Ever asked Santa for a valium before going home for Christmas?

I had a good laugh once, when a police officer was noted in the newspaper saying that every year at Christmas, when family members who don’t usually see each other during the year get together and have lots to drink, they quickly remember why they don’t see each other more often! The fighting starts and he gets the call to resolve family disputes.

Indeed, getting together with our biological families during the holiday season can present us with opportunities to differentiate. Differentiation is the ability to maintain who you are and stand up for what you believe in when interacting with people who are important to you, without caving into pressures to conform or please. It is an ongoing process, by which you define your own thoughts, feelings, values, and desires. You take the risk to express yourself authentically and openly, without relying on the approval, acceptance, and validation of others. Achieving this requires first and foremost that you manage your anxieties and fears with regard to the differences between you and members of your family.

The opposite of differentiation is fusion. Fusion is connection without individuality. When you base your sense of wellbeing on the approval of others, you take their different opinions, wishes, or desires as a personal threat. Fusion usually means, “Be like me, like what I like, and believe what I believe.” You learn to be what others want or need you to be to preserve the connection. Fusion is a form of control.

As a parent, differentiation allows you to stay connected, curious, and involved with your children in ways that permit the expression of their own needs, desires, thoughts, and feelings, rather than trying to change, fix, influence, or withdraw. Differentiation allows parents to respond to their children as separate selves, rather than as need-gratifiers, or extensions of themselves.

In well-differentiated families, there is a healthy level of emotional separation between each of the family members. Each member has a right to think, speak, and feel without being controlled. If there is lack of differentiation in your family, then going home for Christmas may come with comments and questions like, “Oh, you’re only coming for two days?” (read: that hurts me); “You’ve gained weight. Are you still single? Are you going to have kids soon?” (read: this is not the way I want you to be and you are not making us look good); or, “Let me tell you what I have planned for you when you come” (read: what you want doesn’t matter; you have to do this to please me). In these kinds of families, differences are seen more as threats rather than gifts.

It’s amazing how, by going back home, we can quickly fall into old familiar roles and patterns of interaction that were once the norm growing up – whether that’s the role of the black sheep, the victim, the hero, the absent one, the perfect one, or the rebel. Going back home can sometimes make us feel like we’re in a time warp. You might be 40 years old but, when you’re with your biological family, you feel and act as if you’re 8. This reminds me of a quote from Ram Dass, who said, “If you think you’re enlightened, go back home for Christmas.”

In his book, If You Had Controlling Parents, Dan Neuharth does a brilliant job of describing what happens when we grow up in undifferentiated families with controlling parents. He lists the dynamics in healthy versus controlling families and states, “Controlling families are organized to please, protect, and serve one or both parents, not to foster optimal growth or self-expression among family members.”

You may have tried to handle these family pressures by moving thousands of miles away from home or by cutting ties with some family members, but that never solves the problem. The story we played out in our biological family will inevitably be replayed somewhere in our adult relationships, especially in our marriages. This is not wrong; it’s a wonderful opportunity to heal the past in the present and to learn to differentiate.

Being able to identify your own patterns of interacting with those who mean the most to you is the first step toward differentiation. Counselling can be immeasurably helpful in this process.

The next steps require that you learn the skills and develop the strength to stay in connection and in the present with your family members while remaining emotionally separate from the hurtful and problematic habits from the past that might still come up. To do this, you’ll need to rely less and less on the approval of your parents and siblings for your sense of wellbeing and learn to trust yourself.

Dr. David Schnarch says it this way: “Differentiation is gut wrenching emotional surgery – and what’s worse is you have to perform the operation on yourself.”

Differentiation is an ongoing process and leaving home emotionally can sometimes take a lifetime!

Claire Maisonneuve, Registered Clinical Counsellor
First published in the Inside Tract® newsletter issue 180 – 2011