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Usually defined as “the response of the organism to real or imagined threat.” Clinical experience at different levels of differentiation of self suggests that anxiety is so continuously present in life, so much a fact of the individual’s and family’s patters as to be stimulated in other ways as well. Anxiety can simply be “caught” from others even though there is no threat or imagined threat situation.

Another definition may therefore be proposed: heightened reactivity. Anxiety may be a reaction to stressors from outside the family system or the person or it may be generated from inside the system or from within the person. It may be chronic—passed along in a family system for years or even generations. It may be acute—relatively short-term. The effects of anxiety in a system are multiple: generally an increase of togetherness is evidenced by more triangling and other relationship postures. Physical, mental, emotional or social symptoms of any intensity can occur at any level of differentiation, given enough anxiety. Anxiety is manifest in quantitative changes in the body that includes cells, organs and organ systems, as well as thought and behavioral expressions and patterns.

Basic Self

The differentiated or emotionally mature part of the self. It is guided by carefully thought-out principles that form an inner guidance. Basic self is non negotiable. That is, it is not given up to other selves in relationships nor is it added to by other selves in a relationship. Therefore, its boundaries are “impermeable.” It is distinguished from the pseudo or functional self, which has more permeable boundaries, and can be added to given up in relationships with the pseudoselves of others. The functional self functions better in favorable circumstances and relationships and less well in adverse conditions. Basic self, because of its inner guidance system and less permeable boundaries, is always more reliable for best thinking, decision making and directing behavior. People higher on the scale of differentiation have more basic self, whereas people lower on the scale have less basic self.


Differentiation means the capacity of a family member to define his or her own life’s goals and values apart from the surrounding togetherness pressures, to say “I” when others are demanding “you” and “we.”

It includes the capacity to maintain a (relatively) non-anxious presence in the midst of an anxious system, to take maximum responsibility for one’s own destiny and emotional being.

It can be measured somewhat by the breadth of one’s repertoire of responses when confronted by a crisis.

Differentiation is the lifelong process of striving to keep one’s being in balance through the reciprocal external and internal processes of self-definition and self-regulation. It is a concept that can sometimes be difficult to focus on objectively. For differentiation means the capacity to become oneself out of one’s self, with minimum reactivity to the positions or reactivity of others. Differentiation is charting one’s way by mean of one’s own internal guidance system, rather than perpetually eyeing the “scope” to see where others are at. Differentiation refers more to a process than a goal that can ever be achieved.

Differentiation refers to a direction in life rather than a state of being:

  • to the capacity to take a stand in an intense emotional systems;
  • to say “I” when others are demanding “we”;
  • to containing one’s reactivity to the reactivity of others (which includes the ability to a void being polarized);
  • to maintain a non-anxious presence in the face of anxious others;
  • to knowing where one ends and another begins;
  • to being able to cease automatically being one of the system’s emotional dominoes;
  • to being clear abut one’s own person values and goals; and
  • to taking maximum responsibility for one’s own emotional being and destiny rather than blaming others or the context.

It is an emotional concept, not a cerebral one; but it does require clear-headedness. And it has enormous consequence for new ways of thinking about leadership. As Dr. Murray Bowen like to say, it is a lifetime project with no one ever getting more than 70 percent there.

Differentiation is not to be equated, however, with similar sounding ideas such as individuation, autonomy or independence. First of all, it has less to do with a person’s behavior than with his or her emotional being. Second, there is a sense of connectedness to the concept that prevents the mere gaining of distance, leaving, or cutting-off as ways to achieve it. Third, as stated above, it has to do with the fabric of ones existence, one’s integrity.

Obviously, differentiation has its origin in the biological notion that cells can have no identity, purpose, or distinctiveness until they have separated from (that is, left) their progenitors. Differentiation is a prerequisite to specialization, even if one is ultimately going to fuse to accomplish one’s purpose.

