Emotional Maturity: Your Personal Strength
by Elaine Gottlieb
It's Friday morning and Jane and Alice arrive at work only to hear that their supervisor needs them to work late to finish a proposal for Monday morning. This means that they will both have to cancel their evening activities.
The two coworkers spend some time commiserating and complaining. Jane then gets back to work, her disappointment fading as she concentrates on getting her work done. Alice, on the other hand, is furious and feels victimized by her boss. She phones a friend to complain some more and finds it hard to focus on her work, wanting to retaliate against her boss by doing a mediocre job.
In the face of disappointment, Jane showed resilience, while Alice did not. Being able to handle life's ups and downs without overreacting is a hallmark of emotional maturity, according to Dr. Martha Stark, a Boston-area psychiatrist, Harvard Medical School faculty member and author of Modes of Therapeutic Action.
"You can handle things that come your way and it will have an impact upon you, but not do you in. Through it all, you'll hold on to faith in people and in yourself and a good feeling about the world. You're resilient, you recover," she says.
An immature person reacts to difficulties with bitterness, resentment, despair, or anger. "The recovery is so long, and you feel victimized and disempowered and disenfranchised. You let go of your dreams and you give up somehow. Eventually you get through it, but you waste a lot of time," Stark observes.
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Starks defines psychological maturity as "being able to accept the reality of people and things as they are, without needing them to be other than that." To paraphrase a Native American adage: "The art of living in peace with that which we cannot change, the courage to change that which should be changed, no matter what it takes, and the wisdom to know the difference."
Along with this realistic attitude toward life, mature people also possess these healthy character traits:
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If many of us fall short of these noble attributes, it is because we grew up in less than ideal circumstances. No one is born mature. Our emotional development is shaped by our parents and life experiences. Mature parents who recognize, validate, love, and accept their children and are fulfilled in their own lives rear mature children. "I think parents who have been able to find and realize their own dreams are the best parents of all, as long as their dream includes understanding and loving their own children," says Stark.
A child who successfully struggles with failures, disappointments, and heartaches will develop greater maturity than one who is pampered and indulged. Throughout childhood, there are development tasks to be mastered, like making friends and developing autonomy. By completing most tasks without undue stress, conflict, or difficulty, a child can develop into a mature adult.
A high IQ (intelligence quotient), good looks, and robust health—while attractive innate qualities—do not contribute to emotional maturity. There are many people born with fewer advantages who develop into mature, well-adjusted adults. Emotional maturity is, however, closely related to the popular concept of emotional intelligence, in which people are adept at handling their own and others' feelings.
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If you feel maturity-challenged, it is never too late to cultivate the mature qualities you may lack. Therapy, new activities, and volunteer work are three ways to do it.
Psychotherapy or group therapy can be very helpful in resolving childhood issues and gaining greater acceptance of your parents and yourself. By making peace with your past you "move to a place of inner serenity and acceptance and no longer spend so much time fighting, suffering, and struggling," says Stark.
Stark provides an example of one of her patients. "Maria" came to therapy in her 30s feeling miserable with her life. She hated her job as a psychiatric nurse, had few friends, no romantic relationships, money problems, and chronic health problems. Needless to say, she was depressed and angry.
Maria had a tormented relationship with her parents whom she saw often, still seeking the approval she'd never gotten as a child. In the course of therapy, she worked a great deal on this relationship and gradually recognized her parents' limits, accepting the fact that they couldn't meet her needs and in doing so, developed greater autonomy. Today Maria could certainly be considered a mature, self-actualized adult. She has a successful career as a financial analyst, many friends, a social life, and a gentler, more caring nature.
Life experiences are also valuable in developing maturity, says Stark. Group and community activities that foster creativity, collaboration, and empowerment can be very transforming. Being involved in sports or a theatre company, for example, can help you gain confidence, develop new skills, and learn to work cooperatively with others.
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Helping others is a time-honored way to transcend your own difficulties and experience the satisfaction of service. Being a Big Brother or Sister or hospice volunteer can be valuable growth experiences. So can any situation where you pitch in and help or assume responsibility. Getting beyond yourself is a step towards gaining the perspective that leads to the accepting attitude of a mature adult.
American Psychological Association
Mental Health America
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Canadian Psychological Association
Stark M. Modes of Therapeutic Action: Enhancement of Knowledge, Provision of Experience, and Engagement in Relationship. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson; 1999.
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