Let go of these unhealthy patterns for your maturity to bloom
Your emotional age is distinct from your chronological one. You can be 43 on paper but behave like a four-year-old in how you treat and communicate with others.
Often, we confuse the two because we expect our emotional maturity to progress alongside our physical one. Yet, we can all point to examples in our lives that prove this isn’t the case — the annoying boss, the sulking friend, the bitter grandpa. When we live under the assumption that we’ll automatically mature as we grow older, we miss a simple truth:
Emotional maturity is about which patterns you remove from your life, not how many more you layer on top.
Especially during the first half of our lives, we mistake aging for adding.
Our bodies grow, and so do our desires and egos. We rack up achievements and possessions. We define ourselves through our work, relationships, and the outward image of success and status that results from the two.
The self-image we build from all this is fragile, and it becomes easy for a tiny spark — a critical remark, a friend being too late, a business project failing — to blow up the whole thing. Meanwhile, the emotional habits we formed along the way remain strong and sturdy — and now, they get in the way of us acting calmly, maturely, and responsibly.
Emotional maturity is the foundation of solid mental health and happiness. If you handle your emotions well, you can create positivity and meaning from even the worst of experiences.
If you feel held back in your emotional growth, chances are, you don’t need to cultivate lots of behaviors or pick up new character traits. You just have to give up some of the bad ones you’ve accidentally picked up.
Look for the following four tendencies in your life and try to reduce them. No matter how old you are on paper, your emotional maturity will bloom.
1. Escaping From Emotionally Challenging Situations
Escapism is a form of clouding your emotions rather than clarifying them.
When faced with a situation that will lead to difficult feelings, or even just the prospect of one, our natural impulse is to run away and hide.
Sometimes, escapism is useful. It can help you return to a complex problem with fresh eyes or break out of a rut if you’ve been trying too hard for too long. If it becomes your default response to life getting difficult, however, it’ll lead to the opposite of new perspectives when you need them the most: You’ll constantly be stressed by all the things you’re escaping from, and the fear of any one of them catching up to you will give you tunnel vision and paranoia.
Escapism feels great in the moment. It’s easy to get hung up on it. When you play video games instead of working on a task that’s due, it creates the illusion you have time and are in control. Your mind is also good at coming up with reasonable excuses: You work hard, you deserve a break, you should live in the moment. But if we always use these excuses, they become self-defeating.
By twisting the timeline of what’s important today vs. what’ll truly have mattered to you in hindsight tomorrow, habitual escapism leads to long-term regret despite suggesting to you it will do the exact opposite.
Emotionally mature people know that difficult feelings are just part of life, and they don’t run away when they can sense these feelings rising in their stomach.
They resist the urge to drown their sorrows in alcohol, sex, or entertainment and choose to remain still so negative emotions can wash over them like a wave crashing against a rock — because they know that, soon, these emotions will subside. Until they do, they sit with their pain, accept its presence, and practice what psychologist Nick Wignall calls emotional tolerance.
Emotional maturity is understanding that running away is a waste of time because eventually, life will always catch up to us.
We all face hardship, and emotionally challenging situations, even if they look different for each of us. We don’t control what these situations are or what impulses they set off inside us, but if we slow down when they happen, we are able to control the thoughts that follow our impulses.
Don’t run away. Don’t let your emotions hijack your brain. Accept your feelings without surrendering to them.
“If these years have taught me anything it is this: you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in.”
― Junot Díaz
2. Blaming Others
Playing the blame game is a way of shielding our self-image. Pointing fingers temporarily moderates fear and guilt and creates a sense of certainty where, in reality, we probably know too little to accurately judge the situation.
It’s natural to want to know the root cause of an issue. If it’s a people problem (most problems are), we also want someone to point to — ideally someone other than ourselves. This is useful in business, where clear roles matter. If we don’t demonize people, it can also help us move on from failed relationships. Historically, a tad of suspicion has even helped us survive as a species.
The problem with constantly assigning blame, however, is that, like escapism, it’s addicting. If it becomes habitual, your brain will instantly jump to conclusions about every little thing that’s wrong, and you’ll walk around under the delusion that you’re infallible.
The main underlying mechanic that fosters this habit of blaming others is called the fundamental attribution error. It’s a cognitive bias that leads us to look at people’s actions as projections of their identity when, actually, most of what we do is a result of circumstance.
We assume we know why people do things, and then we generalize these supposed intentions. This makes it easy to fool yourself into believing you understand what’s going on at all times, and that, most of those times, you had nothing to do with what went wrong.
In the short run, this alleviates guilt you might feel about having potentially screwed up, and the seeming certainty of knowing who’s at fault numbs your fear of being unable to control or even understand the situation. In the long run, these feelings always return because, deep down, we know the story we told ourselves wasn’t true.
