Psychological Differentiation


For life is

at the start

a chaos in which one is lost.

– José Ortega Y Gasset

f I were a fourth grade teacher, I would start every school year with a unit on psychological differentiation. I would send home a primer and a worksheet for the parents. I would find songs that embody the concept to play for the students. I would bring inspiring speakers on the subject into the classroom. I would use every teaching tool I had available and I would refuse to move off the topic until I was sure every single blessed child understood the concept. There would be no tests because this construct is a quale – a private and ineffable sense of what is – like the intensity of a migraine or the taste of a ripe peach. But, once adequately instructed, every child would absolutely be able to tell me whether or not he or she was capable of differentiation.

I would do all this because you can certainly recognize the absence of differentiation, and when it’s not there it’s not good.

Psychological differentiation is the ability to maintain your integrity throughout an interpersonal encounter by resisting subjugation to either the personality of the other person or the intensity of your own feelings. This internalized psychological process allows an individual to determine the ratio of influence between the outside world and the intentional self. It doesn’t say about others, “You don’t matter.” It says, “You matter to me, but not more than I matter to me.” Nor does it preclude having an emotional reaction to a situation, but it stipulates doggedly that the primary use of emotions is to reveal important data that need to be respectfully and cognitively considered. When we differentiate, we establish ourselves as separate, secure, stable and self-defined. Truly, all those words just happened to start with an “s”.

Why is differentiation a skill that would cause me to dedicate a considerable portion of the initial fourth grade curriculum to the teaching of it?

Growth in connection

If we can agree that relationships are crucial to sound mental health, then it makes sense to foster our ability to relate to one another without losing our sense of self – even when, especially when, things get intense. This requires us to engage another person in a complete and earnest manner, have a normal but perhaps strong emotional response to that engagement, and still maintain our balance with a well-developed self. For example, two people are discussing whether or not war is ever an appropriate solution to cultural disagreement. With two people capable of differentiation, the discussion would proceed with passion, and both people would be activated by the encounter which would probably be noticeable in their vocabulary, posture and volume. Yet both would maintain their sense of who they want to be as people (e.g. polite, curious, reasonable). They would also maintain their commitment to preserving the relationship with each other no matter the gap between their opinions. If this discussion occurred between two undifferentiated people, the first step would look the same, but their emotional responses would likely escalate as they lost their sense of themselves in the process of discussing the issue. After the discussion was over, they would have to acknowledge on some level that they had acted in ways that ran counter to who they want to be (yelling, cursing, interrupting, disdaining, lying, self-isolating, giving up, crying, etc.). They would also likely have to expend some thought to how much damage was done to the relationship during the encounter.

If we want to be fully human, we must learn to live well within community, which means differentiation is a crucial human skill. This truth leads us to our next questions: Why do we have to learn how to differentiate? Why doesn’t it just come naturally?


All existential writers agree that life is both absurd and chaotic. We are each trying to create a unique and powerful existence for ourselves in real time while simultaneously sharing our bit of life canvas with countless others each striving to do the same. As if that weren’t unpredictable and random enough, Fate seems to have permission to arbitrarily interrupt our attempts to establish order with ill-timed and discourteous FUBAR episodes.

And all feminist writers agree that humans flourish in connection. We cannot choose to step off the relational merry-go-round because, without others who matter to us, we cannot sustain our self-care. Humans were simply not designed to be hermits. That means our struggle to create ourselves occurs while we are trying to bond with caring people and to protect ourselves from mean people.

And we are doing all this without an instructional manual. And at a time in history that has never before existed. While everyone else is madly trying to do the same.

You see? Chaos.


Intimate Marriage

- David Schnarch


And here’s the kicker: when groups of humans are faced with chaos, they wisely try to create a sense of safety. This is typically done with indoctrinated belief systems that assure the constituency that, rather than chaos, they are facing a manageable reality. Rules are put in place and conformity is rewarded. This wouldn’t be problematic except that this strategy takes all training around existential intelligence out of the picture. As a result, skills like differentiation are not only not taught, they are often sabotaged by the powerful few, generally male, people in charge of establishing Reality.

What existential, feminist theorists want you to understand is that this tacit undermining of existential intelligence need not happen. They utterly believe that within well-established cultures – even those that urge tight adherence to rules – there is still plenty of room to provide training in how to be a full-bodied participant in that culture by being a fully differentiated human.


In order to bring some personal control to the pandemonium of human existence, we need to be able to sustain our project of becoming who we want to be despite encountering scores of people who will have their own agenda for us. If we understand that our lives are the most chaotic at the boundary between these persuasive others and ourselves, we can focus on standing on solid existential ground when we find ourselves in interpersonal interactions. The word for that impressive comportment is, of course, differentiation.

