Skip to main content

A friend of mine recently told me that the part of my book that really hit home for her was the information about differentiation. The devil is in the differentiation is the phrase that came to her after reflecting upon her challenges with differentiating in relationships.

Many of us have challenges with differentiation because we were not taught how to do the things involved in healthy differentiation, things such as taking responsibility for our own feelings and needs, not taking responsibility for others’ feelings and needs, finding and expressing our own truth, and reclaiming our disowned parts instead of projecting them onto others.

This month’s blog post below is an excerpt on differentiation from my book Meet Me in Hard-to-Love Places: The Heart and Science of Relationship Success. 


I Get to Be Me and You Get to Be You

In adult relationships, differentiation means that each person:

is separate and different from the other
has their own needs and emotions
has their own preferences and dreams
has their own character and truth
has their own “yes” and their own “no”
is autonomous and takes responsibility for choices and actions
is not responsible for the needs and emotions of the other.

Differentiation is an ongoing process that can last a lifetime. In other words, you can become more and more of who you truly are, realize more and more of your potential, and live an ever richer and more rewarding life with ongoing differentiation. In his book Wild Mind, Plotkin (2013) lays out a comprehensive nature-based map for ongoing individuation that I find very powerful and enlightening. Plotkin and others use the term “individuation” to describe the process of becoming your whole self. Individuation and differentiation are very closely related, if not interchangeable.

That Is Not a Part of Me

An important part of differentiation for adults involves uncovering and reclaiming the disowned parts that were not accepted or loved by their parents. The Jungian term “shadow” is often used when referring to our disowned parts, or to the place in our psyches in which we have hidden them. If disowned parts are not uncovered and reclaimed, they are projected onto others. This will inevitably interfere with differentiation and linking.

When parts are disowned they are not just buried away. They are often condemned, loathed, even hated by the individual who harbours them. When life cracks us open and our disowned parts slip out we condemn them with judgments, contempt, shame, or we deny their existence. I remember the feeling of deep shame I experienced as an adolescent when I was not able to hold back my tears. I hated my vulnerability and worked hard to hold in my emotions. Vulnerability certainly was a disowned part of my psyche.

When those around us express themselves or behave in ways that are similar to our disowned parts, we often project our condemnation of that part onto them. In my case, this meant judging my girlfriends as being needy, as being weak, or as acting as victims when they expressed vulnerable emotions and needed more support than I wanted to give. I remember once feeling repulsed when a girlfriend was particularly vulnerable. It seemed like such an awful reaction, but I couldn’t seem to help myself.

A disowned part is any aspect of yourself that was not acceptable to express when you were a child. Disowned parts include:

emotions, such as anger, sadness, excitement, passion or joy
characteristics or traits, such as competitiveness, shyness, expressiveness, playfulness, vulnerability, beauty, boldness, introversion, or extroversion
needsthat were not acknowledged and supported, such as acceptance, nurturing, support, intimacy, autonomy, empathy, or self-worth (you will find a more comprehensive list of needs in Appendix A)

Take some time to reflect upon which parts of yourself you may have disowned.  Were you supported to:

have strong emotions: sadness, anger, fear, shame, excitement, exuberance, confidence, joy? If not, then strong emotions might be in your shadow
be vulnerable: to cry or to be afraid and need comfort and nurturing? If not, then aspects such as vulnerable emotions, asking for help, and allowing yourself to need others might be in your shadow
be powerful: to have your “no” and your “yes” and experience autonomy and respect for your needs? If not, then speaking up for yourself and creating healthy boundaries might be in your shadow
make mistakes? If not, then exploration, experimentation, and taking risks might be in your shadow
figure things out on your own and receive support when you needed it? If not, self-motivation and discipline might be in your shadow
follow your dreams, explore, share and be appreciated for your talents? If not, then believing in and valuing yourself might be in your shadow

Disowned parts can also be aspects of our masculine or feminine sides. We all have access to masculine and feminine aspects, regardless of our sexual orientation, gender, or non-identification with gender.

