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This study assessed the effects of differentiation levels on the career development of college students. Participants were 231 college students who completed the Differentiation of Self Inventory (Skowron & Friedlander, 1998), My Vocational Situation (Holland, Daiger, & Power, 1980), the Career Decision Profile (CDP; Jones & Lohmann, 1998), and demographic questions. The results supported the hypotheses that higher levels of the various components of differentiation would predict higher levels of vocational identity and fewer difficulties with career decision making. In particular, lower levels of emotional cutoff and emotional reactivity and higher levels of “I position” predicted higher levels of vocational identity and career decision making. Results suggest a more complicated picture for fusion, with higher levels being predictive of lower levels of decisiveness but not significantly related to vocational identity. Implications of the results for career counselors are provided.
According to attachment theory, healthy psychosocial development is associated with secure parental attachment, wherein children or adolescents feel safe enough to explore their environment while knowing their parental figures are accessible and responsive when called upon (Bowlby, 1988). This secure attachment is associated with individuals’ ability to connect with others and cope with stressful problems (Ketterson & Blustein, 1997). Similarly, it is necessary for adolescents and young adults to become autonomous or psychologically separate from their parents (Lee & Hughey, 2001), thus developing functional identities of their own (Tokar, Withrow, Hall, & Moradi, 2003).
Research on the attachment and separation process in relation to young adult career development has produced mixed results. For example, parental attachment has been linked to career aspirations (O'Brien, 1996; O'Brien & Fassinger, 1993; Rainey & Borders, 1997; Richie et al., 1997), career planning (Felsman & Blustein, 1999; Kenny, 1990; Lee & Hughey, 2001), career self-efficacy (Lease & Dahlbeck, 2009), and career exploration (Ketterson & Blustein, 1997; Lee & Hughey, 2001). However, psychological separation has not been as clearly linked with career development. Tokar et al. (2003) found that, among the 350 undergraduate students surveyed, greater psychological separation from mothers was correlated with a higher vocational self-concept; however, separation from fathers was related to a lower vocational self-concept and higher levels of career indecision. Lopez (1989) found that lower scores of conflictual independence (i.e., freedom from excessive guilt, resentment, and anger in the relationships with parents) among young adults were predictive of higher levels of vocational identity, indicating a more clear and stable sense of work-related goals, interests, personalities, and abilities. Other researchers found no relationship between psychological separation from parents and young adult career development (Downing & Nauta, 2010; Hartung, Lewis, May, & Niles, 2002; Lee & Hughey, 2001; Lucas, 1997; O'Brien, Friedman, Tipton, & Linn, 2000; Santos & Coimbra, 2000; Thomason & Winer, 1994).
Empirical evidence suggests that achieving the developmental task of career development may be facilitated by a balance in psychological security: healthy levels of attachment and independence from attachment figures, particularly parents (Lee & Hughey, 2001; Rainey & Borders, 1997). The pairing of attachment and independence seems to provide the “most supportive family conditions with respect to commitment to the career choices process” (Blustein, Walbridge, Friedlander, & Palladino, 1991, p. 47). Collectively, studies have shown that strong parental attachment in combination with psychological separation from parents has been linked positively to career commitment (Blustein et al., 1991), vocational identity (Berríos-Allison, 2005; Lopez, 1989), and positive college adjustment (Mattanah, Hancock, & Brand, 2004). Lee and Hughey (2001) found that psychological separateness alone was not significantly associated with the career maturity of college freshmen unless paired with a strong emotional attachment to parental figures. O'Brien and Fassinger (1993) found that female adolescents who exhibited moderate degrees of attachment to as well as independence from their mothers tended to value career pursuits, thus expressing higher levels of congruency and realism with regard to their current career choice. Lease and Dahlbeck (2009) studied the attachment of college students to their mothers and established a positive correlation between elevated degrees of career decision self-efficacy and a higher perceived quality of relationship to those mothers who facilitated the young adult's independence.
Thus, research on career and family dynamics points to the importance of a combination of both healthy attachment to one's parents along with a certain level of psychological separation as contributing positively to aspects of career development. It seems that separation alone does not lead to healthy career development, which may be reflective of the quality of the family interactions surrounding the separation process. Reactive family dynamics may underlie the mixed results found in previous research related to the effects of psychological separation on the career development of young adults. It may be that the level of emotional reactivity associated with the separation process has a defining impact on the career process, especially decision making. Young adults who are attached to their parents and are able to separate with low levels of emotional reactivity may exhibit successful career development.
