Principle 3 of Family Systems: Differentiation

When I am criticized, am I devastated? Do I have difficulty taking a position — stating where I stand — and, if necessary, being in the minority rather than sacrificing my convictions? If the answer is “Yes” to one or both questions, growing in differentiation can improve my leadership. Jesus was the Master of knowing who He was, what He believed, and doing what He needed to do, regardless of consequences.

Edwin Friedman describes this leadership strength as

the capacity of a family member to define his or her own life’s goals and values apart from surrounding togetherness pressures, to say “I” when others are demanding “you” and “we.” It includes the capacity to maintain a (relatively) nonanxious presence in the midst of anxious systems, to take maximum responsibility for one’s own destiny and emotional being. It can be measured somewhat by the breadth of one’s repertoire of responses when confronted with crisis. The concept should not be confused with autonomy or narcissism, however. Differentiation means the capacity to be an “I” while remaining connected (Generation to Generation, page 27, © 1985 The Guilford Press).

Peter Steinke quoted Murray Bowen, the father of family system thinking, in his book, How Your Church Family Works: “A ‘differentiated self’ is one who can maintain emotional objectivity, while in the midst of an emotional system in turmoil, yet at the same time actively relate to key people in the system” (page 69, Copyright © 1993 The Alban Institute, Inc.).

This attribute will help me deal with criticism. If I’m in despair when someone points out what he believes is a weakness in me, I’m stuck with his evaluation. There are possibilities when I receive criticism: the criticism is true, partially true, or untrue. If the assessment is valid and I can correct the deficiency, I’ve learned of an opportunity for growth. If I can’t correct the deficiency, I have the challenge to learn contentment with something I can’t change. If the accusation isn’t true, I don’t want to give the misinformed person power over me.[tweetthis]If I’m in despair when someone points out what he believes is a weakness in me, I’m stuck with his evaluation.[/tweetthis]

Peter Steinke presented a helpful way to look at criticism:

By far the most difficult form of pursuit behavior to recognize is criticism. How can those who act adversarially be said to be in pursuit? We feel alienated, not close. But criticism is characterized by overfocus. The “stinger” and the “stung” are emotionally connected. Whenever a gnawing critic gets inside our brain cells and we can’t expunge him, we are connected, even if negatively. Whenever someone gets under our skin, we are infected with anxiety. If we are reactive to a pursuer, the pursuit behavior achieves its goal: connection. Strange as it sounds, the critic wants to be close. After all, if we can’t be close through play, ecstasy, touch, and nurture, our only option to accomplish closeness is through angry outbursts, specious charges, or harsh accusations. People feel close to us when they know we are thinking about them. What we think is not as important as that we are thinking about them. We play into the hands of criticizers when we react to their invasion rather than define ourselves to it (How Your Church Family Works, pages 88, 89).

If that’s true, a critic values me. When I am differentiated, often I can establish, reestablish, or strengthen a relationship with the critic and be his friend and servant.

My hero and model of this quality of differentiation is Joshua. Listen to his farewell speech to Israel:

Now therefore, fear the Lord, serve Him in sincerity and in truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord! And if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord (Joshua 24:14, 15).

  1. He told them what was right.
  2. He recognized he could not and should not control them. They were responsible for their choices. He acknowledged that and enumerated alternatives they may not have considered.
  3. He defined himself. Although they had many choices, he wasn’t taking a vote on how he should act. He told where he stood.

When a leader is growing in this quality, he feels no need to take sides in a conflict. He can understand what people are saying on different sides of the issue. He’s aware of strengths and weaknesses of people involved. He talks when it’s helpful and refrains from comments when what he might say wouldn’t help solve the problem.

How do you strengthen your backbone when folding would be easier?
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Jerrie Barber
Disciple of Jesus, husband, grandfather, preacher, barefoot runner, ventriloquist

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