Self-Differentiation and Why It Matters in Families and Relationships

Rear view of person in casual clothes and hat walking alone on a narrow country road through a green valley surrounded by mountains, heading toward the rising sun. Warm sunlight with lens flare. Taking decisions and choosing a direction for new beginnings, following the way forward, not looking back.Best friends since high school, Linda and May decided to share an apartment after college. They were always there for each other, enjoyed laughs and adventure often, and cheered each other on through the challenges. Recently, however, May seemed to be more stressed than usual. Her mood was low and she was increasingly pessimistic. Linda started to notice she was also feeling more stressed. But whenever Linda left the apartment, she felt fine.

Sometimes it can be difficult to know what to do when someone we care about is going through a challenging time. You might think the advice I’m about to offer is selfish, but if we consider the science behind it, you might discover that the healthiest plan is to take care of yourself first. That involves self-differentiation.

The term self-differentiation was first introduced by Murray Bowen, whose ideas are the basis of family systems therapy. There are two aspects to self-differentiation: intrapsychic differentiation and interpersonal differentiation. Intrapsychic differentiation is when we can tell apart our thoughts from our emotions. In other words, it’s self-awareness. On the other hand, interpersonal differentiation is when we can distinguish our experience from the experience of people we are connected to. Both aspects of self-differentiation are important, as they empower us to be aware of our current state and the influence of different interactions and environments on our state so we can take action.

What makes the concept of self-differentiation so important? Bowen’s systems therapy was revolutionary in the field of psychology because it was a pioneer in considering individuals’ symptoms as a byproduct of, and interrelated with, the dynamics and structures of their family. We do not exist in isolation, nor are we immune from the interactions and emotions of the people around us. Instead, our emotions and sense of self are shaped by, and a part of, an emotional system created by the family.

Studies on emotion transmission (the “contagious” result of emotions in a system) and emotion convergence (the idea that people living together can become similar emotionally over time) offer support for Bowen’s systems theory. Interestingly, emotion convergence was found not only in romantic relationships, but also in studies of platonic relationships among roommates.

Excitingly, research in the fields of affective neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology is also finding evidence for the influence people have on each other’s psychophysiological well-being (see Trust Your Longing for Social Engagement. It’s for Your Own Good!). However, while clearly important for our health and wellness, not all forms of social engagement are conducive to our health. In fact, poor forms of social engagement can lead to adverse results.

For instance, the landmark ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study discovered that adverse early childhood experiences—which are largely relational—were correlated with increased risk for many health and psychosocial problems later in life. This includes, but is not limited to, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, liver disease, heart disease, obesity, cancer, anxiety, depression, poor academic achievement, and poor work performance.

Interestingly, emotion transmission research found a greater level of the “contagious” effect from negative emotions than from positive emotions. In other words, if our partners or roommates are feeling upset or down, the degree to which we may start to have similar emotions is greater than when they are feeling happy.

Evidently, we influence each other’s emotional and physiological health. The takeaway from this can be twofold: (1) just as we are wired for co-regulation, the flip side is we are also wired for co-dysregulation; and (2) time apart can allow our system to shift states and find our own homeostasis.

While it may be easy and somewhat straightforward to consider that exposure to a volatile or aggressive environment will activate stress response in your own system, subtler, less overt influences are also being discovered. For instance, one study looked at the physiological impact couples have on each other by measuring their cortisol level at different times of the day. Interestingly, a higher level of association was found in cortisol level between spouses during times of the day they shared the environment (i.e., in the morning and evening) as compared to times of the day when they were apart (i.e., at work).

Evidently, we influence each other’s emotional and physiological health. The takeaway from this can be twofold: (1) just as we are wired for co-regulation, the flip side is we are also wired for co-dysregulation; and (2) time apart can allow our system to shift states and find our own homeostasis.

One way to think of this is that, to be there for your friend, partner, or family during difficult times, it’s important to make sure your system continues to be regulated and resourced. Basically, “in an emergency,” make sure you put your oxygen mask on first before helping others. And make sure to frequently check your own oxygen supply and resources to be able to stay healthy and be giving of the love and support you want to give while getting through the turbulence. To be able to do that, it helps to have some self-differentiation.