But also implicit in this biological metaphor or homology is the idea that such self has little meaning if the cell cannot connect. In its simplest terms, therefore, differentiation is the capacity to be one’s own integrated aggregate-of-cells person while still belonging to, or being able to relate to, a larger colony. As already indicated, such a biological metaphor also has ramifications for thinking and the conduct of therapy, since the incapacity to achieve some balance in the self/togetherness struggle will tend to create a style of thinking that shows up in either/or, all-or-nothing, black-and-white conceptualizations and, eventually, family cutoffs. Conversely, the capacity to think systemically and avoid the polarizations characteristic of reactivity seems to go along with the emotional growth associated with differentiation….

The concept of differentiation is a focus on strength rather than pathology. It comes up fully on the side of personal responsibility rather than faulting the stars, society, the environment, or one’s parents. Despite the tinge pf predestination associated with multigenerational transmission, differentiation is inherently an anti-victim, anti-blaming focus. Just as it is a variable that prevents systemic concepts from “blowing away” individual dignity, so too, when it comes to change, precisely because differentiation is a focus on the individual’s response it refuses to allow the system to take all the responsibility.

As a noun, a way of thinking about the variation in functioning of humans and higher mammals. People all have different abilities to adapt—that is, to deal with the exigencies of life, live in a goal directed life or achievement. The word “differential” derives from the science of embryology. In the developing fetus groups of cells that are identical in the beginning, “differentiate” from each other in order to form the different organs of the body. People fall along a theoretical spectrum of differentiation—“the scale of differential of self”—according to their unresolved emotional attachments to their parents (and to some degree, their siblings). Indices of differentiation include physical health and abilities, relationship success, intelligence, vocational success, social skills and emotional maturity. People range from very high levels of differential (theoretical “100” on the scale) of self to very levels, (theoretical “0” on the scale) depending on how much basic self is present. People at high levels, those with more basic self, tend toward more overall success in life, both vocationally and in their relationships. They also tend towards less physical, mental/emotional and social symptoms. The more basic self a person attains, the more inner direction he or she has and the more choice at any given time regarding whether to operate out of emotions or intellect. People at higher levels function more often out of their principles (these are well thought-out) than do people at lower levels.

People at lower levels have less choice between thinking and emotions: their behavior patterns are more emotion-based and automatic. Emotion-based patterns include compliance, rebelliousness and fear of rejection. Lower level individuals also have more attachment needs than do those at higher levels. Differentiation of self has a rough equivalence with emotional maturity, though it has nothing to do with chronological age. It is a broader concept, taking in all the areas of functioning of an individual, including the physical health.

The concept contains a set of rather detailed principles which, when implemented, lead not only to improved emotional and relationship functioning, but also in all other spheres. There is a direct correlation between level of differentiation and amount of basic self. At higher levels of differential, a greater amount of basic self exists and at lower levels, a smaller amount.

As an action word, a verb, differentiation is self in the continued project of people who work with family systems theory.


Self-differentiation by which I mean (a leader’s) capacity to be a non-anxious presence, a challenging presence, a well-defined presence, and a paradoxical presence. Differentiation is not about being a coercive presence, a manipulative presence, a reactive presence, a pursing presence, or an invasive presence. It is an emphasis on the leader’s own self rather than on that of his or her followers. It is in no way an autocratic, narcissistic, or selfish presence, even though it may be perceived that way by those who are not taking responsibility for their own being.


By well-differentiated I do not mean someone who autocratically tells others what to do or coercively orders them around, although any leader who defines him/herself clearly may be perceived that way by those who are not taking responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny. Rather, I mean someone who has clarity about his/her own life goals; and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, on-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing. It is not as though some leaders can do this and some cannot. No one does this easily, and most leaders, I have learned, can improve their capacity.

Emotional maturity

The ability of the individual to manage the emotional part of the self in an adaptive way. In a more mature person, long-term goals and benefits will be given priority over short-term ones when they conflict. A similar concept to differentiation of self, it is not as inclusive. (See also differentiation of self.)

