A Family Systems Pizza: Self-Differentiation and Extra Cheese

Family having a meal togetherThe key to tasty pizza is for each part—the crust, the sauce, the cheese, and the toppings—to be unique and distinct, but to blend into a well-balanced and delicious whole. Live life as though you and your family were a delicious pizza. This is the goal of family systems theory, though it’s probably not quite how founder Murray Bowen would phrase it.

Bowen was likely too academic to associate his work with a pizza, but it really helps explain his concept of good relationships. He used the term self-differentiation and taught that families and other groups function best when we are connected and in good relationships with other people. But at the same time, we are able to form our own opinions, feel emotions that are different from those around us, and choose our own responses to situations rather than simply following expectations.

Simply put, this means that if you are the crust on the metaphoric pizza of your family, your role is to be a sturdy foundation for the rest of the pizza. Regardless of the specific ingredients, you hold the rest of the pie together. If you are spread unevenly or have a big hole in the center, this will make it hard for the sauce and cheese to stay on top and not stick to the pan.

Here’s a real-life example of a family or workplace picnic that gives a variety of possible responses to one tricky situation. Each response results in a different balance between holding onto your own integrity and responding to the needs and expectations of others. Each possible response corresponds to a “relationship pizza quality score” rated from zero to five, with zero showing no self-differentiation and five indicating a high level of self-differentiation.

This scene takes place at either a picnic with extended family, a workplace outing, or a gathering of friends.

You arrive at the gathering and greet everyone. One particular family member or friend leads you toward the food table and piles a rich and savory dish onto a plate. They hand the plate to you and says, “You are going to love this!”

You look at the food and realize that you can’t eat it because you are on a new diet and this is not the kind of food you can eat right now.

Response One

You reluctantly take the plate and eat it without saying anything. You feel guilty and bad about yourself, but you don’t want to offend the other person.

Pizza Quality Score: 0

If you were the crust on this metaphoric pizza, you have holes in your dough. This represents a poorly differentiated response because you are letting go of your values and your needs and focusing only on the other person.

Response Two

You say, “No, thank you. It looks really good, but I’m on a new diet.” The other person responds by saying, “You are always on a diet. One taste won’t hurt you. I worked really hard cooking this.” This time you respond, “Oh, OK. Just one bite.”

Pizza Quality Score: 2

You start out with a response that defines yourself and sets your personal limits, but when the other person rejects that response and pressures you to eat, you let go of your own values and allow the other person to define you. If you were the sauce on this metaphoric pizza, you would be oozing off the edge of the crust.

Response Three

This time, when the other person complains about your diet and pressures you to eat a bite, you respond differently. You say, “No, I’m not going to eat that. That is just the way it is, so get over yourself.”

Pizza Quality Score: 3

Frequently, when one person changes their usual behavior, other people resist. Self-differentiation often takes hard work, but it can have life-changing benefits.You have taken a stand, but you are doing it by pushing the other person away and not showing any respect for their feelings.

Good self-differentiation involves both standing up for yourself and your values while simultaneously remaining connected to others. If you were the sauce on our metaphoric pizza, you have added a large amount of a spice that clashes with the cheese and the crust. The result is unappetizing, but edible. Let’s try again.

Response Four

The other person says the same thing, but you take a different approach. This time, you say, “I really appreciate all the work you put into that dish; it shows how much you care about me. I am sorry, though, I’m really not going to be able to eat any today. I need to stick to my diet.”

Pizza Quality Score: 4

You have held onto your values while also staying positive and appreciative of the other person.

Response Five

You can perfect your differentiated response by adding something to encourage a connection with the person in a way that doesn’t compromise your integrity. For example, after using something similar to response four, you could add: “How about if we take a walk together?” or, “I want to tell you a funny story about this new diet.”

Pizza Quality Score: 5

This response shows excellent self-differentiation because you are holding onto yourself and your values while fostering a relationship with the other person.

