Integrating Meaningful Connection and Emotional Separateness


“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion;
it is easy in solitude to live after our own;
but the great man[woman] is he[she] who
in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness
the independence of solitude.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

Bowen Family Systems Theory, through the research and pioneering work of Dr. Murray Bowen, includes a “Scale of Differentiation,” or scale of emotional maturity.  This scale makes it possible to think about all people on one continuum of functioning, ranging from the highest level of maturity to the lowest.

One of the major features of people at the higher end of the scale is the capacity for flexibility in how they deal with relationships.  Bowen states in Family Therapy in Clinical Practice that “high-scale people are free to engage in goal-directed activity, or to lose “self” in the intimacy of a close relationship…”  At first pass, this may seem like a relatively simple idea.  On deeper reflection, there are nuances that are hard to discern and even harder to put into practice.

All people must respond to the competing internal drives to be an individual, thinking and acting for oneself, juxtaposed against the drive to fit in, to be accepted and to be a member in good standing in any important group, such as a family or an organization.  One simple way of thinking about the juxtaposition of these inherent internal drives is to position each at opposite ends of a continuum, with the idea being to “strike a balance” between the two, as depicted below.

Being an individual      Being part of the group

I believe the idea of merely finding a balance here is missing the mark.  Balance implies that there is some kind of relative range of equilibrium between the amount of time and energy spent in each mode of functioning.  I don’t see it or experience it that way.  My own effort to move toward higher maturity has led me toward integration, where there is no individuality outside of the group, and no meaningful connection without the independent functioning of individuality.  This can be depicted by the following modification to the continuum:

Less Mature                         More Mature                                                               
Polarized individualism                                        Distinct individual
(functionally isolated)                                           While
Or                                                                                    Meaningfully Connected
Polarized Togetherness
(lack of independent functioning)

Polarized individualism is characterized by one who, in order to think and act for oneself, has to distance from others with a rugged “go it alone” kind of mentality.  With this type of functioning, one becomes disconnected from others, mistaking the distance for true autonomy or separateness.

Polarized togetherness is characterized by one who, in order to fit in and gain acceptance, gives up what s/he really believes and goes along with the group, being directed in life by the need for harmony and acceptance.  With this type of functioning, one gives up his/her autonomy, mistaking artificial harmony for true meaningful connection.

At the higher end of maturity, one integrates the capacity to think and act for self while remaining meaningfully connected with others.  There are many nuances and skill sets that make this kind of integration possible.

Functioning with high maturity, in my view, demands being able to think through multiple variables and nuances in any given moment, in an effort to see a path forward.  Some examples for consideration include:

  • The specific role or relationship – What is meaningful in one relationship is different from what is meaningful in others
  • Goals – What one is working toward influences what is considered meaningful
  • Purpose – In any given interaction, knowing one’s purpose (i.e.- to challenge, to express empathy, to promote growth, to promote calmness, etc.) acts as a rudder
  • Beliefs, values and principles – Core guiding beliefs, values and principles act as a set of guideposts, helping one stay on course in life
  • Context – In addition to role and relationship, the context in any given moment influences what kind of interaction will be most meaningful

In addition to these examples, another level of connection is what I have come to refer to as “Meta-Connection.”  Meta-Connection refers to directly addressing each individual’s view of what would be meaningful.  In this kind of connection, individuals openly discuss:

  • What each considers meaningful
  • Points of thoughtful alignment (not superficial harmony)
  • Points of difference and how differences will be handled
  • The part that each individual plays in working toward the desired connection

There are two core capacities that one must cultivate in oneself that make the integration of connection and separateness possible.  One is the ability to clearly speak for self.  The other is a genuine curiosity about the other’s thinking.  Together, these two capacities produce the emerging ability to live what Emerson is pointing to in the quote above.  Specifically, this is the ability to function with autonomy and self-responsibility while affording others with the latitude to do the same, and engaging in a manner that promotes both connection and autonomy in the relationship.

While the ideas presented here are not that difficult to understand intellectually, the shifts that most people would need to make are not merely intellectual shifts.  Progress in this way of functioning really begins with a rigorous commitment to become more self-aware, no matter how uncomfortable or difficult it may be to see oneself more accurately and objectively.

I will be expanding on a number of ideas presented here over the coming months.  I look forward to sharing my evolving thinking.

Stan Proffitt
 Shoshin Leadership, Inc.

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