Emotional Unit

The emotional unit, a group of individuals who, by virtue of time spent together are involved in meaningful relations. This might include groupings of other species, the human family (nuclear or extended) or workplace system. Emotions circulate from individual to individual by means of patterned emotional reactions—distance, conflict, over- and under-functioning, and triangling.

This term may also refer to the emotional system within an individual; that is, the part of the nervous system and organs involved in emotional responses. For instance, a perception of danger may involve sense organs, such eyes and ears, reptilian or limbic brain centers, the hypothalamus alerting the adrenals, the adrenal glands secreting adrenalin, raising blood pressure and increasing cardiac output, as well as many other physiologic responses that make a fight or flight response possible.

The instinctual, automatic forces that operate in animals and thus, in human beings. Examples of these forces are territoriality and procreation, found in reptiles as well as complex species, or nurturance of the young and play, found only in high mammals. These reactions have an insistent quality. they originate in the various parts of the midbrain associated with these functions and are carried out by the individual’s “emotional system,” the brain-nervous system-end organs complex involved in the emotion. Emotions also include fight-or-flight reactions and patterned reactions, which get set in the developing organism with repetition.


The word emotional…is not to be equated with feelings, which are a later evolutionary development. While it includes feelings, emotional refers primarily to the instinctual side of our species that we share in common with all other life forms.

Emotional Field

Bowen has at times uses the phrase emotional field rather tan emotional system. So used, a field may be defined as an environment of influence that is not material in itself (magnetic or gravitation field, for example) but which comes into existence because of the proximity of matter to matter. However, once the field does come into being, it has more power to influence the discrete particles with it than any of those pieces of mater can influence the field they have, by their presence, “caused” to exist.

Bowen’s emphasis on emotional rather than environmental or cultural factors can be understood as an effort to stay focused on the field. And differentiation within this context becomes making oneself aware of the encompassing fiends, as well as one’s position in them, so that one can make choices.

Emotional System

The term emotional system refers to any group of people, or other colonized form of protoplasm (herds, flocks, troops, schools, swarms and aggregates), that have developed emotional interdependencies t the point where the resulting system through which they are connected (administratively, physically, or emotionally) has evolved it own principles of organization. The structure, or resulting field, therefore tends to influence the functioning of the various members more than any of the components tends to influence the functioning of the system. A family emotional system includes the members’ thoughts, feelings, emotions, fantasies, and associations, their past connections individually and together. It includes their physical make up, genetic heritage, sibling positions and their parents’ sibling positions. It rotates on the axes of their respective paths within the multigenerational processes transmitted from their own families of origin, including the fusion and cut-offs. It includes the emotional history of the system itself, particularly the conditions under which it originally took shape, the effect upon it of larger emotional and physical forces, how it has dealt with transitions, particularly loss, and the quality of differentiation in the system both now and in the past, particularly of those at the top. (In effect, all the information that can be put on a genogram). An emotional system is not to be equated, however, with a “relationship system” or a “communication system,” though it includes them.

Emotional Triangles – Emotional triangles are the building blocks of any relationship system. They are its molecules. They follow their own universal laws, totally transcending the social science construction of reality, and they seem to be rooted in the nature of protoplasm itself. For they function predictably, irrespective of the gender, class, race, culture, background, or psychological profile of the people involved, and also irrespective of the relational context, family or business, the kind of business, or the nature or severity of the problem. They require a different level of inquiry, and they provide different criteria for what information is important.

No matter who the people are or what the context, it can be said universally that emotional triangles follow the following rules:

  • They form out of the discomfort of people with one another.
  • They function to preserve themselves and perversely move opposite to the intention to change them.
  • They interlock in a reciprocally self-reinforcing manner.
  • They make it difficult for people to modify their thinking and behavior.
  • They transmit a system’s stress to the most responsible or most focused member.

Observing how emotional triangles function is a way of objectifying relationship processes. The triangles make emotional process directly observable. They concretize the field. They demonstrate how relationship systems are self-organizing. And they support the major principle of systems thinking that it is position rather than nature that is the key to understanding a given individual’s functioning in any family or work system.