Differentiation gives us some degree of power over the chaos by allowing us to both titrate the influence of others and also to stabilize the emotional turmoil we experience as we go about inventing ourselves. Let me say more about these two fundamental skills.

Manage the influence of others: As calmly as an air traffic controller at O’Hare, we must learn to control the flow of influence and information at that interpersonal boundary no matter how great the bedlam.

If too much influence is coming in from the outside, we will be excessively vulnerable to input from others and thus less capable of uniqueing. In terms of our existential selves and our gendered selves, we cannot look to others to design our life for us. This personal responsibility for self-definition cannot be overstated and is based on the following two truths: First, you are the only one who has always been there collecting the data on yourself, data that are critical to making a thorough assessment of each situation, leading to informed choices. And second, you and only you are at the center of your world and care deeply enough and consistently enough about that world of yours to take it seriously enough to give it the passion it deserves. Put another way – no one knows you like you know you. And – you don’t matter to anyone else nearly as much as you matter to yourself. While these may seem like twin truths of abject loneliness, if you can trust yourself to believe in them, they will serve you well. They will support you like all existential truths do by providing you with such a solid, reality-based foundation of knowing that you will be much less likely to be misled by cultural propaganda or weak familial customs and practices.

If too little influence is coming in from the outside, however, we are at risk of making unnecessary errors, misbehaving in dangerous ways, wasting time reinventing the wheel or jumping to ill-informed conclusions. Additionally, if we allow in too little guidance from our outside world, we increase our chances of becoming both alienated and misunderstood. Most of us realize that there are smart people out there from whom we can learn valuable lessons and we are appreciatively sponge-like in their presence.

Prevent emotional overload: Effective people also strive to bring some degree of order to the emotional reactions they have to the day-to-day events of their lives.

When emotions run too high, the reasoning centers of our brain get swamped leaving us less capable of thinking clearly, directing the flow of information/influence and sorting through data. But when emotions are too low, it can be difficult to care enough to gather the necessary data to drive informed decisions or to let the outside world matter enough to stiffen our resolve to be good citizens. We want to situate ourselves in the Goldilocks zone where the emotional valence allows for just the right levels of motivation, openness and self-loyalty.

Psychological differentiation allows us to stay calm, alert and coherent in the chaotic zone of interpersonal relationships. When we can do this we are better able to tolerate criticism, incorporate valuable input, reject misfitting suggestions, dismiss mean people and come to our own conclusions about what’s next in the ongoing project that is us. And differentiation helps us accomplish all this in a composed, yet heartfelt, manner.

Differentiation of the self

I’ll bet you’ve been wondering why I chose fourth grade. It's partly because at age 9-10, kids are beginning to understand that it takes skill to build relationships. It is no longer sufficient to know how to navigate the playground, you also have to be able to navigate complex interpersonal dilemmas. It’s partly because kids are designed to take things personally because their actual survival depends on it. They have to assume that the world is speaking directly to them and that the stakes are very, very high. It’s not enough to simply say to kids: “Don’t take it so personally.” You have to teach them the skills that allow them to do that. But, probably more importantly, I would choose this age because there are important human characteristics that buttress differentiation and these tend to be at fairly high levels in both boys and girls at the pre-cootie, fourth grade level. These characteristics are:

Earnestness: being willing to deeply and sincerely engage with your world;

Healthy narcissism: having the self-interest necessary to protect that part of the playing field that belongs to you;

Empathy: understanding to a large extent how your peers are experiencing common circumstances;

Self-esteem: having confidence in yourself because you can honestly say positive things about yourself and others;

Courage: understanding that you may be afraid, but not letting that stop you from trying something new.

(If you've read much on this website, you'll realize that this list of components of youthful verve overlaps significantly with the five characteristics that have been found to underlie resilience.)

When we tap into the verve that these characteristics give healthy nine year olds, our job of teaching differentiation is half done. If you are seeking to add differentiation to your cache of psychological tools as an adult and you are weak in one or more of these characteristics, you will need to put a little self-construction work in on them in addition to learning the more complicated skills described below.

Built atop these beguiling five characteristics are the two psychological abilities that allow us to manage the flow of information/influence and to use our emotions to inform rather than flood our thinking. These two abilities are: creating healthy defenses and maximizing emotional intelligence.