Emotionally mature people understand how little they understand, but they don’t let a lack of context and certainty drive them into hurried conclusions.
They choose to do what they can with what they have right now, and they try to take responsibility despite knowing there’s a lot they don’t control, that everyone acts in the moment, and that, often, we don’t know the first thing about other people’s intentions.
Emotional maturity is influencing what you can, accepting what you can’t, and making an effort to recognize the difference.
Ask not: “Who’s fault is this?” Ask: “What do I control? What else can I try to do differently?” Sometimes, the answer to those questions is “Nothing.” When it is, remember that, soon, you’ll still have to ask them again — and that’s okay because humans are creatures of context not concrete.
“The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions.”
― Dwight D. Eisenhower
3. Beating Yourself Up
Excessive self-criticism is a distorted form of seeking reassurance. If you nuke your self-esteem at the first sign of it being scratched, no one else can do it for you. You feel in control because “it was all your fault to begin with.”
It’s important to be realistic. We should aspire to learn from our mistakes and that requires looking at them and thinking about what to change. If you never get to the “what to change” part, however, all that painful time replaying your past failures is wasted.
Instead, you’ve stewed in martyrdom, and while it may have felt good at the time, it now only perpetuates a negative self-image; an image predominantly defined by hopelessness and an inability to feel happy.
Yelling at our past selves is an outlet for anger. Now, at least we get to yell at someone. When we do it, we rarely look for an explanation. We look for the illusion of productivity, of fixing something, and we hope to mitigate the fact that, maybe, right now, we’re helpless and don’t know what to do.
If we let self-flagellation become a habit, we’ll bottle up our pains, traumas, and regrets, until, one day, we’ll actually explode. Instead, we must learn to accept adversity in real-time and to analyze our shortcomings objectively without allowing them to define who we are.
Emotional maturity is remembering that, even though you can’t change them, past versions of yourself are still versions of a person worth loving.
Compassion requires a holistic, non-judgmental view of ourselves; an understanding that, yes, we’re not perfect, and sometimes, context drives us into narrow-minded decisions, but it is up to us to become our own best friend rather than our worst bully.
When emotionally mature people run out of kind words for themselves, they simply stop talking.
They understand that reality is made of subjects and verbs, and that we’re the ones throwing around all the adjectives. They maintain a sense of self-respect in the face of difficulty, and they think about their values often to be able to do so.
Don’t torture yourself. Be kind when you practice introspection, and be proud of what you learn and know about yourself — especially when life gets tough.
“We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.”
― May Sarton
4. Fighting Battles Not Worth Fighting
The human story is a story of growth, but it doesn’t always have to be a story of struggle. We often conflate the two, and many of us are raised to believe the only path to growth leads through struggle.
This isn’t to say adversity won’t lead to progress, but if you insist on conflict being the only means to attain it, conflict is the only thing you’ll ever get. Life gets hard for all of us, and while our challenges can be opportunities to reinvent ourselves, if we’re struggling just to struggle, if we believe in fighting more than what we’re fighting for, our lives will always feel like we’re fighting.
This is especially true when it comes to our interactions with other people. We’re all given only a short time on this planet. If we consider that most of what causes our bad feelings is neither the fault of others nor that of our own, it’s easy to realize that most fights are not worth fighting.
As much as you’d like to help the people you care about and try to get them to see what’s — in your opinion — best for them, at the end of the day, you don’t control anyone else’s feelings, thoughts, or behavior. Not a single person’s — except your own. That’s why most of our arguments are in vain and, therefore, we might as well not have them.
Instead of charging headfirst into any potential battle they can see, emotionally mature people humbly turn inward first.
They carefully assess their friction points with others and don’t immediately proceed to set them on fire. They’re not stubborn to the point of being contentious, and they’re not necessarily happy but willing to change their mind if they’re wrong.
Emotional maturity is being pragmatic and realistic at the same time — you don’t take life personally, you don’t assume others hurt you on purpose, and you don’t pick fights over things that don’t matter.
Before lashing out, practice emotional tolerance to gain clarity over what you feel and why. Be willing to talk, show empathy to others, and allow them to take sound advice on their own schedule.
“An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
All You Need to Know
If you want to be emotionally mature, don’t look for new habits and traits to emulate. Honestly assess the ones you have, and identify those that get in the way of your natural desire to remain calm, peaceful, and flexible.
Stop running away from emotionally challenging situations.
Stop blaming others.
Stop beating yourself up.
Stop fighting battles not worth fighting.
“There are two ways to get enough. One is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.”
― G.K. Chesterton