When A Transformational Shift Occurs . . .

There I was . . . sitting in a class . . . simply moving through a master’s degree . . . minding my own business . . . when my worldview took an unexpected turn . . . my life underwent a transformational shift.

The class . . . pastoral counseling.

The instructor . . . waxing eloquent on the psychological theory of family systems.

At some point in the lecture, the instructor began to use his own life as an illustration of the concept of differentiation  . . . he drew a diagram  . . . and my perspective was changed forever.

  • At one end of a continuum, he spoke of the I. This is called disengagement.
  • At the other end, he discussed the We. This is called enmeshment.
  • In the middle was I/We. This is called differentiation.

Of course, a person could be anywhere on this continuum. For instance, to the left of the middle was I/we, and to the right of the middle was i/We.

The instructor talked about how we begin life with absolute dependency (We), and as we mature, we progress towards independence (I). Thus, one could say, we begin life enmeshed and move in the direction of disengagement. However, as I discussed last time in my blog, our family system teaches us how to relate to other people, and in doing so, it helps to spawn our identity, or how we relate to others in relation to ourselves. Through the relational patterns that we acquire in our family system, we learn who we are with others outside the system. If we are raised in a family system in which we tend to be more enmeshed than not, we may tend to take responsibility for the other’s feelings. For instance, if we were given intermittent praise from our parents, we become dependent on others for approval and respect (I say this because intermittent praise is the most powerful motivator, creating addictive behavior . . . just think of gambling). If our parents were emotionally distant from each other (that is, they were disengaged from each other, being emotionally described as Is), they may turn to a child to care for their emotional needs, generating enmeshment in the child (We); therefore, rather than teaching the child to become an I that is interdependent from the We, the child becomes emotionally responsible for the adults. Disengagement may also be part of the emotional-relational pattern in a multi-generational family. Rather than being there for each other, members of the family may distance themselves physically/emotionally when they are in pain or in conflict. That is to say, whether there be enmeshment or disengagement, the emotional/relational patterns in our family system may be such that they keep us stuck in our journey to becoming I/We. As a result, we become more dependent on others (i/We) or more independent from others (I). In the former, we are fused to others, and in the latter, we are emotionally (and maybe physically) cut off from others.

A healthy emotional/relational person, according to family systems, is differentiated.

It is that ability to be connected to the other while still being who we are. In disengagement, we are only able to be who we are if we remain separate from others, and in enmeshment we are only able to be who we are if we lose a portion or all of ourselves in others [think Runaway Bride in which the character, played by Julia Roberts, enjoyed whatever type of eggs that her fiancée enjoyed, be they fried (fiancée #1), poached (fiancée #2), or egg whites only (fiancée #3)].

The concept of differentiation is actually borrowed from biology. When the sperm (male cell) and the egg (female cell) unite, they form a cell that science calls zygote. Science informs us that when the zygote has multiple cell divisions, it becomes an embryo. Notice: this cell division is not disengagement, but it is called differentiation in that there is division and connection that transpires at the same time. Thus, we can say that cells remain connected while still being who they were meant to be. A nose is connected to the respiratory system, but it is a nose, not a lung.

So it may be said of human differentiation.


How do I know to what degree I am differentiated . . . you may inquire.

Glad you asked.


The first test was mentioned in my previous blog (The Powerful Reality of a System) . . . how long does it take you to become like your 12 or 15-year-old self when you are back with family? 2 days? 2 hours? 2 minutes? You see, family systems theory holds that our true level of differentiation appears in how differentiated we are in our own family of origin. In other words . . .

When Dad mentions _____, how do you respond?

When your sibling says _____, what is your emotional reaction?

Are you able to think about your reaction and choose how you will respond, or is it a knee jerk reaction of disengagement or enmeshment? Examples of emotional reactivity are compliance, rebellion, cut off, attack, withdrawal, overfunctioning, or underfunctioning. The more emotionally reactive we are, the less differentiated we are.

If we would be honest with others and ourselves, each of us will spend the rest of our lives learning to differentiate. The question is: are we up for the challenge?  And if so, how is this done?

At this point, I feel it is my duty to warn you: when I discovered the concept of differentiation, it seemed that everywhere I looked, I was repeatedly exposed to this idea. TV. Movies. Circumstances. From driving down the freeway with someone tailgating me to needing to fly regularly to another city to finish my degree, my opportunities to differentiate seemed to abound. Such opportunities became so frequent that it became the running joke in our marriage. Thus, consider yourself forewarned.

According to family systems theorists, the process of becoming more differentiated transpires within our own family system.

This occurs by setting out to learn who people are in our family. “Oh,” you say, “I know my family.” But do we? Do we only know our older brother as he is in his role as an older brother? Or do we genuinely know his story? What was it like when he was the only one in the family? What did he think of having another sibling? In other words, we need to learn the stories behind the people in our family. By learning who they are, their fears, anxieties, joys, by sharing the family secrets, we learn who each other is . . . really. Thus, we remain connected to each other, but not just to their role. Such a connection helps us to embrace more who we are and who they are, generating in the relationship an energy when the other is seen, heard, and valued.

Thus, one could say that close relationships are a test.