For leaders, the capacity to understand and think in terms of emotional triangles can be the key to their stress, their health, their effectiveness, and their relational binds. Almost every issue of leadership and the difficulties that accompany it can be framed in terms of the emotional triangles, including motivation, clarity, decision-making, resistance to change, imaginative gridlock, and a failure of nerve.

Emotional triangles thus have both negative and positive effects on leaders. Their negative aspect is that they perpetuate treadmills, they reduce clarity in thinking processes, they distort perceptions, they inhibit decisiveness, and they transmit stress. But their positive aspect it that when a leader can begin to think in terms of emotional triangles and map out his or her mind (or even better, on paper) the diagrams of his or her family or organization, then this analysis can help explain alliances and the difficulties being encountered in motivation or learning. This in turn can help the leader get unstuck by changing emotional process and generally help them become more objective about what is happening. It can also be an aid in evaluation the maturity of various family members or co-workers.

Emotional Unit

The concept of an emotional unit means that any change in the emotional functioning of one family member is predictably and automatically compensated for by changes in the emotional functioning of other family members. This has two important implications: 1) The emotional functioning of every family member plays a part in the occurrence of a medical, psychiatric, or social illness in one family member, and 2) treatment need not be directed at the symptomatic person. Not having to direct treatment at the symptomatic person brings new flexibility to many difficult clinical situations – for example, ones where the symptomatic person either refuses therapy or goes only under pressure from others.


The family emotional unit consists of living person related through marriage, birth, adoption and strong continuous attachment. In this view of family, there are no generational boundaries. The family emotional unit functions and adapts as a single interlocking set of relationships, guided by relationship forces which have automatic responses to threats and stresses. (Smith, 2001) Some share a household, while others live thousands of miles away. Some members are dying and others are just born. Some have strong affiliation and constant contact, and others are distant and isolated. Some are functioning well, and others are not. Yet, all of these behaviors fit together into a single functioning emotional unit that is continuous over centuries. The family unit shifts and changes as it adapts to stress, threats and challenges, but from a broad perspective, these fluctuations do not alter the course of its functioning.

Family Systems Theory

Family systems theory is grounded in the assumptions that the development of a science of human behavior is possible. The human species, despite its unique qualities, is part of all life. The human emotional systems are a product of evolution and is assumed to be orchestrated by principles that are fundamental to all living systems. Much of what we do, feel, and say is anchored in the instinctual nature of man. The concept of emotional systems describes these more automatic aspects of human functioning. Feelings and subjectivity can both reflect and reinforce these automatic processes. Emotions, feeling and subjectivity are not “good” or “bad.” They are simply basic elements in human functioning and behavior. The automatic or more instinctual nature of man need not be “tamed” lest it causes havoc in human civilization. Man’s evolutionary heritage, his more automatic nature, is in part responsible for many aspect of human behavior that we revere.

Family Therapy

Family therapy is not just a new technique for addressing family problems, but a different way of conceptualizing the human phenomenon. What the family systems model did was to shift the unity of observation from a person to a network, and to focus on the network principles that were universal rather than specific to culture….The family model turns out to be about more than families. Thus when a church, an organization, or a sports team says, “We are like a family,” more is involved here than closeness, togetherness, or emotional distance. Similarly, when efforts are made to distinguish how families are different from other institutions, the difference is one of intensity or degree rather than of kind.


Emotional attachment of two or more selves or which the mother/child symbiosis is a paradigm. It can be seen in any intense important relationship, however. Both selves in a fusion are intensely emotionally reactive to each other and experience a loss or gain of self in the relationship.

Immune response

the immune response has been defined as the capacity to distinguish self from non-self. While that might not seem hard to do intellectually, it is not always easy to do emotionally, as any mother knows. Know where one begins and another ends is a fundamental problem. We no only need immune systems in order to survive the hostile onslaughts of pathogens, we also need them in order to love. For, when members of a species that do not possess immune systems touch, they glob together and become one new organism.


