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How is Your Interpersonal Horizon?

By Lynn M. Acquafondata

Do you have a healthy interpersonal horizon? That invisible line that separates you from others can protect and connect you, or it can impair and endanger you. Here are signs to monitor your interpersonal horizons.

The metaphor of a horizon explains the benefits and challenges of self-differentiation, that line between self and others that both separates us so that we can be unique individuals, and connects us so that we can be in relationship and support each other.

Similar to a cloudy day when there is no visible horizon, inadequate self-differentiation blurs or removes the line between self and others.

We have inadequate self-differentiation, meaning we blur the line between ourselves and others, when we:

  • Seek acceptance or approval from others in order to make decisions or speak our truth.
  • Go along with a group even if their views and actions go against our own values (conflict avoidance).
  • Force others to believe and do the same things as oneself. Don’t accept another person’s individuality.
  • Are indecisive and have a hard time making or sticking to decisions.
  • Rebel. The only way we can be our self or make our own choices is by cutting others off.

We have beneficial self-differentiation when that line between self and others is distinct but not rigid. These are some of the signs of beneficial self-differentiation. Like a beautiful sunny day, there are many healthy ways to live out these qualities, just like there are a wide variety of ways that the earth appears to reach the sky to bring beauty and balance.

We have balanced self-differentiation when we:

  • Can be part of a group, but stay calm when others disagree or even criticize us.
  • Speak clearly and directly to others.
  • Make decisive decisions and stick to them.
  • Voice our opinions and listen respectfully to others.
  • Respect people who are different from us and respect opposing viewpoints.
  • Are willing and able to face and address conflict.

Many of the signs of inadequate self-differentiation correspond to the characteristics of anxious leaders and congregations. That’s because poor self-differentiation leads to anxiety in systems. At the same time, many of the signs of constructive self-differentiation correspond to the Tools of a Grounding Leader , because constructive self-differentiation helps to keep us calm and centered in the midst of change and disagreement.

These scenes demonstrate some of the subtleties of discerning adequate from balanced self-differentiation.

The Angelo Children

In the previous article, we learned about Tomasso Angelo and his struggles with alcoholism and self-differentiation that were expressed in his name change. Tomasso exhibits his lack of self-differentiation by forcing others to believe what he thinks is best and to do things his way. Tomasso demands loyalty of his children, Sabrina and Guido, and does not allow them any chance to question him or express alternative perspectives.

One of the developmental tasks of teenagers is to develop their own identity apart from family. For teens from alcoholic family systems, this task is complex.

Guido, age 15, a freshman in high school, responds by rebelling, a sign of low self-differentiation. He can only be his own person by going against the values of his parents. He starts skipping school, smoking cigarettes and marijuana and drinking with friends.

As a young teen in an unhealthy family system, Guido is not able to increase his self-differentiation on his own. However, when other family members begin to increase their self-differentiation, Guido learns some new tools of facing the world by observing their actions. Then his own his rebellious behaviors begin to change. His older sister Sabrina is a positive influence on his development.

As a 16-year old sophomore in high school, Sabrina connects well with others. She is very attuned to others’ needs in part due to growing up with an alcoholic father. For most of her life, Sabrina sought acceptance and approval.

At home she complies, often grudgingly, but she does what she is told, even if it doesn’t feel right to her. She is much like her father with a high aptitude for leadership, but being a female in a male-dominated culture, she is not given the opportunity to develop these skills.  

Expectations on her are lower because she is female from a male-dominated culture. At the same time, parental pressure to succeed is lower which allows her the space and freedom to learn how to succeed in her own way and make some healthy changes herself.

At school she has a teacher who has been an important mentor for her, and she has made a new group of friends who become role models who encourage her to try new things and stand up for herself.

Next week, Sabrina makes a decision to do something new without her family’s approval, but to tell them in advance, and then stick to her commitment. Join me next week as we explore the risks and benefits of increasing one’s self-differentiation through the life of 16-year old Sabrina.

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Edited by Johanna Bond

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