Many of us are preparing to join family for holiday meals, whether for Thanksgiving or for the December holidays. And I’m sure we’re all packing up our suitcases with plenty of spare sweatshirts in case it gets cold, all the pairs of socks we might need, and of course at least one generation’s worth of passed-around anxiety and maybe some old grudges.
Holiday time is fun time, right?!
Actually, it can be. And it can also be a growing time. Every time we are faced with a difficult situation–a family member who pushes our buttons, a coworker we find challenging, a neighbor who drives us up the wall–we have an opportunity to improve our own capacity to respond rather than react. We have a chance to focus on self-differentiation.
Ooh, bet I got you there! Who doesn’t want to work on a seven syllable word over the turkey?
Self-differentiation sounds academic, but it’s actually highly practical. It’s all about knowing where you end, and another person begins. And where your anxiety ends, even if another person’s anxiety begins! People who are more self-differentiated (and of course it’s all a spectrum–no one ever “achieves” self-differentiation) know that if Aunt Agatha is upset that your pumpkin pie doesn’t use real butter, you can share your understanding of her concern…but you don’t need to share the concern itself. We can have empathy with someone else’s anxiety without absorbing it ourselves.
For any of us, that’s a big thing to learn. We may have been taught as children that if someone else is upset by something we did, we are responsible for their emotions. Self-differentiation (and the framework it comes from, family systems thinking) tells us that we’re not responsible for another person’s reactions. We are responsible for our own actions and behaviors–and that’s important, because actions and behaviors can be helpful or harmful, of course. And we may well want to learn about someone’s reactions, so we can understand better the impact of our behavior. But ultimately, each of us owns our own reactions, including our anxiety, our anger, our upset. You aren’t responsible for Aunt Agatha’s reaction to your pumpkin pie…and (here’s the hard part!) Aunt Agatha isn’t responsible for your reaction to her reaction, either.
There’s a lot of great writing out there about self-differentiation and owning our reactions. My colleague Joanna Fontaine Crawford wrote a great piece on these ideas, called “The Most Controversial Thing I’ll Write All Year.” (http://bootsandblessings.blogspot.com/2018/03/the-most-controversial-thing-ill-write.html) And of course there’s always the classic video about differentiated leadership, which I return to again and again! It works for any kind of leadership, including leadership in our own families. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgdcljNV-Ew)
May your holiday meals be filled with many kinds of pumpkin pie–and may you know where you end, where Aunt Agatha starts, and where they keep the whipped cream.