  • to be able to be connected while being separate;
  • to be an I amidst the We;
  • to accept them and ourselves no matter if others approve/disapprove of or agree/disagree with us;
  • to be a non-anxious presence in the midst of emotional reactivity.

Relationships, then, are particularly opportunities for self-differentiation.

As a Christ-follower, a theology of differentiation may be seen in a variety of ways. It may be viewed in an understanding of the Trinity in that each member of the triune Godhead remains connected while being separate persons. There is homogeneity with diversity. Thus, if we are to reflect the image of God as persons, we are to be connected while being separate.

Most recently, I was struck by Jesus’ self-differentiation.

This is repeatedly seen in the Gospel of John. For example, in chapter 7, the Feast of Tabernacles was about to be under way, and Jesus’ brothers told Jesus:

Leave here and go to Judea so your disciples may see your miracles that you are performing. For no one who seeks to make a reputation for himself does anything in secret. If you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.

Now, before we think, “Oh, they are just giving him helpful advice,” we need to notice the John’s parenthetical phrase in verse 5:

For not even his own brothers believed in him.

Taken what we have discussed in the previous paragraphs, here are Jesus’ siblings . . . his own family system. Yet, at this point his siblings do not really know him. They are making fun of him. After all, if you want to make a name for yourself, go out and show yourself to the world!!! If they are typical siblings, they are laughing at him as they say it, and if I am the typical undifferentiated sibling, I emotionally react by fighting back or crying (and since I am the youngest in my family, I would probably go to Mom). However, Jesus responds, “My time has not arrived, but you are always ready for any opportunity.” It is to be noted that Jesus in the Fourth Gospel is in charge, which is different from the Gospel of Mark. This is seen by the repeated use of the word “hour” or “time” (e.g., 2:4; 7:6, 8, 30; 8:20; 12:23; 13:1; 17:1; 19:28). Jesus being in control may be viewed in that Jesus knows his betrayer (ch. 6) and places in motion the very act of betrayal. It is also seen in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus reveals who he is and negotiates the release of his disciples. We see it when he bears his own cross, whereas Mark speaks of Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus’ cross. In addition, Jesus’ legs are not broken since Jesus dies on his own accord in John, whereas Mark omits the possibility of the breaking of legs. John also speaks of Jesus being the one who lays down his life rather than someone taking his life from him. Thus, in chapter 7 of John, Jesus refuses to join his brothers, but he does travel to Jerusalem for the feast at a later time, but he does so in secret.

I also believe that Matthew implicitly points to Jesus’ own differentiation.

In chapter 16, Jesus informs his disciples that he will suffer much and die at the hands of others. It is at this point, Peter takes Jesus aside and says, “No! This must not happen to you!!” While we may be prone to focus on Peter’s reaction, I want to draw our attention to Jesus’. Imagine, in the last three years this is one of the people with whom you have been investing much of your time. In fact, John’s Gospel says that Jesus calls his disciples “friends” (Jn. 15:15). Not only that, but here is one who is considered to be part of your inner circle of three (see Mt. 17:1). This is one with whom you have a close relationship. It is with him the two of you walked on water (Mt. 14), albeit for only a little bit. You even have changed his name, calling him Peter, rather than Simon. This is one into whom you have invested much of your energies. After all this effort of being with him, he has recently indicated he knows you when he declared you to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Mt. 16:16). By all accounts, this is a close relationship in which each other is known. Now, he wants to have a little talk with you . . . privately. Herein lies a genuine temptation. Herein lies an opportunity to differentiate. Such tests . . . such opportunities may come from those who seem to know us best but do not. It comes from those with whom we have a relationship. In this passage, Jesus sees it for what it is: a temptation not to remain true to who he is, but to deviate from being God’s act of ministry to the world, the embodiment of the love of God. Jesus looked beyond Peter, saw the spiritual warfare in which he found himself, and rebuked Satan. Jesus remains separate from Peter while remaining connected. After all, Jesus died for Peter, too.

I think in the contemporary church, we, too, are being faced with the opportunity to differentiate, to be a We while being an I.

Within the political landscape of our nation, we are a nation divided. Unfortunately, I fear we are also becoming divided in Christ’s own body, cutting members off from one another, saying, “I don’t need you.” Hmmm . . . This sounds reminiscent of Paul’s words to the Corinthians about the body of Christ in chapters 12 and 14. Could it be that the American church is being faced with a test, and that test appears in our relationships? An opportunity to differentiate? Are we able to hear the one who is on the opposing side, or are we emotionally reactive, judging and/or labeling the other without taking time to hear the other and may be even cutting off any relationship with the other?

Today, I believe the church has an opportunity to powerfully reflect the image of the triune God to the world through our relationships: an opportunity for members of Christ’s body to differentiate by embracing each other in both our homogeneity and in our diversity. I leave you with these words of Jesus from John’s Gospel:

Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples—if you have love for one another.





4 thoughts on “When A Transformational Shift Occurs . . .

  1. Pam,
    Thank you for the insight. I am so thankful for a creator who saw it fit to design me as me and yet allow me to connect with others. Although, in practice, what a struggle 😉


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