or your real identity.

Think Long-Term

Be willing to tolerate short-term pain for long-term growth. People can sit in the status quo of unhappiness for years or decades. Many find themselves languishing in therapy for ages because they rely on therapy to tolerate the crisis of the week instead of tackling the problem. Increasing your level of differentiation is not easy or everyone would do so naturally.

Final Thoughts

You are never “done” with increasing your differentiation of self. Differentiation is like a spectrum, with life presenting constant opportunities and challenges that tempt us toward undifferentiated thoughts and behaviors. The fact these opportunities exist means there is ample opportunity to begin differentiation work. Whether in a work relationship or with our parents, differentiation is everywhere.

References & Resources


Written by: TALA Workforce Development Committee Member Brad Buschow, Executive Director, Morada Senior Living.

This article is the third of a five-part series Become a Great Senior Living Leader by the TALA Workforce Development Committee. Stay tuned each week for the next in the series.