Secure Differentiation

In any intimate relationship, whether romantic or otherwise, you find yourself navigating the dynamic of secure differentiation. One side of the equation likely gets more of your attention. For example, you might be more focused on affirming security through physical closeness, reassurance, or consistent time together. Or, you might be more focused on differentiation by prioritizing time to do your own thing, consistently clarifying boundaries, or clearly expressing your own needs and requests.

Regardless of where attention goes most often, emotional security and healthy differentiation are two sides of one coin that we could call secure differentiation. For secure differentiation to be maintained in your relationships, both sides require your attention in a consistent way. In a previous Connection Gem, we talked about emotional security. For this Connection Gem, let’s focus on differentiation.

At the most basic level, to differentiate means deciding what you identify with, what you call “me.”  Developmentally, babies are in the process of doing this when they grasp concepts like my hand, my foot, etc. Teenagers often differentiate by distancing from their parents and trying on social identities like the hippie, the jock, etc. Adults often differentiate and create identity relative to livelihood.

From the process-oriented framework of Mindful Compassionate Dialogue, identity is something that is fluid and directed by what most deeply serves life. For example, an identity phrase could sound like:  “I am an ever-changing flow of dynamic aliveness directed by intention.” Identity phrases that include action verbs align with this process orientation. For example, “I dedicate myself to compassion,” rather than, “I am compassionate.”

From a process orientation, differentiation is an active, ongoing process of connecting to and honoring your own experience, acting in integrity with your values, and engaging in collaboration with others to meet needs. When differentiated, you are able to identify your needs and preferences in any given situation and to speak up for them when necessary. You regularly and explicitly clarify boundaries. You are able to manage the reactivity and discomfort that comes from either risking greater intimacy or potential separation and conflict.

Differentiation could be described as being who you are in the presence of who they are. If you are someone who thinks you are more connected to yourself and happier when you are not in an intimate relationship, you may have developed your individuality but likely have difficulty with differentiation.

Here are some core skills and behaviors that signify and support differentiation to cultivate and watch for:

1. Groundedness and clarity about your identity; confidence in your innate goodness and lovability

2. Self-awareness, self-empathy, self-regulation/soothing remain accessible and consistent throughout a given day

3. Self-responsibility: an ability to share unmet needs without blame, criticism, or demands

4. An ability to meet differences with with respect, curiosity, empathy, or celebration

5. An ability to listen with empathy in interactions you perceive as difficult or challenging

6. An ability to make changes within or to end relationships in which collaboration and mutual respect are not met

7. Consistent engagement in activities and behaviors that  support your thriving

8. Having multiple trusted strategies to meet any given need; not expecting to meet any need with just one person or one strategy

9. A consistent sense of meaning and purpose

10. A consistent and confident sense of autonomy and agency

11. An ability to express authentically while considering the needs of others and risking conflict

12. Mindfulness practice: noticing your experience with compassion; having an ability to identify your intention, feelings, needs, and requests in any given moment

As you cultivate a solid sense of differentiation in yourself, it may helpful to notice moments when you perceive a threat to your identity or autonomy. The most obvious and common indicators of a sense of threat are defending, judging others, acting without consideration of others’ needs, and attempting to harmonize at the cost of your own authenticity.

With anything you want to learn and cultivate, you can go about it in at least two ways:

1) Notice when the opposite is present, and engage a simple practice in that moment. For example, when you notice a symptom of threat, anchor yourself with an identity-affirming mantra.

2) Set up a consistent form of healing or practice. For example, set aside time once a week for self empathy practice.

While secure differentiation is a many-layered experience and practice, just setting your intention to notice it in your primary relationships is a useful place to start.


Take a moment now to review the above list of core skills and behaviors that signify and support differentiation. Identify which behaviors you already do with some consistency and confidence. Then, identify one behavior to which you would like bring more attention.