When I was younger – late teens, early 20s – I had this idea about what emotional maturity was supposed to be about: not being childish; “childish” being a catch-all for certain behaviors I thought were exhibited by only those who were emotionally immature.
Such behaviors included sulking, falling out with a friend and ending the relationship as a result, not being able to let go of a snide remark or take criticisms, being insecure, having a fear of rejection. The list goes on, but you get the point. Somehow, I got this warped idea that emotional maturity must come with age; that it was, in fact, a given. And these behaviors, which I deemed emotionally immature, would fall off on the path to adulthood and one would naturally outgrow it.
This idea albeit a faulty one, isn’t entirely wrong. Some people become wiser with age and experience. They learn to act/react from a place of knowing better, and as a result, choose to do better. But I’d come to understand that the behaviors I termed “childish” and immature were just common, basic, plausible human flaws, which I had attached harsh, negative connotations to.
My idea was a misrepresented one; I discovered soon enough. With every birthday, I saw the numbers of years add up, but I still felt like a child. And going by my benchmark for measuring emotional maturity, it appears I haven’t done a lot of growing up myself. And judging from my relationship and interaction with other people, it was clear that I had pretty ridiculous standards and judgments for what emotional maturity was supposed to be. I was forced to reexamine my idea of emotional maturity and dissociate it from the warped ideas I’d come up with.
So here’s what I’ve come to learn: the basis of our behavior, even as adults, is rooted in childhood. Our behavior is formed based on the different factors that interact to shape our personality from childhood, and childhood is the period where most of the behavioral imprinting, so to speak, is done. In essence, we’ll always be children, and that isn’t at all times a bad thing. We always carry our inner child with us. But here’s the kicker: Most of us barely made it from childhood unscathed. And most times, it isn’t entirely the fault of our parents or care-givers. Often times they mean well, but their intentions could be misguided. A parent could (unknowingly) throw up obstacles to the emotional growth of a child in the way they bring up that child. An over-protected child might grow up to lack self-reliance; a child who’s chastised a lot might grow up scared and develop insecurities.
Our childhood experiences become consciously or unconsciously embedded in our psyche, and may manifest itself (in varying degrees) in our behavior all through life; when this happens, it shows in the way we perceive and relate to ourselves and the world. And when we aren’t being our best selves, we behave in ways that we and/or others might think is immature.
I must say this though: Not all childlike manners in adults have a “negative” sense to them; this is evident in the behavior of adults who approach the world with childlike wonder. We describe such people as “young at heart.” We also carry the positive aspects of our learned behavior in childhood with us. We even embrace and encourage such behavior in others. It’s problematic, however, when we shush the child in us or in another person when it cries out for help. What we should do is pay attention – through self-awareness and mindfulness – and try to understand this inner child throwing tantrums or acting out thus making our adult selves miserable and somewhat confused.
It’s in doing this I‘ve learned to be a parent, as it were, to my inner child. I strive to become aware enough to guide it. And this, I think, is how we attain emotional maturity.
Our inner child will always be a part of us, and I reckon that how we parent it is what makes us emotionally mature. It is how we heal and reconcile our adult self with our inner child; It’s how we resolve whatever (emotionally) confusing upbringing we had that causes us to behave in an emotionally immature way.
I remember a conversation I had with two of my friends. I joked about getting to the “big three O.” One of them laughed and said, “You’ll get to 30 and you’ll find out the big three O isn’t so big.” I’m not yet 30, but I can say this: he’s right!