Does Everybody Need To Differentiate?

Oct 09, 2019

Recently, I wrote a three-part series on differentiation of self. If you missed it, you can find it here: part onepart twopart three

After I wrapped up the series, I realized I still had more to say. In fact, I want to address an aspect of differentiation of self that is not often discussed: cultural considerations. 

Differentiation of self is very important to my work, and it is the lens through which I tend to approach relationships. Most of my clients get very excited when I talk about the three aspects of differentiation, and are very interested in building that skillset. They may not know how to get there, but they can see how their life and relationship would improve if they increased those skills. They’re on board. 

But what if you have a client who doesn’t actually want to differentiate, doesn’t believe in differentiation, or is very conflicted about it? Not everyone aspires to be seen and accepted as a unique individual. Some people, and some cultures, believe in upholding the family connection or carrying forward cultural norms, and hold those things as higher goals than individuality and unique expression. They may or may not want to shift to cultural values that include individuation. 

Additionally, there are some people who have discovered an aspect of their personal expression or identity that is in direct conflict with family or cultural belief systems. In that case, they will have to make some very hard choices. If they choose to differentiate, there will probably be significant losses associated with that choice. They may stand to lose family, friends, or an entire cultural identity. If they choose to stick with their cultural or family values and beliefs, they will have to let go of some dreams and desires, and possibly even some important parts of themselves. 

Rebellion is not for everyone, nor is it a higher form of being. Shifting cultures is a big deal. It’s not something we should assume is preferable, or push our clients towards. The world is a diverse place and there is a lot of room for differences between us. I don’t want to work at cross-purposes with my client’s values or belief systems, or set them up for family or cultural consequences that they don’t see coming and freely choose. Being differentiated ourselves, as therapists, requires us to recognize that our clients may make different choices than we would. 

I have often had clients who are wrestling with an internal dilemma: differentiate from family belief systems, or don’t. When this happens with an individual client, the first order of business is to resolve that impasse. When it happens with one partner in a relational therapy, the first order of business is to help each partner express their thoughts, feelings, and point of view so they can understand one another better, and ultimately come to a decision as a team. 

There is no one-size-fits-all rule book for life. Honoring diversity means upholding the right to differ. Supporting differentiation means deeply listening to and grasping the thoughts and feelings behind any point of view, not just the ones that are comfortable to hear. Our work in therapy is not to push our clients towards any one resolution, but to allow them to voice all sides of their impasse fully, so that they can make their decisions on their own terms. If, at the end of that process, they decide that they value their closeness with their family or their connection to their culture over expressing their individuality, that is a valid choice, and a good outcome for the therapy.

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