Understanding Emotional Sobriety: Emotional Differentiation

An excerpt from
12 Smart Things to Do When the Booze and Drugs are Gone

by Allen Berger, PhD., Hazelden Publishing

Before we get on our way, I want to introduce you to the psychological concept of differentiation, because it will be quite helpful in understanding emotional sobriety.

Emotional Differentiation
Dr. Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist from Georgetown University, borrowed this concept from developmental cellular biology. I’m not a biologist, so I will present a layman’s understanding of this idea. Cells go through various stages of growth, from less specialized to more specialized. At a very early stage, the cell has the capacity to become many different tissues—an eye cell, or a liver cell, or a muscle cell. At this stage, we call the cell undifferentiated.

As the cell matures, certain genes get turned “on,” or expressed, and others get turned “off,” or silenced. As this happens, the cell matures into its destiny as an eye cell or a liver cell or a muscle cell.

Here’s the really amazing thing: Before a cell has become differentiated, we can move it to another part of the body, and it will assume that part’s function. For example, if we relocate an undifferentiated cell whose DNA is programmed to become an eye to the cheek of a fetus, it will become a part of the cheek—it will mature as a cheek cell! The microenvironment surrounding the undifferentiated cell will influence what genes are expressed or silenced in the undifferentiated cell. It will be influenced by the genetic coding of these specialized cells surrounding it, and its basic nature will change accordingly. But if that same cell were differentiated, meaning that its genes had expressed themselves, and we relocated it to the cheek, a third eye would grow on the cheek of the fetus. This differentiated cell will not be changed or influenced by the surrounding cells. I guess we can say that this cell has reached maturity.

Dr. Bowen believed that people develop similarly. We begin life undifferentiated. If we are encouraged to develop according to our real-self, we differentiate. If we continue to unfold in this manner, we will evolve into the person we were meant to be. We will mature accordingly. Our development will be like that of an acorn that grows into a beautiful and deeply unique oak tree. Psychologically, differentiation results in a solid sense of self. The greater our differentiation, the less we will be overly influenced by circumstances or significant others.

If we don’t develop along these lines, we will have poor differentiation and a very fragile sense of self. We will feel overly anxious about being loved and accepted. We will become an object in our lives, rather than the subject. As a result, we will be overly concerned with what we have and how others respond to us, rather than focusing on who we are. The fear that we won’t be loved or accepted creates a state of continuous anxiety.

We cannot live in this highly anxious state; therefore we must resolve our dilemma. In order to be less anxious, we develop a false-self. This false-self is constructed out of our perception of a perfect or idealized-self. The idealized-self is who we think we should be, who we have to be, to always be loved and accepted. It is the answer to our search for personal glory and ultimate value.

Since the fear of being rejected drives this whole operation, the locus of our center of emotional gravity is external. We look toward circumstances or people to make us feel okay.

People who are differentiated, on the other hand, are more self-validated. They hold on to individuality in relationships and do not try to control others, or submit to the control of others, or rebel against or withdraw from others, when pressured. Differentiated people hold on to their sense of self when there is relationship conflict, when they are pressured to submit, or when circumstances don’t go as expected. They stay connected to and maintain their sense of self.

Or as renowned psychoanalyst Erich Fromm stated, they experience “union with the preservation of integrity” (1956). (As you will see, union with the preservation of integrity is a persistent theme when seeking emotional sobriety.) If we are undifferentiated, we become emotionally fused with others or circumstances, and therefore we are strongly influenced by these things.

We respond to emotional fusion in one of three ways: (1) by trying to control people, places, or things, (2) by submitting to the will of others or to the nature of circumstances, or (3) by emotionally withdrawing.

Most of us lose ourselves in our lives and in our relationships because of our lack of emotional differentiation. The bottom line is that the more undifferentiated we are, the more difficult it will be to achieve emotional sobriety. In other words, emotional sobriety requires us to have a sense of ourselves and to hold on to ourselves.