The need for a balance of attachment to and psychological separation from one's parents is characterized best by the family systems theory concept of differentiation of self. According to family systems theory, within individuals there is a life force driving them to become an emotionally separate person as well as a life force driving them to remain emotionally connected to family (Bowen, 1976, 1978; Kerr & Bowen, 1988). Differentiation of self refers to an individual's ability to function in an autonomous and self-directed manner without being controlled by family members or significant others and without emotionally cutting off from these significant relationships. In other words, differentiated individuals experience a separate sense of self while staying in contact with significant others. Undifferentiated individuals, on the other hand, tend to remain fused in relationships with parents and significant others or emotionally cutoff from these relationships (Johnson & Waldo, 1998).
A central barometer of differentiation is an individual's level of emotional reactivity, often seen in the ability to separate thoughts and feelings (Bowen, 1978). Differentiated individuals are not overwhelmed by emotionality at the expense of their intellect, whereas undifferentiated individuals are ruled by their emotions. Differentiated individuals are “inner-directed” and readily take an “I position” rather than experience emotional reactivity in response to external events and others’ emotionality (Kerr & Bowen, 1988).
Kerr and Bowen (1988) theorized that an individual's level of differentiation would affect his or her physical, social, and emotional health. A number of studies have explored the effects of differentiation on different aspects of health and well-being. Specifically, higher levels of differentiation have been correlated with healthy psychosocial development in young adults (Jenkins, Buboltz, Schwartz, & Johnson, 2005), successful young adult identity attainment (Johnson, Buboltz, & Seemann, 2003), and greater feelings of well-being (Bohlander, 1999; Skowron, Holmes, & Sabatelli, 2003), whereas lower levels of differentiation have been found to be highly correlated with increased levels of chronic anxiety and symptomatic distress (Skowron & Friedlander, 1998). Differentiation has also been correlated to an individual's overall level of stress and health (Harvey & Bray, 1991).
The process of differentiating from one's family of origin occurs throughout childhood and adolescence, becoming increasingly important in young adulthood (Carter & McGoldrick, 1989) and continuing well into the 30s for most individuals (Lawson, Gaushell, & Karst, 1993; Williamson & Bray, 1988). Young adults are often required to make educational and vocational decisions while they are in the midst of their differentiation process. According to Super, Savickas, and Super (1996), individuals in their early to mid-20s are typically focused on the career development tasks of crystallizing, specifying, and implementing an occupational choice. Thus, for many young adults, the differentiation process is occurring simultaneously with the career development process, which highlights the need to further explore the relationship between differentiation levels and career identity and decision making.
The purpose of our study was to assess the effects of differentiation levels on the career development of young adults. As previously mentioned, it may be that balanced attachment with parents, in combination with low levels of reactivity in the separation process, has a strong impact on the career development process. Thus, it was expected that higher levels of the various components of differentiation would predict higher levels of vocational identity and fewer difficulties with career decision making. Specifically, we hypothesized that healthy career development would be predicted by a balanced connection with parents (i.e., neither fused nor cutoff), a strong sense of a self (i.e., I position), and a balance of thinking and emotional processes characterized by low levels of emotional reactivity.
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For our study, the alpha coefficients for the scales were as follows: DSI = .75, Emotional Reactivity = .67, Emotional Cutoff = .83, Fusion With Others = .50, I Position = .75, VI = .89, Decidedness = .74, Comfort = .79, Self-Clarity = .80, Knowledge = .77, Decisiveness = .86, and Career Choice Importance = .34. (The Fusion With Others and Career Choice Importance subscales are noted as having low internal consistency). Means, standard deviations, and bivariate correlations for the DSI, MVS, and CDP scales and subscales are presented in Table 1.
Table 1. Descriptive Statistics and Study Variable Intercorrelations
|1. ER||37.75||10.14||—|| || || || || || || || || || |
|2. IP||46.55||9.08||.42*||—|| || || || || || || || || |
|3. EC||54.16||10.66||.16*||.15*||—|| || || || || || || || |
|4. FO||24.84||8.63||.27*||−.05||−.26*||—|| || || || || || || |
|5. VI||12.11||6.10||.27*||.25*||.21*||.04||—|| || || || || || |
|6. Dec||13.80||3.04||.08||.24*||.20*||−.09||.48*||—|| || || || || |
|7. Com||12.33||3.64||.20*||.29*||.18*||.01||.56*||.60*||—|| || || || |
|8. SC||12.68||6.98||.03||−.01||.02||.14*||.14*||.14*||.11||—|| || || |
|9. Know||15.34||6.22||.11||.14*||.23*||.04||.46*||.40*||.47*||.00||—|| || |
|10. Deci||16.22||6.33||.33*||.25*||.14*||.20*||.25*||.15*||.34*||.11||.19*||—|| |
To assess the effects of differentiation on vocational identity and career decision making, we performed simultaneous multiple regression analyses. In separate analyses, the full model, which included all four DSI subscales, significantly predicted the MVS VI subscale, R2 = .12, F(4, 197) = 6.86, p < .0005, and all six CDP subscales: (a) Decidedness, R2 = .09, F(4, 200) = 4.77, p = .001; (b) Comfort, R2 = .11, F(4, 200) = 6.23, p < .0005; (c) Self-Clarity, R2 = .05, F(4, 200) = 2.45, p = .047; (d) Knowledge, R2 = .16, F(4, 200) = 9.16, p < .0005; (e) Decisiveness, R2 = .33, F(4, 200) = 24.76, p < .0005; and (f) Career Choice Importance, R2 = .05, F(4, 199) = 2.65, p = .035.