Following are some tips and ideas to practice and increase your ability to self-differentiate:

  1. Journaling: Expressing yourself in writing can be a great way to learn about yourself as well as an avenue for some relief. Pick a time of day that works for you, a cozy corner that you can relax into and start writing. It can also help to read back what you’ve written and notice what emotions and thoughts you’ve expressed.
  2. Emotions in color: Part of intrapsychic differentiation is distinguishing between different types of emotions. A fun and creative way to develop this awareness is to practice a daily color journal. Using pencils or crayons, choose colors to represent the different emotions you are feeling that day. On a blank piece of paper, make a little legend that shows what emotion each color represents. Then fill the page with colors representing how much of each emotion you are feeling. This is just one way to do it. Have fun coming up with your own version of “emotions in color.”
  3. Self-care: When you take a moment and check in with yourself to see what you need, you are practicing self-awareness by self-referencing and acknowledging your needs as separate from someone else’s.
  4. Take a walk: Recognizing the potency of emotion transmission and co-regulation/dysregulation, stepping out of the situation and reorienting to a calmer environment can help you find your bearings and return to the regulated zone. Noticing how different you feel when you are out of the situation also helps reinforce differentiation between yourself and the other. This can be an experience you refer to in your mind so you can maintain that difference when you reengage.
  5. Five- to 10-minute meditation: As expressed above, intrapsychic differentiation is similar to self-awareness. Mindfulness and meditation practices help develop our ability to notice our inner experiences.
  6. Enlist a specialist: Sometimes, self-differentiation can be challenging to achieve. Working with a professional can offer you an experienced and skilled ally to support you through this process. Just as working with a personal coach can take your training to the next level, working with a specialist can help deepen your self-differentiation as well.


  1. About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  2. Anderson, C., Keltner, D., & John, O. P. (2003). Emotional convergence between people over time. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(5), 1054.
  3. Butler, E. A., & Randall, A. K. (2013). Emotional coregulation in close relationships. Emotion Review, 5(2), 202-210.
  4. Saxbe, D., & Repetti, R. L. (2010). For better or worse? Coregulation of couples’ cortisol levels and mood states. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(1), 92.

© Copyright 2017 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Nora Sabahat Takieddine, SEP, EMDR Trained, Topic Expert

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

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  • Sharna

    August 31st, 2017 at 11:05 AM

    You have to understand though that the very concept of taking care of oneself can be a very challenging thing for many people. They have either lived with this person or been close to them for a long time, so although you may know that it is the best thing to do to extricate yourself from time that in no way makes it any easier.
    I guess that there is going to be a degree of feeling guilty there that many don’t want to have to face.

  • Nora Takieddine

    September 2nd, 2017 at 2:24 AM

    Sharna, thank you for your comment! Yes, very true. Self-care can be challenging for many people. And guilt is a common feeling that comes up. Sometimes talking to our partners or friends can help as we try new things. It can also be helpful to work with a therapist to untangle the inner stuck points and discover/develop/create new patterns for ourselves.

  • Kyle

    September 4th, 2017 at 6:19 AM

    I have been in those relationships before where it feels like there is no me and you, it more feels like us because there is no separation there. I felt it more when I was younger and in relationships that I guess were not quite as mature, but still the tendency could be there to get overly involved and to not have even any kind of fine line separating the two of us. Relationships like this could be very dangerous for someone like me who loves instinctively to have a whole lot of alone time but at the same time I really want to have someone else play a large role in my life. The lines become very blurry and I am sure that I am not the best person when it comes to handling all of that.

  • Nora Takieddine

    September 6th, 2017 at 2:24 AM

    Kyle, thank you for sharing your experience. It’s great to notice the changes the come as we mature, as well as the familiar tendencies and patterns. We all have our growing edges and that is true in our relationship dynamics as well. Attachment styles are a strong force. It’s good to be kind to ourselves and appreciate what feels good in our habits, as well as enjoy the process of building new muscles for differentiation.

  • Stella

    September 9th, 2017 at 8:28 AM

    You have to be who YOU are

  • Chelsey

    June 24th, 2022 at 2:14 PM

    The real work comes when you’ve started to practice self-differentiation and despite kind efforts, your partner opposes. I’m experiencing this. While he himself strongly identifies interpersonal differentiation and enjoys his space and time to cultivate that for himself, now that I’m slowly learning to take healthy steps here as well, he is experiencing conflict. Anger surfaces when I voice my own preferences, he feels threatened by my journaling, and my guess is he’s feeling a great loss of control. It’s challenging to continue to make self-differentiation a priority in this scenario.

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