Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Differentiation of self: family and work

It’s been a while since I’ve heard from Rick, who always asks interesting “systems questions.” Today he asked: “I was just wondering what steps people can take to not be guided by the emotional programming they have acquired from their family of origin. How does one learn to separate oneself from this programming?”
That's a tall order, but then, it describes well the work of differentiation, doesn’t it?

I made a stab at delineating "steps" for Rick, since he framed the question that way (though more accurately, it's a process):
  1. Reach an age that facilitates differentiated growth (a three-year-old can't do it; a sixteen-year-old tries to do it; a twenty-something must do it)
  2.  Leave home for a spell, but call your mom regularly and ask your dad for advice on things
  3. Reframe your thinking and perspective on self, family, faith, and life in general while you're away
  4. Gain some maturational experiences that will allow you to define self apart from your family of origin, "own" your own faith, and be your own person
  5. Return home
  6. Renegotiate your "place" in your family of origin. Change your functioning and position in the system as appropriate
  7.  Leave home again, but stay connected. Call your mother, but stop asking dad for advice.
Following the steps is relatively easy---process is the hard part. For pastoral congregational leaders the issue of differentiation of self is central to effectiveness and well-being, both personal and social. Pastoral leaders need to do the constant work of differentiation in their family or origin, their current family, and, in their congregational "family."
When striving for differentiation in the congregational context, it can be helpful to maintain awareness of three dynamics:

1. Projection. Realize that the majority of your congregational members' relationship with you is a product of their projection of their perception, predilections, and expectations of you in your "role." Their relationship with you is with the role you serve (pastor), and likely little with you personally.
2. Role vs. self. Be cognizant of the interplay between the role you serve and play ("Pastor") as pseudo self, and who you really are--your own true self. Some of this is appropriately negotiated, some of it not. The more you are able to maintain boundaries and align the two, the better you'll be.
3. Transference of function and identity. Working at differentiation in one's own family, and, gaining clarity about the interplay of role vs. self can mitigate the liabilities that come with transference of function and identity. For example, getting clear about one's sibling position and assigned "role" in one's family of origin (IP, favored child, triangled child), and working at differentiating in that family, can help avoid transferring that emotional functioning into our identity as congregational leader. So, while you may have been the triangulated middle child in your family of origin during a particular family life cycle stage, there is liability in getting stuck in that emotional functioning when you are the senior pastor in a congregation.  

Differentiation of self is hard work, no doubt. But in a real sense, it is the work that intersects the three most important spheres of relationships we occupy: our family of origin, our immediate family, and our ministry context. 

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He contributes to the blog for theological school deans of the Wabash Center. 

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