Towards the Differentiation of a Self in One’s Own Family

By: anonymous (for legal reasons)

First off, as a reviewer of the document, I found it quite fascinating, and my notes are just parts that I highlighted.  Much of them really only make more sense in the context from which they were taken, and with the background in the whole of the story.  Nonetheless, here they are, ‘as is’.
– A. Guberman

Theoretical Background

Overall Description

p 23 – One of the basic concepts considers the “triangle” (three-person system) the “molecule” of any emotional system, whether it exists in the family, or in a larger social system.

If the central triangle changes, and it stays in contact with others, the entire system will automatically change.

Background Principles

p 23 – It is commonplace for psychotherapists to make changes based more on feeling perceptions and subjectivity than on clinical fact and objectivity.  [the paper attempts to counter that].

Theoretical Concepts

Differentiation of Self Scale

p 25 – The scale has no direct correlation with intelligence or social-economic level.

The life style and thinking and emotional patterns of people at one level of the scale are so different from people at the other levels that people choose spouses or close personal friends from those with equal levels of differentiation.

p 26 – The lower the level of differentiation or “basic self” in the souses the more difficult it is to maintain reasonable emotional equilibrium and the more chronic the disability when adaptive mechanisms fail.

The basic self is not negotiable in the relationship system in that it is not changed by coercion or pressure, or to gain approval or enhance one’s standing with others…
The pseudo-self acquired under the influence of the relationship system is negotiable in the relationship system.

People in the upper half of the scale have an increasingly defined level of basic self and less pseudo-self. … Moving into the upper half of the scale one finds people who have an increasing capacity to differentiate between feelings and objective reality.

p 27 – It has not yet been possible to check the scale on extremely high-level people, but my impression is that 75 is a very high level person and that those above 60 constitute a small percentage of society.

[high scale people] are operationally clear about the difference between feeling and thinking, and it is as routine for them to make decisions on the basis of thinking as it is for low level people to operate on feelings.  The relative separation of feelings and thinking brings life much more under the control of deliberate thoughts, in contrast to low-scale people whose life is a pawn of the ebb and flow of the emotional process.

Nuclear Family Emotional System

p 28 – There are three areas within the nuclear family in which symptoms are expressed.  These areas are 1) marital conflict, 2) dysfunction in a spouse, and 3) projection to one or more children. There is a quantitative amount of undifferentiation, determined by the level of differentiation in the spouses, to be absorbed by one or a combination of the three areas.

Family Projection Process

The most common pattern is one in which one child is the recipient of a major portion of the projection, while other children are relatively less involved.

Multigenerational Transmission Process

[describes how people would go from high to lower and lower levels, but now how one would rise upwards]

Sibling position Profiles


p 29 – As tension mounts in a two-person system, it is usual for one to be more uncomfortable than the other, and for the uncomfortable one to “triangle in” a third person by telling the second person a story about the triangle one. This relieves the tension between the first two, and shifts the tension between the second and third. A triangle in a state of calm consists of a comfortable twosome and an outsider.

p 30 – When the triangle is in a state of tension, the outside position is the preferred position, in a posture that says, “You two fight and leave me out of it.” …  In a state of tension, when it is not possible for the triangle to conveniently shift the forces within the triangle, two members of the original twosome will find another convenient third person (triangle in another person) and now the emotional forces will run the circuits in this new triangle.

A triangle characteristically has two positive sides and one negative side.

Observation is not possible until one can control one’s reactions sufficiently to be able to observe.

The Therapeutic System

… when the triangular emotional pattern is modified in a single important triangle in the family, and the members of the triangle remain in emotional contact with the rest of the family, other triangles will automatically change in relation to the first.

Family Psychotherapy with Both Parents or Both Spouses

I have found that the quickest way to modify the central triangle is to constitute a new triangle with the two primary members of the family and the therapist.

keep the emotional system between [spouses] sufficiently alive to be meaningful and sufficiently toned down for them to deal with it objectively without undue emotional reactiveness.

p 32 – It is necessary that the psychotherapy be done in a way that does not involve the therapist in the emotional system between the spouses.

Family Psychotherapy with One Spouse in

Preparation for Family Therapy with Both Spouses

Family Psychotherapy with One Motivated Family Member

It was designed for unmarried young adults who lived at a distance from parents, or whose parents refused to be a part of the therapy effort.

It requires that the single members be self-supporting, else they never develop the emotional courage for change that might threaten the family attitude about them.

It is also possible to use work and social relationship systems for learning the properties of emotional systems.

The Clinical Report

Personal Background Information

p 33 – The extent of psychiatric dysfunction that I [author] observed in Army personnel and the lack of adequate solutions for these problems led to a decision to undertake psychiatric training.

p 34 – The patterns of all emotional-systems are the same whether they be family systems, work systems, or social systems, the only difference being one of intensity.

“Undifferentiated family ego mass.”  [a lose understanding/definition given here]

This “fusion” into the emotional system operated most intensely with those most involved in the gossip system at work. Gossip is one of the principal mechanisms for “triangling” another into the emotional field between two people.

The Family History

p 36 – [basically, the author came from] a congenial household with a low level of conflict.

[the 4th child…] Mother had long wanted a daughter and this child became “special” and overprotected, the one most involved in the family emotional process, and the one who was impaired by it.  There is one such child in almost every family.

Any member of a relatively fixed triangle perceives his self as “caught.” My father was caught between his wife and her brother, my uncle between his sister and her husband, and my mother between her husband and her brother.

p 37 –  In calm periods, a triangle functions as a comfortable twosome and an outsider. …  In stressful periods, a triangle has two positive sides and a negative side.

p 38 – This is another predictable characteristic of emotional systems: When the focus of the symptom is removed from the system, the system acts as if the problem is solved. If the system could think instead of react, it would know that it would be only a matter of time until the symptom surfaced elsewhere.