Finally, good self-differentiation does NOT depend on the other person’s response. Reaching out to foster connection is a self-differentiated move even if the other person responds by turning away. Frequently, when one person changes their usual behavior, other people resist.

Self-differentiation often takes hard work, but it can have life-changing benefits.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lynn M. Acquafondata, DMin, LMHC, therapist in Rochester, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Cyndi

    Cyndi

    August 9th, 2015 at 5:18 AM

    I love the analogy!
    Yes you want each piece of the pie to be unique and distinct but at the same time you want the pieces to complement one another and work well together as a whole.

  • lisa

    lisa

    August 9th, 2015 at 1:17 PM

    I think you did an excellent job of relating a complex concept in a way people can understand and relate to. Also, you gave some good examples of how the response can vary according to the resistance to boundaries. If someone is still testing the boundaries after a more thoughtful response, a good reply can be, “I can see you’re upset, we’ll talk about this later”.

  • seth

    seth

    August 10th, 2015 at 10:22 AM

    The key is to always maintain good communication with each other, no matter how hard that can become

  • Aftan

    Aftan

    August 11th, 2015 at 4:08 AM

    I went back and read through this several times before commenting. I think that it is nice to poijt out that this is not just some mish mash, that everyone in the family still has a role that they are likely to need to fulfill. I find that the problem can be that the crust for example, the one who is always expected to hold it all together can often get overwhelmed and burned out by this role, so that they want to be the sauce and add flavor, but no, they feel held back because this is not their family role that they come to feel like they have been assigned and cannot change.

  • Gregory

    Gregory

    August 12th, 2015 at 10:38 AM

    my family isn’t a pizza, but a nutty fruity salad!

  • Lynn Acquafondata

    Lynn Acquafondata

    August 12th, 2015 at 6:21 PM

    Thank Lisa and Cyndi.
    To Aftan: Good point. Metaphors do have limitations. The pizza metaphor doesn’t allow for discussing the importance of having a good balance between role flexibility and role rigidity.
    To Gregory: :)

  • Gregory

    Gregory

    August 14th, 2015 at 8:01 AM

    and you know that I say these things with nothing but love in my heart

  • Donna

    Donna

    August 16th, 2015 at 11:09 AM

    One of the big things that I am ALWAYS trying to work on is how much I depend on what others in my life think about me to determine what I think about myself. I think that this comes from years and years of trying to be the peacemaker and mediator in my family that now I have a hard time doing anything or making any kind of big decision without wondering what that will make me seem like in the eyes of other people.

  • dee

    dee

    October 25th, 2017 at 7:06 AM

    I know the right answer is response 4 and 5. But i would like further response examples as the conversation goes on. I am good at response 4, but then what do you say when the other person throws a fit. I know it’s about them and their own issues. But when you’re standing at the picnic table and you have to spend the rest of the day with them, it gets awkward. Also, after they throw a nice fit ( and you KNOW this is not the end of it) , i dont really feel like going for option 5 ( going for walk with them) and since by then i am probably starting to feel upset, i might not feel like telling funny stories. I just want to get away from them and promise myself never to go to a family picnic again for as long as i live. ( in my situation, i think i am deadly allergic to this family pizza!) Any suggestions for how the rest of the conversation should go after option 4 is not well received by the other party and they keep insisting your diet is stupid and that pasta salad wont kill you and they become hostile and you know you’ll give you the cold shoulder and a stink eye for the rest of they day , and probably months. ( again NO, i dont feel like going for walk with this person! At this point i want to go to option 2 and get the **** out as soon as possible )

  • Lynn Acquafondata

    Lynn Acquafondata

    October 27th, 2017 at 4:43 PM

    The short answer is that self-differentiation is challenging. You don’t have to get the level of response to goes with number 5. I suggest working towards moving up one level from where you are now. If your typical response level matches the the first response, try to move towards something that more closely matches the second response. This takes a lifetime of work, not one weekend.

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