Relationships are like that too, a delicate balance of connectedness and separateness. The technical word for this is differentiation, the practice of maintaining a “solid sense of self” while simultaneously maintaining safe, healthy and life-giving connections with others. Easy to put into words, harder to put into practice.
Every relationship is lived between these two poles. I am as unique as a snowflake (and sometimes as flaky!), as unique as my fingerprints and my DNA, and I want to discern, embrace, cultivate, maintain and enjoy this uniqueness. It’s also true that I am intimately and irrevocably connected to others — my family of origin, my marriage family or current household, my friends, neighbors, colleagues, etc., and I also want to cultivate, maintain and enjoy healthy connections with these others.
Physicists in the early twentieth century described something they could not understand: light seems to exist both as waves and as particles. Albert Einstein won the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics for demonstrating this “photoelectric effect.” And then to further confuse us mere mortals, Louis-Victor de Broglie demonstrated that all matter, which we normally think of as consisting of particles, has a wave-like nature, and for this De Broglie was awarded the 1929 Nobel Prize.
To live in the modern world is to exist in the tension between “particles” and “waves,” and to live in human society is to exist in the tension between “I” and “we.” In some animal societies – ants, bees, wasps, termites, and naked mole rats – the individual is almost fully subsumed into the colony. But with us, there is always an “I” and always a “we.” We spend much time and energy maintaining the balance between our individual and our communal considerations.
What I want is a healthy, “solid sense of self,” as well as loving, giving, caring, respectful, mutual, reciprocal relationships with those closest to me. I can’t fully embrace one and forsake or delegate away the other. If there is a logical priority of one over the other, perhaps it can be illustrated by the flight attendant’s instruction to “put on your own oxygen mask first, and then help children or others around you who need help.”
Those of us with a more avoidant attachment style tend to over-emphasize the “I,” and those of us with a more anxious attachment style tend to over-emphasize the “we.” In my experience, optimal health means honoring our strengths while simultaneously strengthening our weaknesses. Are you a little too self-contained, self-absorbed, or fearful of others? Perhaps you need to work on healthy connections. Do you struggle with losing yourself and becoming “fused” with others in relationships? Perhaps it’s time for you to work at developing a more solid sense of self.
It would be my privilege to help you find a better balance between healthy self and healthy connection in 2014!