I was using emotional distance and silence to create an illusion of nonreponsiveness. Distance and silence do not fool an emotional system.

Concepts Important in the Differentiation of a Self

I considered my family of origin as important in understanding my nuclear family, but less important in helping the nuclear family resolve its problems.

Multigenerational Family History

[The author went back some 300 years and found similar patterns repeated]

Undifferentiated Ego Mass in Family of Origin

p 39 – I made increasing observations about the phenomenon but had no clues about effective action for maintaining objectivity while still in contact with the family.

the effort to define or differentiate a self is most effective if one is “outside” the emotional system, or before one becomes fused into the system.

p 40 – A partial success in a more peripheral emotional system would contribute something to the effort with my family of origin …

I have never seen a family in which the “emotional fusion” phenomenon is not present.

Frequent short visits are many times more effective thaninfrequent long visits.

The Differentiation of a Self

Each small step toward the “differentiation” of a self is opposed by emotional forces for “togetherness,” which keeps the emotional system in check.

p 41 – A reasonable differentiated person is capable of genuine concern for others without expecting something in return, but the togetherness forces treat differentiation as selfish and hostile.

The family system is also disturbed when any family member moves toward a slightly higher level of differentiation, and it will move as automatically to restore the family system to its former equilibrium.

This pattern is so predictable that absence of an emotional reaction is good evidence that the differentiating effort was not successful. There are three predictable steps in the family reaction to differentiation. They are: (1) “You are wrong,” or some version of that, 2) “Change back,” which can be communicated in many different ways, and 3) “If you do not, these are the consequences.”

p 42 – Differentiation cannot take place in a vacuum. It has to take place in relation to others, around issues important to both people.

The Parental We-ness

Until I had experience in family research, I subscribed to the principle that parents should “present a united front to their children.” … With family research I developed the conviction that this dictum is one of the most unsound psychological principles.

There is evidence that parents automatically invoke this principle because it makes the parents more comfortable and not because it is good for the child.

p 43 – There are some situations in which the parents fuse into a common self so automatically that it is difficult to establish individual relationships. When it is possible to separate the parental we-ness early, the change in the child is usually rapid and dramatic.  Even a very young child is capable of managing a relationship to either parent.

The Person-to-Person Relationship and Related Principles

p 44 – A “person-to-person” relationship is conceived as an ideal in which two people can communicate freely about the full range of personal issues between them.

Progress is several times faster in the nuclear family that is in contact with families of origin than in the nuclear family that is isolated.

Person-to-Person Relationships in the Parental Triangle

p 46 – The process of “differentiating a self” from a parental family involves two major steps. The first step is to develop the person-to-person relationships.

The Family Experience



p 49 The death of … an important family member can “shake” a family system for months. This was the “shock wave” phenomenon I had investigated in some early research, in which a death can be followed by a series of apparently unrelated human problems throughout the family system.

It is easier to deal with overt conflict than with internalized symptoms, and overt conflict is relatively rare in our family.

The Plan

[deliberately stirring things up to create an overt conflict to deal with]

p 51 – In my letter [ to brother ], my posture to the “stories” was to say they had been going on for years, that some were interesting but most were boring, that the stories seemed to be embellished more during upset periods, that I had long since given up trying to separate fact from fiction in such stories, that I was tired of being admonished about what to tell him and what to avoid telling him and that this letter represented my right to communicate what I wanted to say directly to him without regard for what the system thought was good for him to hear. … I signed it, “Your Meddlesome Brother”

[ wrote letters to all, signing variously “Your Worried Brother”, “Your Anxious Brother”, “Your Strategic Son.”]

p 53 From long experience, I have found that a differentiating effort routinely fails if anyone else knows anything about it.  To be effective, each action and move must come from within the person who makes the effort.

p 54 – At the end of the meeting, as my brother and his wife were leaving, his wife said, “I never saw such a family in all my life. I think we should do more talking to each other and less talking about each other.”

To me the most important long-term accomplishment was the proof that an emotional system has a knowable structure and function, and that one can work out the predictable answers to its problems on a drawing board.

To make a differentiating process work, one has to continue in relationship with the family system.

p 56 – differentiation is a self-motivated, self-energized effort and it cannot succeed with outside stimulus.

there is the family perception of a “differentiating step” … The initial family reaction is negative and takes the form of surprise, anger, and a “you must be crazy” attitude. … A differentiation effort that is successful had to be for “self” alone. If it is done for self alone and the effort is successful, the system automatically benefits also. If it is done primarily to help others or with the expectation that others will approve and express appreciation, then the effort was for togetherness an not for differentiation; an emotional system does not appreciate such stressful nefarious maneuvers in the service of togetherness.

Post-Conference Clinical Experience

p 57 those who had been most successful with their families developed unusual skill and flexibility as family psychotherapists.

Another speculation is that the parental family effort requires that the trainee more quickly accept responsibility for his own life, and requires him to accept the notion that he through his own effort can modify his own family system.

p 58 This approach to training family therapists is too new for there to be m ore than early clinical impressions. The method is certainly not for everyone. It requires hard work and dedication. It is not possible for a trainee to make progress until he can contain his own emotional functioning sufficiently to know the difference between being inside or outside of an emotional system.

p 59 if people define a situation as real, then for all intents and purposes it becomes real.

p 60 – In my opinion, the most important thing … was to emphasize the importance of getting out of the family ego mass but still keeping one’s relationship to it.

“The laws that govern man’s emotional function are as orderly as those that govern other natural systems, and our difficulty in understanding the system is not so much in the complexity of the system as in man’s denial of the system.”

p 61 – those people who go into family therapy are really master manipulators.






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