The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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