January 3, 2019 at 3:44 pm EST | by Michael Radkowsky
The differentiation conundrum
differentiation, gay news, Washington Blade

The best move you can make for 2019 and beyond: Aspire to live thoughtfully and respond to life in a way that you respect, despite pressure you may feel to think and act in ways that go against your integrity. 

Friends, colleagues, employers, family members, and, yes, especially significant others, at times may lean on us to behave in ways that don’t feel good to us. That’s life.  

Kindness, generosity, open-mindedness and collaboration are vital to maintaining healthy relationships of all sorts. Aspiring to behave with integrity does not mean doing whatever you want without regard to others. It does mean lining up your thoughts and actions with your self-respect, well-being and sense of what is right, even when others may want something different and especially when you feel pressure to conform.  

This concept has a name: differentiation. And aspiring to take a differentiated stance — holding onto yourself rather than seeking the validation of others — can be challenging.

For example:

• Friends at a party urge you to keep drinking though you know you’ve had enough.

• You make a catty comment you don’t feel good about, to get a laugh from your peers.

• Someone pushes you to have sex against your wishes.

• Colleagues laugh at a bigoted remark and you’re afraid not to join in.

• Your spouse wants you to banish a needy friend from your life but you believe that person needs your support.

In addition to pressure from friends, colleagues, family and intimate partners, we also face ongoing pressure from society to conform.  

Take coming out. Acknowledging being gay, given societal judgment and pressure to “be” straight, is a brave and difficult move. And even once you do, you still face the expectations of your new community around what it means to be a successful LGBT person. 

Across all these situations, the problem isn’t simply that outside pressures can push us to violate our core values. The deeper issue is that we have trouble dealing with the anxiety that comes up in these situations: anxiety about being judged, excluded, rejected or hurt.

We may respond to this anxiety by taking some action we hope will get rid of it or by shifting our focus outward to someone or something we can blame for our feeling bad: You may decide not to voice an unpopular position to avoid the worry of being criticized. You may yell at your spouse for some behavior of theirs when you are tense over a bad job review. Or you may snap at your aging forgetful parent when their mortality is staring you in the face. 

Another way we often respond to this anxiety is by looking to someone else to soothe us. You may insist that your boyfriend tell you everything will be OK in the middle of a fight when he is in no position to do so. When you make such a move, of course, you’re engaging in the dynamic of pressuring someone else to possibly sell themselves out in order to reduce your own discomfort. 

None of these behaviors address the real issue: How to keep yourself solid in the face of life’s challenges and uncertainties.

Taking a differentiated stance means that you aspire to handle yourself well when facing tough situations, rather than pushing away the anxiety, running from it or getting someone else to soothe you. You can do this both by learning to tolerate the anxiety and also by finding ways to soothe yourself. 

There’s no one easy prescription for learning to manage your own anxiety. The best advice I can offer is to always keep in mind that the better you can tolerate anxiety, calm yourself and behave thoughtfully, the more you will respect yourself and the better your life is likely to proceed in important ways.   

Our functioning and our relationships improve when we keep our head on straight in tough situations, when we don’t get pushed into betraying our deepest principles, when we don’t lash out, even when the other person is acting badly and when we can say no when we need to.

Keep in mind that when your integrity guides your behavior, you will at times let others down. Consequently, you will have to tolerate others being disappointed in you. You will also have to acknowledge that you are in some ways very different from those you love. All of this can feel lonely.  

And yet, the ability to tolerate disappointment and difference is what allows us to be intimate with others while also being able to stand on our own. This resilience also enables us to tolerate the ups, downs, conflicts, risks and heartbreaks of life.

Wishing you, our country and our planet a happy and healthy 2019.

Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with LGBT couples and individuals in D.C. He can be found online at michaelradkowsky.com. All identifying information has been changed for reasons of confidentiality. Have a question? Send it to Michael@michaelradkowsky.com.

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