Dear Fiona: Know Yourself

Dear Fiona,

In my last letter I began to explore the thought of holding in tension the carving out of your own identity while still existing as a part of a social structure that can offer you advice and support. In this letter I want to dive more deeply into that seeming contradiction.

In an earlier letter I wrote about intimacy, and in particular about the definition of intimacy your mom came up with several years ago: Knowing yourself as deeply and fully as possible, and then sharing that “known self” fully with someone else.

The first step in that process, of course, is to know yourself.

How does that work?

To find out, I think we need to explore three concepts from social psychology: Fusion, Dissociation, and Differentiation

Fusion is essentially what I talked about in my previous letter: becoming so reliant on the will and opinion and desire of another person – so eager to please them – that you lose yourself and the sense that you are a unique and individual person.

Dissociation, on the other hand, is pulling away from a stressful situation or person to avoid becoming entangled and enmeshed with them.

Neither of these approaches is healthy. Both of them kill relationship, and both of them damage your sense of self – the former by overwhelming it, and the latter by breaking off pieces of it. When you’re “fused” with another person, you lose your sense of self out of a desire to please and fulfill that other person. When you “dissociate” from another person, you kill off the relationship entirely in an attempt to break that hold on you.

In between the two is Differentiation. Differentiation is balancing the two basic human needs for connection and autonomy. It is what allows you to hold onto yourself while continuing to pursue a relationship with another.

At the root of this concept is the notion that we’ve talked about in several of these letters thus far: intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. According to Dr. David Schnarch – whose writings have had a profound impact on the way your mom and I pursued our relationship with each other, got married, and have continued to grow in our relationship since then – differentiation involves having a “solid flexible self.”

At first glance, this appears to be just another contradiction, but Schnarch explains that it means the ability to change, rather than remaining rigid and “stuck” in your own comfort zone . . . NOT because of external stimuli, but rather because you yourself consider and think through and decide to do – and be – someone different than what you are right now.

Externally-motivated change is just another form of fusion: in which you’re entangled and enmeshed with the person driving you to change.

Internally-motivated change, on the other hand, helps you to grow and discover and BECOME.

And that’s what I want for you . . . to fully become yourself, and to have a clear and vibrant picture of who that is.

That’s going to be painful at time, because it’s going to involve setting up boundaries . . . boundaries around you, and boundaries around me. There are going to be times when you want me to do things for you, when instead I will help you work through how to do them for yourself.

That is part of getting to know yourself.

There will also be times when I want you to do things for me, when instead I will need to let you have the freedom to do your own thing, in your own way.

That is also part of getting to know yourself.

And as always, there is the delicate balance between the two . . . the struggling, fumbling manner in which we’ll figure out together where those boundaries lie, and how to negotiate them with each other.

But I’d much rather work through that process with you than run roughshod over your developing sense of self, imposing and imprinting my desires on you and trying to turn you into someone other than who you were created to be.

I won’t do that. I love you too much, not for what you do, but for who you are . . . now, and for the rest of your life.

And I’m so excited to continue getting to know you, as you continue to get to know yourself.


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