Self-Differentiation: Standing with Wisdom

Edwin_FreidmanI recently heard John’s story, a long-time Christian whose leadership in his church was scuttled by the others on the leadership team. It was a difficult story to hear.

My friend, John*, is “self-differentiated.”  This was a new term to me just a few years ago. I was working on a doctorate and studying abusive leadership when I was introduced to this psychological term. I was challenged to make it a goal for my own character development.

As Herrington, Creech, and Taylor define it,

Differentiation is the ability to remain connected in relationship to significant people in our lives and yet not have our reactions and behavior determined by them.”1

Psychologist, Edwin Friedman popularized the concept many years ago. He described individuals who might actually come across as “cruel, cold, unfeeling, uncooperative, insensitive, selfish, strong -willed, or hard-headed.”2 However, he was quick to explain:

I do not mean an autocrat who tells others what to do or orders them around… Rather, I mean someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about.“3

Being self-differentiated means not being a people-pleaser. But, it also does not mean (in the biblical form) being arrogant or lacking empathy. It really means being above the fray…being able to determine the correct course of action based on your standards rather than by testing the anxious waters of those around you.

I would describe John as self-differentiated, and would quickly add, his fellow leaders (elders) apparently were not. John is the go-to guy when you need someone to wade into confrontational waters. He is the one asking questions. He is the one who challenges ideas. He is the one whose reactions are not determined by those who surround him.

When he was on the leadership team of the church, the decisions were always unanimous despite his questioning and challenges to ideas presented. It was evident that he did not simply hold to a position with an inability to humbly recognize other views. He asks questions. He helps others think through the issues. Then holds his position or changes according to what he believes to be true.

John described how his election to the board of the church was stopped due to allegations that he was not qualified according to 1 Timothy 3. The accuser was never made known to John and neither were specifics of those allegations.

The reason I would suggest the other elders were not self-differentiated is that their actions, each step of the way, seemed to display a “failure of nerve,” as Friedman puts it. Whether or not the accusations were founded on fact is of great concern to John. If there was some failing in his character, he would like to know. But, instead there was just silence.

The strange thing about self-differentiation is that others, who do not have it, often place their own anxiety on the self-differentiated. This drives the people-pleaser to keep confrontation at arm’s length. They think they will hurt feelings (like they would have their feelings hurt), make angry (like they would be angered), and cause an unpleasant incident.

And yet, the self-differentiated is the one who is safest to confront. Their feelings are not going to be hurt. They are not going to go into an angry tirade. They will not be unpleasant. A godly, self-differentiated individual will hear the complaint and weigh the validity of it against a biblical standard…and either confess or reject the claim.

Fear of Confrontation

I could sense a fear of confrontation in John’s story creeping into a process that required faith in God’s process – a process that involves brother-to-brother confrontation when one believes the other has sinned. Rather than bring the accuser together with accused, silence reigned. It was as if the leaders just wanted it to go away. No argument. No battle.

In the end, the church humiliated John with a public statement that he was unqualified to lead according to the 1 Timothy standards – no specifics given. When he confronted the church leadership, they made another public statement that John had not committed “sexual immorality.” Nothing else.

Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. [1 Timothy 3:2-7 (ESV)]

Neither John nor I know what was happening behind closed doors. But, the lack of communication, which I am interpreting as fear of conflict, has deeply wounded the John. There is broken fellowship.

Herrington, Creech, and Taylor say,

Jesus cared for the crowds, but he governed his relationship to their needs on the basis of principle, not their demands. He would serve them, but they would not determine his decisions.“4

When we allow our anxiety to rule our decision-making instead of God’s Word, it can create havoc relationally. It is ironic that when we are most often seeking to allay relational damage, those relationships suffer much greater violence in turn.

It takes trust that God will “work all things together for our good” to knowingly enter conflict. But, conflict created by the loving attempt to help someone grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ is well worth the relational struggle. The church leaders missed a golden opportunity to model godly differentiation to their congregation when they kept the accusations quiet and refused to allow John the opportunity to defend himself or grow through confrontation. In fact, his response to his accuser would have given them an excellent picture of his character.

As Friedman notes,

Differentiation is being clear about one’s own personal values and goals. Differentiation is taking maximum responsibility for one’s own emotional being and destiny rather than blaming others or the context.”5

Friedman was not a Christian, yet had very helpful things to say that challenge those of us who seek people’s pleasure rather than the Lord’s. What are our personal, God-given values and goals? And will we stand by them?


* John is not his real name.

1  Jim Herrington;Robert Creech;Trisha L. Taylor. The Leader’s Journey: Accepting the Call to Personal and Congregational Transformation (Jossey-Bass Leadership Network Series) (Kindle Locations 273-274). Kindle Edition.

2 Friedman, Edwin H. (2007-02-01). A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (Kindle Locations 1679-1683). Church Publishing Inc.. Kindle Edition.

3 Ibid. (Kindle Locations 341-342).

4 Herrington. (Kindle Locations 322-323).

5 Friedman. (Kindle Locations 3364-3374).

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