Creating healthy defenses rarely occurs outside of therapy for the simple reason that most people believe that being defensive is unhealthy psychologically. This is a tragic misperception. Humans very badly need effective defenses for the simple reason that life is psychologically dangerous. As covered in the article on the topic, we need to be able to protect ourselves by determining how much attention we grant to anyone or anything. Please read the article on healthy defenses now if you have not already done so.

Emotional intelligence arrived in the field of psychology in the late 1980s, introduced by psychologists Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer and popularized by Daniel Goleman. It is the ability to deal deftly with feelings – more explicitly the ability to effectively harness the power available in the affective realm. When we have emotional intelligence we have the ability to integrate how we are feeling and how others are feeling into our thinking, which increases our interpersonal effectiveness significantly. Emotional intelligence is heightened by developing the following capabilities:

1. Emotional attunement: perceiving and identifying, both accurately and quickly, emotions in yourself and in others;

2. Compassion: understanding and respecting the origins and causes of the identified emotions;

3. Self-soothing: using thoughts and behaviors to manage, stabilize and handle your personal emotions;

4. Congruence: using the information available in emotions to wisely and consistently direct your individual thoughts and behaviors;

5. Empathy: having the above-listed skills and communicating them to yourself and others.

There is now an entire psychological franchise built around the concept of emotional intelligence with many books and workshops available for further study. A good place to start would be the official website for emotional intelligence organized by Dr. John Mayer:

You can see that there is quite a collection of skills underlying differentiation. We must cultivate earnestness, maintain a robust self, and be able to self-soothe so that our emotional reactions are manageable. We must also foster our future memory to remind us that when we lose ourselves when we encounter someone else it feels lousy later. Finally, the ability to hold on to our self during an encounter is improved when we have learned to tolerate loneliness. The ability to tolerate loneliness is created if we acknowledge that, because we’re completely encapsulated in this mind and in this body, we are forced to have the primary relationship in our life with ourselves. And this is tolerable. It’s tolerable for two reasons – because we like ourselves enough to spend quality time alone and we trust our earnestness enough to know we’ll continue to seek out others, creating many opportunities for rich intimacies. When we accept the need to relate primarily to ourselves, that independence means the stakes go down with respect to an encounter. If it doesn’t go well, we will still be okay. We can both take care of ourselves and also continue to reach out to others for experiences of intimacy.

A fictional example

As I said at the beginning of the article, when differentiation is not there it’s not good. Specifically, here’s how it’s not good:

If we are undifferentiated, we have a hard time holding on to ourselves when we encounter another person. The movie What About Bob presents a fictional example of an unraveled, undifferentiated person. In the beginning of the movie, Bob (Bill Murray), the patient of the psychiatrist played by Richard Dreyfuss, is comically and completely confused. He is way too willing to let the “doctor” direct his life and he is unable to handle the intensity of his emotions. Ensuing hijinks aside, the journey he takes is powerful as he works his way through many difficulties which allow him to learn the two skills he needs: to trust his own ability to make wise decisions and to self-soothe his way to emotional equilibrium. Like Bill Murray’s character, many undifferentiated people do have their charming side. But too often they are carriers of chaos who tend make others want to distance themselves from the clingy, hysterical energy that the Bob-like folks put out. It is unnerving to healthy people to be asked to direct the life of someone else. It’s rather like being expected to drive someone else’s car from the backseat. And few of us want to be around people who are over-the-top reactionary, who take things too personally and who feel the need to continually broadcast their unedited emotions.

When a person has mastered the skill of differentiation, on the other hand, she or he will present an alluring image of someone who is autonomous yet connected, emotionally exuberant yet even tempered. Eleanor Roosevelt springs to mind as a first-rate example of a well-differentiated person. No matter how contentious the encounter, Ms. Roosevelt appeared to maintain her balance while staying passionately involved in world affairs. We should all be as potent as was this woman.


Our families and our social world have a tremendous effect on how we proceed with our lives. This is a good thing, for it keeps us more-or-less safely connected to a caring community and saves us from having to invent a meme from scratch for every human endeavor.

Our emotions also have a tremendous effect on how we proceed with our lives. Emotions can rattle us – disconnect us from our ability to think. If we do not skillfully monitor, decode, and soothe our emotions, our forward progress in life will proceed like we’re running in a race with our shoelaces tied together – with us unable to hit our stride or trust our footing. But differentiation does not mean unemotional! It represents the ability to richly engage your world as you monitor the tendency within to either distance too greatly from others or to merge too completely with people you revere.

It is up to each of us to decide the balance between accepting the pressure to conform and stepping out to self-construct, as well as how emotionally involved we want to be with each aspect of life. Psychological differentiation can support you in that endeavor. So channel your inner fourth grader and practice the elements of this potent way of behaving.

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.