Multiple regression analyses also revealed the unique effects of each component of differentiation on vocational identity and career decision making. Specifically, higher levels of emotional reactivity predicted lower levels of vocational identity, F(1, 197) = 3.71, p = .0275, and decisiveness, F(1, 200) = 6.47, p = .006. Higher levels of I position predicted higher levels of vocational identity, F(1, 197) = 4.38, p = .019; decidedness, F(1, 200) = 9.33, p = .0015; comfort, F(1, 200) = 11.55, p = .0005; self-clarity, F(1, 200) = 6.04, p = .0075; knowledge, F(1, 200) = 8.87, p = .0015; and decisiveness, F(1, 200) = 26.47, p < .0005. Higher levels of emotional cutoff predicted lower levels of vocational identity, F(1, 197) = 6.27, p = .0065; decidedness, F(1, 200) = 3.86, p = .0255; comfort, F(1, 200) = 3.88, p = .025; knowledge, F(1, 200) = 15.32, p < .0005; decisiveness, F(1, 200) = 16.39, p < .0005; and career choice importance, F(1, 199) = 7.06, p = .004. Higher levels of fusion with others predicted lower levels of decisiveness, F(1, 200) = 10.50, p = .0005.
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Our study suggests a link between differentiation of self and young adult career development. Specifically, higher levels of differentiation predict higher levels of vocational identity and higher levels of all six of the CDP subscales (i.e., Decidedness, Comfort, Self-Clarity, Knowledge, Decisiveness, and Career Choice Importance). These findings support our hypothesis that differentiation, as a whole, predicts healthy career development. In particular, the full model accounts for 12% of the variance of vocational identity and significant amounts of variance of each CDP subscale, including 33% of the variance of the Decisiveness subscale. It seems that differentiation levels have a strong practical significance on the career development of young adults, especially decision making.
In addition, the various components of differentiation appear to have unique effects on the different areas of vocational identity and career decision making. In regard to emotional cutoff, results are as expected, with higher levels of emotional cutoff predicting lower levels of vocational identity and lower levels on five of the six CDP subscales (i.e., Decidedness, Comfort, Knowledge, Decisiveness, and Career Choice Importance). Thus, emotional cutoff appears to have a negative impact on career development. As seen in previous research, separation alone does not lead to a healthy career process for young adults (Downing & Nauta, 2010; Hartung et al., 2002; Lee & Hughey, 2001; Lucas, 1997; O'Brien et al., 2000; Santos & Coimbra, 2000; Thomason & Winer, 1994). The level of emotional reactivity associated with the separation process may have a defining impact on career development. Emotional cutoff tends to be a reactive attempt to deal with family overinvolvement (fusion) and unresolved family dynamics (Johnson & Waldo, 1998). Emotionally cutting off from others is a way to reactively disentangle oneself from undifferentiated relationships. Thus, emotional cutoff is a reactive process that seems to negatively affect the career development process.
With regard to reactivity, results are as expected with higher levels of emotional reactivity predicting lower levels of vocational identity and lower levels of decisiveness. Reactive individuals tend to be ruled by their emotions at the expense of their intellect (Bowen, 1976), which seems to challenge vocational identity and decision making.
Differentiation has also been associated with psychosocial identity development (Johnson et al., 2003), with higher levels of emotional cutoff and reactivity being associated with the moratorium status of identity development, in which individuals are actively searching for and exploring an identity but have not yet made a clear commitment. Johnson et al. (2003) pointed to an emotional upheaval in the process of moratorium in which individuals are reactively attempting to differentiate from parents, causing a great deal of turbulence, which may account for the inability to commit to a particular identity. These individuals may be experiencing a similar level of turbulence in the career development process. This turbulence associated with moratorium, which has been shown to be related to reactivity and cutoff (Johnson et al., 2003), may be what is accounting for the lack of vocational identity and lower levels of decisiveness. Thus, it would make sense that as in the case of moratorium, individuals from our study who scored high on levels of emotional cutoff and reactivity are searching, but not yet able to make clear career decisions and develop a stable vocational identity.
