Differentiation of Self Based Leadership

Jun 15, 2020 | Anxiety, Differentiation of Self, leadership

In a previous post, Emotionally Reactive Leadership, I discussed how arbitrary, knee jerk, and heel digging decisions are a manifestation of emotional reactivity (ER). While it is easy to identify leaders who habitually use ER as a basis of making decisions, it is more difficult to find a leader who makes decisions based on differentiation of self (DoS).

Differentiation of Self

To recognize a decision based on DoS, one must understand DoS. The term differentiation is based on the biological concepts of cells being independent of other cells and yet are interconnected with those other cells for the greater good of the organism. This can be easily seen in the human body. Each cell has a purpose and yet all work together.

This concept of needing interconnection with others and yet preserving independence also pertains to human relationships. All humans are pulled towards people who matter and yet feel the push to retain independence. When stress hits, people gather for comfort. As people huddle together, the anxiety of managing the interpersonal relationships becomes overwhelming, so people seek out methods of independence.

This push-pull tension goes as far back as our caveman ancestry. Groups of people gathered for safety, yet within the group each person held a specific job to ensure survival (Twomey, 2014). A larger group of people had a better chance of survival, but that could happen only when each person contributed to the survival. As a unit, the people lived or died.

If you are reading this, I am very confident you are not living in a cave. However, you are still influenced by those early human interactions. It is instinctual to want to be close to trusted people when life becomes stressful and yet you ‘need your space’ when you have had too much closeness.

DoS Definition

DoS can be defined as: the ability to manage the push-pull tension of interpersonal relationships. The response to this tension lays on a continuum. When stress is low, most people can present themselves as having the capability for managing this tension. However, as tension increases only those with higher levels of DoS retain the ability to think.  

A person who has a higher level of DoS has:

  1. The capacity to control personal, emotional reactivity when stress increases.
  2. The ability to continue engaging with important people regardless of the stress level.
  3. The capability of retaining individual opinions, emotions, and principles even as stress escalates (Kerr, 2019).

The Brain and DoS.

The human brain has three parts, the emotional system located in the lizard brain where ER decisions are made, the feeling system where people have the capability of recognizing their emotions, and the intellectual system located in the pre-frontal cortex where DoS decisions are made.

The pre-frontal cortex is what separates humans from all other creatures. Humans are the only known creatures that can take an idea based on past ideas and develop it into a new idea. The wheel has been developed in the ability to fly to the moon.

The hallmark of a person with a higher level of DoS can be seen when stress increases. People with higher levels of DoS recognize the instinctual desire to respond with ER based in the lizard brain but force themselves to self-soothe so they can use the intellectual system to think through the problem. They have the capability of remaining in contact with important people even as the stress increases. They also have the ability to allow others to have different opinions, emotions, and thoughts without feeling pressured to alter their opinions, emotions, or thoughts.

Identifying DoS Decisions

People with higher levels of DoS find creative solutions. A person with a higher level of DoS has a better ability to self-soothe. With an increase in self-soothing, the ability to think creatively also increases.  Creative ideas tend to be different from the norm, they tend to be quirky and unusual, but are based in thinking through the problem. Anything new, different, or outside the norm decision causes distress to people with lower levels of DoS.

People with higher levels of DoS remain solid in the decision. These decisions are not short-term anxiety reducing decisions created to temporarily lower anxiety. A short-term decision might placate the anxiety in the moment, but will cause destruction and greater difficulty in the long run. When solid decisions are made, those with lower levels of DoS will explode with ER because a solid decision will not falsely reduce their anxiety.  

People with higher levels of DoS can learn new facts and pivot to incorporate those facts. DoS allows people to have flexible thinking. A person with DoS can remove their emotional response from the decision and keep focused on the facts. Pivoting does not occur because of pressured to back down due to the intensity of other people’s ER has grown out of control. Pivoting is using new facts to improve the decision.

People with higher levels of DoS will NEVER:

  • Demand others take a knee as a form of appeasement.
  • Use a crisis to implement their personal objectives.
  • Be the loudest one screaming so no other opinion can be heard.
  • Set up the situation so only one opinion is allowed.

These are the actions of ER people. You will find that they change the content, but the process of forcing others to adhere to their viewpoint will endure.

Developing Your DoS

  1. Recognize when you are reacting emotionally. There is always a reason for the reaction. Identify the reason behind the reaction and explore the emotions you are experiencing around the issue.
  2. Learn to self-soothe. As you calm down, you have a better capability to shift yourself from ER to using your intellectual system. Remember, you may shift from ER to the intelligent system and back to ER several times during a stressful situation.The more you use your intellectual system the less you will shift back to ER.
  3. Be okay with other people reacting harshly to your opinions and views. When people react out of ER those reactions may be swift and painful, or slow and meticulous.
  4. Recognize that people reacting out of ER are not managing their anxiety. While they are proclaiming you are the problem, you do not need to absorb their opinions. When people react our of ER, resist the desire to distance yourself and remain connected with the person.
  5. Explore and develop personal opinions, values, and thoughts about important subjects. You can not stand firm on a personal opinion if you have not developed personal opinions.

Julie Swanberg-Hjelm, PhD

Julie is an expert on anxiety and differentiation of self. She helps organizations and individuals recognize how they are responding to anxiety and how to create new patterns of response. People can develop a greater capability of interacting with problems in a creative manner after they lower their emotional reactivity and increase their differentiation of self.


Kerr, M. E. (2019). Bowen theory’s secrets revealing the hidden life of families. New York, NY: Norton.

Twomey, T. (2014). How domesticating fire facilitated the evolution of human cooperation. Biology and Philosophy, 29(1), 89–99. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-013-9402-2