By Benjamin Deu, MA, LMHC, Seattle Christian Counseling
References “Passionate Marriage” by Dr. David SchnarchOne of the most important skills people can teach themselves is to not let the things other people say or do rattle them. This does not mean turning into an emotionless automaton. Rather, you develop the strength to keep from spinning off into an anxiety vortex whenever emotions start to get out of hand. Dr. David Schnarch, director of the Marriage and Family Health Center in Colorado, calls this “differentiation.”
I’m not saying anything new when I say being in a relationship with someone gives them power over you. You care about their opinion of you, whether you make them happy, and their emotions influence yours. Schnarch calls this “emotional fusion.” Emotionally fused people allow other people’s emotions to dictate theirs. For example, if their spouse snaps at them after a rough day, an emotionally fused person gets upset and responds in kind. A differentiated person stays calm because they know their partner’s irritation has little to do with them.
Dealing with Anxiety
Emotional fusion opens cracks for anxiety to flood in. Differentiation seals them.
To guard against anxiety, you must learn to self-soothe. How others treat us can have a powerful effect on our emotions. One word can either boost us through the day, or send us crashing to the floor. If you can soothe yourself, you can avoid the roller coaster that is allowing the opinions of others to dictate your opinion of yourself.
“Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.” (Eph. 4:14 NIV) Obviously, the Apostle Paul was speaking of alternative teachings here. However, the sentiment holds true for emotions as well. Learning to hold onto yourself is essential to keeping someone else’s bad day from ruining yours.
But how do you do this? Part of it is knowing when you are allowing someone else to make you anxious. Say you buy someone a present, and they do not like it. This hurts your feelings. But should it? After all, just because they do not like the gift does not mean they do not like you. Becoming differentiated means becoming aware of when you are allowing a situation to overwhelm you emotionally, and summoning the inner strength to regain your center.
Tension becomes a problem for relationships when people rely on their partners to soothe them, instead of themselves. Let’s go back to the gift analogy. An emotionally fused spouse would take their spouse’s lukewarm reaction to the present personally. They pout and rely on their partner to make a fuss over pretending to like the present before they felt better. A differentiated person would, like anyone, feel a sting when they see their spouse does not like the present. Then they would remind themselves this does not mean their spouse does not like them. And, anyway, they can always take their spouse to return the gift and pick out something they do like.
“When your spouse is your support system, you have to keep an eye on him or her at all times. If he or she ‘moves’ emotionally or physically, you immediately feel off-balance, even threatened. That’s when you become preoccupied with issues of ‘trust’ because any unilateral shift is a violation of sorts. In contrast, partners whose sense of stability comes from themselves are aware of, but relatively unaffected by, one another’s shifts.” (164)
Personal AnxietyNot all anxiety is relational; some is situational. If you are like most people, the idea of giving a public presentation turns your stomach. Having a group focus all its attention on you is nerve-wracking. Part of differentiation is learning to “make yourself quiet,” (as Schnarch’s then-5-year-old daughter put it) when faced with scary or uncomfortable situations. (170) You find a way to control your emotions, so they do not control you.
“Self-soothing involves turning inward and accessing your own resources to regain your emotional balance and feeling comfortable in your body… Self-soothing is your ability to comfort yourself, lick your own wounds, and care for yourself without excessive indulgence or deprivation… Self-soothing involves meeting two core challenges of selfhood: (a) not losing yourself to the pressures and demands of others, and (b) developing your capacity for self-centering (stabilizing your own emotions and fears).” (170-3)
What differentiation is not
Differentiation is not hard-heartedness or Vulcan-esque frigidity. It is being aware of other people’s emotions, but not allowing them to dictate yours. It puts me in mind of that quote about how the true sign of intelligence is that you are able to hear and evaluate alternative points of view without immediately swallowing them. Consider differentiation “emotional intelligence.”
Schnarch does not offer a “how-to become more differentiated.” All you can do is take advantage of the opportunities life gives you. Calm yourself before a presentation at work. Be patient and compassionate when your spouse snaps at you after a rough day at work. Differentiation is learning to take the high road when a situation aims to lay you low.
“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” (2 Tim 1:7 NKJV) When you feel frightened or overwhelmed, remember this verse. Just as believers must stand firm against false doctrine, so must they also stand against the maelstrom of negative emotions. The Lord sent to Holy Spirit to instill his children with the strength to hold onto the truth inside themselves when anxiety or negativity attempts to creep in and pull them down. Center yourself on that.
Christian counseling for Anxiety
There is nothing wrong with wanting to get along with others, or looking to loved ones for support, but you will always be dependent on them in emotionally vulnerable situations if you do not learn how to “make yourself quiet.” A professional Christian counselor can help you identify when you are overwhelmed by the emotions of others, or situations when your own emotions overwhelm you, and help you to quiet them.
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