An interesting finding from our study is that higher levels of fusion are predictive of lower levels of decisiveness; yet fusion is not significantly related to vocational identity. Fusion reflects an emotional overinvolvement with others, specifically one's parents, indicating a certain level of dependence on other individuals. This dependence and overinvolvement in significant relationships may be indicative of a certain level of borrowed functioning from others, specifically one's parents. According to Johnson et al. (2003), a higher level of fusion is associated with the ego identity status of foreclosure, indicating a commitment to an identity that is largely based on parents’ beliefs without an exploration of alternatives. The foreclosure process associated with fusion may extend to the career development process. Specifically, individuals who are fused with their parents may possess a certain level of vocational identity because they are borrowing this identity from their parents. However, if individuals base their career decisions on their parents’ values and beliefs, it makes sense that they would struggle with their own decision-making process.
Finally, findings related to I position are as expected. Specifically, higher levels of I position are predictive of higher levels of vocational identity and higher levels of five of the six subscales (i.e., Decidedness, Comfort, Self-Clarity, Knowledge, Decisiveness) of the CDP. Results suggest that a clearly defined sense of self and the ability to thoughtfully adhere to one's convictions when pressured to do otherwise is central to healthy career development (i.e., higher levels of vocational identity and increased capacity for career decision making). In addition, results support Kerr and Bowen's (1988) belief that poorly differentiated individuals have more energy bound in relationships with others, resulting in little to no capacity for autonomous functions and a decreased percentage of energy that can be directed to one's own life functioning. Thus, an individual with a high level of I position may have more capacity and energy to direct one's own life function, specifically the career development process.
Limitations and Future Research
Our study has limitations that may prove constructive in guiding future research. First, the study concentrated on the differentiation and career decision-making abilities of college students. Although an important population to consider, a college demographic is not representative of all young adults contending with career choice and the developmental task of differentiation. In addition, the demographic makeup of the sample and instrumentation used in our study limit the generalizability of ethnic differences. The participants in our study and those in the norming samples used in the development of the MVS, CDP, and DSI largely consisted of Caucasians/Anglo Americans. Concepts of individuality and autonomy have been challenged as less relevant in some cultures that have a much more group-oriented consciousness than is typically observed in Western societies (Christopher & Smith, 2006; Johnson & Smith, 2011, Spring). In future research, inclusion of greater ethnic/racial diversity as well as young adults from outside the college environment would make the results more generalizable and could address cultural differences related to ideas of a separate self.
Our study focused on the concept of differentiation, which can be viewed as a measure of an individual's current level of psychological health. Bowen (1978) theorized that an individual's level of differentiation is a result of a projective process in which parents pass down their anxieties to their children. Although the current status of an individual's psychological health is relevant, it may not be sufficient in understanding the quality of the parental attachment and differentiation process. In other words, we assessed current differentiation levels, not the process of how they arrived at their differentiation levels. Future research could focus on how career decision making is affected by the quality of family interactions, especially the projection process and reactivity in identity development (Johnson et al., 2003).
Another limitation of the study is that all measures were self-reported. Thus, the relationships among variables could have been inflated because of method variance.
Implications for Career Counselors
Despite limitations, findings from our study have implications for career counselors and other clinicians who work with a college population. Our study hypothesized that a balance of attachment to parents and autonomy in combination with low levels of reactivity in the separation process would positively affect career development. The findings from our study, in addition to previous studies on the quality of attachment, provide a strong justification for career counselors to attentively track family-of-origin dynamics, which are associated with differentiation. For example, the use of genograms and lifelines could prompt family information that may be relevant to the career process (Brown & Brooks, 1991). Lease and Dahlbeck (2009) suggested an exploration of the degree to which parents facilitate autonomy and the quality of the affective relationships between parents and their children. They also recommended offering psychoeducational programs for students and their parents that would facilitate an open discussion on career decision making and how students and their parents could work together in this developmental process. Counselors are encouraged to sensitively consider their clients’ cultural styles and expectations as they navigate issues of attachment and separation in their relationships.
In our study, I position was highly correlated with all but one measure of career decision making. This result highlights the importance of assisting clients in the construction of a solid and clearly defined sense of self. Jenkins et al. (2005) stated that the focus of counseling could involve turning clients inward and helping them build a foundation of inner-generated knowledge rather than external reactivity. McGoldrick and Carter (2001) suggested coaching individuals to investigate the role they play in their family system and then having individuals alter their participation in the system by defining themselves more proactively without fusion or cutoff.
Finally, our results indicate that high levels of emotional cutoff are inversely related to career development. Counselors are encouraged to be clear about the qualitative differences between cutoffs and healthy differentiation. The level of emotional reactivity associated with the separation process is the key distinction. Career counselors will likely find it helpful to assist their clients with the resolution of emotional cutoffs and the underlying, unresolved fusion that may have provoked the cutoffs (Johnson & Waldo, 1998). In some instances, cutoffs may be justified (e.g., childhood abuse), but generally should be thoughtfully considered and addressed (Jenkins et al., 2005).