differentiation

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Birds learn to fly after they step away from the nest; otherwise, they will die.  Most of us intuitively know a similar growing-up progression is required for human beings, but a lot can get in the way of raising a child to become an adult, and conversely, being an adult.A significant portion of my caseload as a counselor is working with parents, teens, and adults in addressing the problem of individuation in relationship.  It’s a big deal!  Commonly, parents come in very disturbed at the choices of their teen.  Teens present frustration that they can’t be themselves.  Adults struggle with how to be in relationship without being a doormat, being too demanding, or somewhere in-between. 

Let’s do a quick survey of what’s supposed to happen.  Children start out with 100% dependency upon their mother.  Ideally, a child needs to move to 100% self-responsibility.  Of course, this excludes circumstances of intensive disability and so forth.  Somewhere between that delicate balance of connection and individuality is where we spend much time struggling in our relationships.  It takes work and intentionality to make individuation happen- on both sides (parents and children).  In fact, if you don’t have a good paradigm for it, there will be problems. 

In counseling, an important term is differentiation.  Developmentally, it is one of the hardest tasks for parents and children alike- transitioning a dependent human being to independence.  Differentiation means being connected in relationship and also maintaining a unique self and identity.  The opposite extremes are enmeshment and disengagementEnmeshment doesn’t allow or respect separation- you must do, say, and think what the other person does, or you are wrong. Disengagement draws such separate lines that intimacy can’t happen- closeness with someone who is distant is impossible.  Differentiation, on the other hand, allows for closeness and understands what uniquely belongs to the individual (thoughts, feelings, etc.).  A differentiated individual feels the pain and joy of another person making their own decisions relative to their development, all the while accepting responsibility for self.

Example: a child’s future goals.  Parents that believe their child’s best is college and then a stable, conventional job in accounting don’t have bad goals.  They may even know that this would be a great fit for their child.  But if their child-blooming-into-an-adult doesn’t want this, and maybe adamantly opposes it, navigating these waters is arduous for both sides. 

Every situation is unique, and different factors require varying levels of application, which is why counseling can be such a help.  However, a necessary start is to identify what is healthy.  You can ask yourself, “Where do my responsibilities begin/end, and how about for the other person?”  One of the hardest rules to live by is: You cannot change other people.  This is just as true for me as for anyone.  I can only provide feedback, resources, tools, support, and boundaries.  What the other person does is up to them.  If we try to force or coddle, we allow and create emotional injuries.

What we can always do is be responsible for ourselves, learn how to be in relationships, find effective ways to interact and influence others, and grow up.  I’m still working on that one….



Yours truly,
Justin K. Hughes

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The Psychology of Family Holidays

As the U.S. heads into the heaviest holiday season of the year, an interesting blend of emotions often come up.  Even for those who find great joy in time with family, it can also be a stressful time.  Join me on a little journey of psychology through some of these dynamics.

Expectations.  We all have them, and most are unspoken.  This is one of those big surprise areas for couples when they first get married.  Do you: Like to relax by being at home or going out?  Sit down at the table for all meals or sit in front of the TV?  Spend your time talking or doing activities?  Spend money or save it?  Navigating differences takes patience and effort with one couple alone.  Now consider the impact of bringing family together with as many routines, styles, and personalities as a house can hold.

Boundaries.  Can you draw clear, respectful boundaries?  In families, boundaries often get mixed up.  Boundaries are really no more than understanding what’s mine, what’s yours, and what’s ours.  Being around the same people day in and day out, it is easy to expect that situations will just work themselves out- and rest on the comfort of familiarity.  However, being healthy in relationship requires speaking the truth and showing grace.  Do you tell others your needs and wants, or do you guilt them into doing what you want?  Do you really listen to understand?  Do you fear ‘rocking the boat’ and don’t speak up?  The error arises in being overly passive or overly aggressive (passive-aggressive is just a form of aggression).  These extremes involve not taking enough responsibility OR taking too much responsibility to change that which is not in our care.  This is a basic definition of drama, and what ends up happening is hurt feelings, resentment, and helplessness.  This can be countered by love- speaking up when necessary and being quiet equally as well.  Love is not guilt and obligation, though you won’t always enjoy loving, because its highest form involves sacrifice and patience.

Family rules and roles.  Ever feel a sense of freeness and independence away from all of your family only to revert to a frustrating old pattern when you are with loved ones?  Such as how the youngest sibling “performer” gets all the attention?  How your normal patience goes down the toilet when you hear incessant complaining about your life choices?  The realization that you sound like your dad though you always swore you would be different?   Family dynamics are deeply rooted.  See the next point to understand why.  It is easy to slide back into the old patterns.  Don’t put unrealistic pressure on yourself or others to change deeply rooted dynamics quickly.  Also, points of growth must be happening at other times during the year- consistently.

Old habits and brain pathways.  Think of it.  When dressing, which leg goes first into your pants?  What side of the face (or which leg) do you shave first?  Habits and routines are ingrained into our brain chemistry.  They can change, because the brain is “plastic,” but it takes work and time.  Now bring together good and bad habits with people you may or may not enjoy spending time with, and there are bound to be some sparks of tension.

Differentiation.  Healthy family functioning requires interdependence.  This is being mutually dependent on each other for the good of everyone involved.  Additionally, healthy families will encourage what’s known as differentiation- being connected, yet being a unique, independent human being.  Raising a child means transitioning this little marvel from total dependence to total independence- in a few short years.  Being over-connected (enmeshed) or disconnected (diffuse) will create problems real fast.

Truly, time with family needs patience.  And it often takes work.  It can be wonderful, too.  You may want to have a plan going into the holidays to make it successful.  Don’t forget to remember what you are grateful for and the incredible blessings you have.  It’s easy to lose vision when it seems like your family is driving you crazy.  This is where I reflect on a great example of love: Jesus had a bunch of guys that abandoned him- every one- when support was most needed.  But he loved.  I need this love.  It’s a love that speaks truth.  It’s a love that shows kindness.  It’s a love that has courage.  And I pray I can show it well during the holidays.
Yours truly,
~Justin

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