In any type of institution whatsoever, when a self-directed, imaginative, energetic, or creative member is being consistently frustrated and sabotaged rather than encouraged and supported, what will turn out to be true 100 percent of the time, regardless of whether the disrupters are supervisors, subordinates, or peers, is that the person at the very top of that institution is a peace-monger. By that I mean a highly anxious risk-avoider, someone who is more concerned with good feelings than with progress, someone whose life revolves around the axis of consensus, a “middler,” someone who is so incapable of taking well-defined stands that the “disability” seems to be genetic, someone who functions as if they had been filleted of their backbone, someone who treats conflict or anxiety like mustard gas – one whiff, and on goes the emotional gas mask and they flit. As such leaders are often “nice,” if not charming.

Pseudo self

The part of self that is negotiated in a relationship. It is more reactive, less prone to think before acting and less guided by principle. It is also determined more by the environment, especially relationships, than by the self.


The tendency of the organism to respond to perceived threat or the anxiety of others. It is more pronounced at lower levels of differentiation.

Scale of Differentiation of Self

An imaginary continuum (from theoretical “9” to theoretical “100”) upon which all human beings fall, from the most differentiated to the least. A person may appear to function at a high level but if those in his or her emotional unit are not, he or she is probably gaining pseudo-self from them, (gaining self at the expense of the functioning of others in the system) and so cannot be considered to actually possess the high level that is apparent.

Level of differentiation can be properly assessed only by of observation of an entire lifetime and by taking into consideration the levels of important others. The effect of circumstances shows itself on the pseudo-self, not the basic self (See also Differentiation).


A mutually dependent emotional attachment between two people. The concept comes from biology where two organisms are dependent upon each other for survival. (The human, for example, lives in symbiosis with certain bacteria present in the gastrointestinal tract. The bacteria, being fed by the human’s food, produce vitamin K, essential for the clotting of blood.) In the family, individuals who fuse selves into relationships emotionally can be thought of as being in an emotional symbiosis. To the degree that the symbiosis is resolved, or grown away from, during maturation, the individual is said to have differentiated a self. To the degree that the original tendency toward symbiosis remains, differentiation of self is incomplete and the self is vulnerable to forming other emotional dependent relationships.


The emotional relationships between or among individual human beings or individuals of other species. Usually all that is needed for individuals to become emotionally significant, or important to each other is for them to spend a significant amount of time together, they will begin, sooner or later, to trigger each other emotionally and the phenomenon of “passing” anxiety from one another, in patters, can be observed. These phenomena are more pronounced, the lower on the scale of differentiation the group and less so, the higher on the scale.

Societal Regression

The concept of societal regression, which Bowen also added to his theory in 1975, enlarges the concept of emotional cutoff and extends its application from the level of the family to the level of society (Bowen, 1978 pages 273-276). This concept describes the erosion of emotional function that happens to a family subjected to sustained chronic stresses beyond the capacity of the family to manage and contain the emotional process within the family relationship systems. The concepts postulates that a parallel process can occur in relationship systems other than the family when they are subjected to unrelieved stress exceeding the carrying capacity of those systems emotionally….the societal regression concept further postulates the existence of unknown, unrecognized or unacknowledged underlying conditions which promote the erosion of functioning which is characteristic of regression.


Three individuals emotionally related to each other start to pass their anxiety to each other, or “triangle.” Triangles are the building blocks of emotional systems. Emotional intensity takes place alternately among the different pairs forming the triangle, anxiety travels around it. In each family system there are many triangles, some of which reach out to society at large by way of friendship systems or agencies of society. In this way, society itself is built of interlocking triangles.


People have a biological need for each other. We are not comfortable with isolation. Some type of connectedness with another is essential and we are constantly monitoring the interactedness of that connectedness. Threats to our links with others create anxiety. Bowen has called this binding force between people, this interdependence, a force for togetherness. A varying amount of peoples’ energy is devoted to establishing and maintaining this connectedness or feeling of togetherness.