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Making a Different Choice: Choosing a Different Way of Responding Rather Than Our Patterned Way of Responding

The fusion of emotional and intellectual functioning that is prevalent in people at the lower end of the differentiation of self scale, means that, at those lower levels, much of behavior and thinking is emotionally driven.

The emotions are so powerful that when a fusion of emotions and intellect occurs (“amygdala hijacking”), intellectual functioning—which is not reliable in the presence of strong emotions, especially anxiety, anger, and fear—loses out.

Since those with lower levels of differentiation inherited a greater quantity of innate anxiety and reactivity from the relationship fusions they grew up in (their family of origin), their intellectual processes will be adversely affected by that fusion.

Whenever intellect is influenced or made less effective by emotional forces, thinking is not logical or reliable. And the finer abilities of human beings, such as abstraction and the ability to consider consequences of behavior, are lost.

Thus decision-making is impaired.

And poor decision-making means more life problems. And since most of us bring on most of our life problems ourselves, for people at the lower end of the scale, that tendency is multiplied, sometimes exponentially, by emotionally driven (irrational) decision-making. Behavior is impulsive and not well thought-out and thought-through. Life troubles abound.

There are also many relationship difficulties, partly because of the load of anxiety that people at this level carry with them. Their greater anxiety leads them to repeat relationship patterns and stances, as they tend to “take it out on their partner,” through distancing, emotional cuttoff, triangling, under-functioning.

People at this end of the scale live with an excessive amount of worry and distrust. Their whole world is one of relationships and either positive or negative emotional reactivity to them. There is little to no time or energy left to think about the wider world or improving their relationships through greater self-observation because of the amount of fusion between their emotions and intellect.

People higher on the scale have less ambient anxiety to carry around with them. This results in a more stable and less reactive nervous system.

Because they took on less anxiety in their family of origin years, they gain and lose less self in relationship fusions.

That means that their brains work better for decision-making as well as all kinds of complex intellectual functioning. Being less mired in the emotional/intellectual fusions, the brain is freed of the intensity that holds it back from functioning at its best. Better decisions are possible. And because of that, there are fewer life problems. Relationships work better. There is less unnecessary worry.

Though we are stuck with the amount of undifferentiation we leave home with, it is possible to nudge it a little by concerted effort, developing a “new lens,” and active and sustained coaching or therapy with someone has been wearing that same lens for much longer.

That is the bad news.

The good news is that any movement at all up the scale means living a life that is all but unrecognizable from before.

It only takes accurately seeing the emotional process and beginning to focus on the contribution of self to the pattern and changing that, to dissolve the whole pattern. (Making a different choice.)

But if the change is simply changing from one pattern to another, as when people in conflict become tired of conflict and retreat into emotional distance or all the way to cutoff, then the anxiety will not be resolved. Replacing one pattern with another pattern will provide no resolution of the anxiety.

Cutoff is the most extreme form of the emotional distance pattern. A marriage or long-term relationship that is distant is often cuttoff into divorce or no-contact. Such people often have no idea how to handle criticism or complaints and frequently withdraw into depression, which leads to inefficiency at work and around the house. Whenever they perceive anything resembling an “attack,” they have no idea how to address the problem directly and calmly; so they tend to leave the situation or relationship instead of talking things over.

With coaching or therapy, highly emotionally reactive people can learn a different way of responding to perceived criticism and slights. They can learn to accurately evaluate whether the other person’s anxiety (and hence criticism) was triggered by one’s own anxious posture or behavior or not. And if the concerns raised are valid, then the person could learn something about oneself and work on change. And if the criticisms were unfounded—that is, if it was more about the person making the complaint than about anything objective and factual—then the person could realize that, still stay connected with the other person and not react, and discuss things calmly. Learning to observe one’s own inner processes and think critically and objectively about what is said, allows a person not to be so reactive and decimated by criticism and other intensities and retreat into another cutoff.

Cutoff is such a part of the world we live in that it can be difficult to recognize at times.

Cutoff is the extreme form of the posture of emotional distancing. When a relationship becomes sufficiently emotionally intense, at some point, some people will cut off internally or geographically. Communications cease.

Cutoff often leads to symptoms, but is seldom recognized for its part in the problem.

Why? Because cutoff feels wonderful in the beginning—“such a relief!” One is free; one is rid of the problem.

But cutoff does not solve anything. So while it feels good initially to be rid of a troublesome relationship, cut off, like all other maladapative relationship patterns, creates anxiety. And anxiety, as we have seen, leads to symptoms. In the long term, anxiety sets in, in the form of depression or other symptoms.

But it will not be seen as related to the cutoff. Why? Because in the first place, the cutoff felt so good; and, secondly, the onset of symptoms is often so far removed in time from the beginning of the cutoff, so the logical connection is not made. In other words, because the negative symptoms of cutoff appear so long after the initial cutoff, they don’t get identified with it.

But when we see cutoff for what it is (and what it does to self and others), we can begin to work on our cutoff tendencies.

The rewards for this kind of effort are great: a tangible movement up the scale. Life afterwards becomes all but unrecognizable from life before once one addresses their own tendencies to emotionally distance and cutoff.

A large part of differentiating oneself in relationships while still staying in contact and not cutting off is in “being able to observe accurately and see the part that the self plays, and to consciously control this programmed emotional reactiveness.

“The observation and the control are equally difficult.

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

(And controlling one’s emotional reactions is not possible until one can observe and see those reactions accurately, without “the intrapsychic processes of denial and isolation and or physically running away.”

In other words, one cannot control one’s reactions sufficiently until one is able to observe; and one cannot observe until one can begin to control one’s reactions, soothe one’s anxieties and upset, and face up to one’s own patterned ways of thinking and reacting when stressed.

It seems like a hopelessly negative self-perpetuating cycle. But, Bowen assures us,

“The process of observation allows for more control, which in turn, in a series of slow steps, allows for better observation. It is only when one can get a little outside of one’s patterned ways of responding (and the accompanying inner intellectual and emotional fusion) that it is possible to begin to observe.” (Murray Bowen, M.D., “Family Therapy in Clinical Practice,” pg. 480.)

Excerpted and adapted from “Extraordinary Leadership” and “The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory” by Roberta M. Gilbert, M.D.

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