Developing a Solid Self to Be with Others

We inherit a foundational Sense of Self (self-differentiation score) from our families that solidifies in adolescent years. How we show up as adults in organizational systems and relationships is often based on this self-differentiation score that we left home with.  The exception is when a person has invested significantly in practicing differentiation. 

Bowen’s theory on self-differentiation depends on two main factors:

  1. The degree to which an individual can separate emotional reactivity from intellectual reasoning and self-reflection 
  2. The degree to which a person can differentiate themselves in relationships (neither fusing with nor cutting off/distancing). 

Bowen used a spectrum from 0-100 to describe the range of self-differentiation. The categories below are high-level illustrations that I created from his work and the writing of Randall Frost.

People with High Self-Differentiation with a score of 70-90 have a Solid Self (90-100 is thought of as a hypothetical) 

By solid self – they are operating from their own beliefs and authentic way of being in the world. They are able to differentiate their thoughts from their feelings clearly; as well as discern between their own beliefs (that took time and intentional effort to develop) from that of others. They can also clearly see limiting beliefs are often not facts rather internalized feelings from childhood. They can regulate their emotions and are less influenced by the emotional pressure of others and the system they are in. They can be highly independent and assert their needs, feelings and thoughts in a non-reactive manner while being with others – allowing for interdependence. They engage in relationships with clear and respectful boundaries; allowing space to be fully themselves and others the same. As adolescents they were accepted and allowed to develop their own identity while consulting with others as needed. Overall, as adults they have a quiet confidence and a steady ability to navigate the world while staying true to themselves. 

People with Mid Self-Differentiation with a score of 40-70 have a Pseudo Self (and some Solid Self)

The Pseudo Self is often the “Borrowed” Self. The person is borrowing beliefs, values and a way of being in the world from others. As adults they are often complying with important others. They show some capacity for independence and still struggle with boundaries in relationships to retain their own Self. To deal with the anxiety from this, they will merge with what others want or distance. While they are capable of making independent decisions they are still looking for validation from others. They will experience some emotional reactivity alongside separating some thoughts. They can be resilient in the face of an emotional crisis and set some independent goals. As adolescents they were required to comply with important others (or fight against important others), seeking the approval of others while engaging in some independent thinking. Note: compliance and fighting…like fusion and cut-off actually maintain the same equilibrium. 

People with Low Self-Differentiation with a score of 0-40 have a Non Self (and Some Pseudo Self)

The person in this range is struggling to separate thoughts from feelings and lives in a world based on “magical thinking” and emotional reasoning. They struggle with internal and external boundaries as well as making independent decisions. There is high emotional reactivity and they are often fusing/enmeshing or completely cutting off to resolve tension, conflict or anxiety. Their identity is highly dependent on the validation and approval from others. Unfortunately, this rollercoaster leads to emotional, mental and physical health problems. With low differentiation and an absence of self, they are more likely to be influenced by emotional manipulators, cults and stay in toxic/abusive relationships. They can borrow a sense of self from others to have some direction. As adolescents they were fused with their families, taking care of others or in highly controlling (toxic) environments with little space to develop a self. As adults, there is often a strong underlying sense of obligation as well as struggles with addiction, anxiety, depression, and being fused in unhealthy relationships. 

Bowen held his theory as fluid and a person could operate across a range. 

Therapy, coaching or another human development method with qualified professionals offers scaffolding to further conscious differentiation. 

Reflection: Think of a situation that feels like a giant hairball for you. What are the facts? What are your feelings? What is the usual reactive stance? What is an integrative stance? 

Kind regards,


P.S. Lots of love ❤️