Masculine aspects include:

protecting, accomplishing, competing, doing
deciding, organizing, focusing
building, leading, asserting yourself
developing intellect, mindfulness, strength, and discipline

Feminine aspects include:

nurturing and being nurtured, caring, relating, being
birthing/creating the new, opening, appreciating beauty
embodying, expressing emotions, being sensual and wild
developing intuition, compassion and empathy

When parts of us are disowned, other adaptive parts develop to keep disowned parts hidden. For example, if vulnerability is disowned, an inner perfectionist might develop, whose role is to keep vulnerability hidden by never making mistakes. Maybe an overly self-reliant and independent part develops to keep vulnerability buried through strength and toughness and pushing feelings away. Perhaps a caretaking part develops that hides vulnerability underneath looking after everyone else. In terms of our masculine and feminine sides, if either of those are hindered, judged or condemned, children adapt by over-expressing the side that was acceptable or encouraged or that they most identified with.

As children, we needed our adaptive parts to help us cope with the loss of the parts that were not loved or accepted. However, as adults, our adaptive parts tend to keep us from realizing our wholeness, expressing our full authenticity, and creating wonderful relationships.

There are different processes for reclaiming disowned parts, including powerful empathy processes in which disowned and adaptive parts are deeply heard, understood, and valued to the extent needed to integrate back into who you are and how you express yourself. Although reclaiming disowned parts can be quite challenging, it is an important part of relationship success (Chapter 7, Practice 9).

Along with projecting disowned parts, we also project onto our adult relationships the unresolved relationship dynamics we experienced with our parents. This is typically known as transference, a term originated by Sigmund Freud and expanded upon by others. For example, if your parents were not able to show you that your needs really mattered, you will likely project this onto your close adult relationships. In other words, you will see all the ways in which your partner does not show you that your needs matter, and conversely you may not notice the ways in which they do show you that your needs matter. Furthermore, when you experience your needs not being attended to by your partner, it will be particularly painful. Caretaking can be another example of transference. When parents do not have the resources to heal their attachment trauma or to work through their challenges, they sometimes turn to their children for support. If this was your reality, you may now find yourself taking care of your partner or other loved ones and disregarding your own needs. Disowned parts are often an element within the dynamic of transference. If you are interested in reading more about disowned parts, I recommend Zweig and Wolf’s book Romancing the Shadow (1997) or Debbie Ford’s The Dark Side of the Light Chasers (1998).

Sometimes people tell me that the NVC process did not work for them in a particular relationship or situation. When I hear this, I suspect that they did not embark upon the inner process of reclaiming disowned parts and healing attachment trauma—either with NVC processes or with other modalities. As previously mentioned, this was an issue for me in my past relationships.

How do you know when you are projecting disowned parts or replaying old relationship dynamics? It is hard to know for sure, but there are a number of cues to look out for. You may find you are very upset or shutting down. You may be unable to have a dialogue in which you can speak clearly about your feelings and needs. You may be unable to empathize with the other person’s feelings and needs. While projection is not limited to these signals, when you notice them occurring, you are possibly projecting your disowned parts onto the other person. As a general rule, the stronger your reaction, the more likely you are projecting.

You will know you are no longer projecting when you feel more compassion toward the other person and view the stimulus in a different light. If the stimulus was a particular behaviour, dissolving a projection may leave you still wanting to address the behaviour (although sometimes that is no longer necessary). Dissolving your projection allows you to have an empathic and connecting dialogue about the behaviour, without strong emotional and judgmental reactions.

If we don’t build a relationship with our disowned parts, they lurk below the surface of consciousness, like dragons and demons fighting us (and others) every step of the way as we try to fulfill our potential and create great relationships.

If you are strengthening your differentiation by building a relationship with your disowned parts and your partner is too, then together you can meet each other with more awareness and empathy during difficult times, instead of getting lost in projections.