Recently I had an interesting philosophical discussion about what “mature behavior” and “mature emotions” actually are, and according to which (and whose) criteria are they defined.
Some of the criteria I already wrote about in the article “Emotional Maturity”: intensity of your emotions is appropriate to the external situation, you do not feel a need to humiliate or hurt others (which means you don’t have toxic beliefs about yourself), you take responsibility for your emotions, you express yourself in constructive ways and you find mature emotions motivating instead of painful or debilitating. In this article I will add some more details:
- In an adult, healthy frame of mind, your perception is complex rather than black and white. You are able to recognize many different aspects of a certain situation – not just your own perspective, but also other people’s points of view, possible causes of their behavior, possible consequences of your choices etc. Therefore, you can adapt your behavior to each individual situation, rather than using rigid ideas or black and white perception of whose “fault” it is.
- You take responsibility for your own behavior, but not for other people’s reactions. Therefore, you express your emotions, beliefs and needs in constructive ways, with honesty and respect, and you do not feel guilty if other people react in unpleasant ways.
Immature behavior means perceiving other people as the cause of your emotions, blaming and criticizing them (whether in active or passive ways). It also means that you “shoot out” any words that come to your mind, without considering if they are reasonable and responsible.
- You don’t feel the need to control people and situations. You value your own integrity above control over others. You know you can cope with others’ behaviors. You feel that your happiness and self-esteem do not depend on other people. You choose those words that express your feelings honestly, instead of the words you hope would influence other people in certain ways.
In an immature frame of mind, you might feel that you depend of other people, whether physically or emotionally. This might cause you to feel helpless, angry or resentful – and blame others around you for such feelings. You will try to find an external solution – by controlling other people – instead of working with your emotions, building self-esteem and independence. Your need to control other people is stronger than respect, tolerance or compassion you might feel for them.
You can set boundaries. If you feel you can protect yourself from unpleasant behavior, you can be more tolerant and relaxed around other people.
Immaturity may include inability to set clear boundaries. In that case, you are likely to expect other people to guess your desires and feelings and adapt to them, so that you can avoid expressing yourself clearly. You might blame people if they don’t try to read your mind (or if they do, but don’t succeed).
You are compassionate; you can understand other people’s points of view even if you disagree with them. If you perceive certain people as suffering, you still see them as strong and able to take responsibility for their lives, instead of seeing them as weak and taking the responsibility onto yourself.
Does this all mean that I have to constantly adapt to others and do what they want?
Absolutely not. Understanding other people doesn’t automatically mean following their desires. It just helps you avoid prejudice and black & white thinking. You have the right to decide what fits your values, and what is not acceptable to you. The difference is, even if you decide that you do not want certain people around you, you can make this decision in a peaceful way, instead of “feeding it” with criticism, demeaning others or playing a victim.
Does this mean that I can’t express my feelings clearly and spontaneously?
No. Read again all the above criteria carefully, especially the second entry. The difference between mature and immature communication is that mature people won’t immediately express everything that comes to their minds, because they are aware that such (usually) harsh and hurtful words are what they learned in an unhealthy environment. Instead, they will focus inside to check what do they truly feel beyond the superficial layer of defensive anger. If you can be aware of your deeper, calmer and more complex emotions, if you can take time to find words that best express them, then you can be truly spontaneous in an adult way. If you can do this, you can then be as clear and direct as you want.
Does it mean that I lose the ability to feel intense happiness and intense emotions in general?
Unpleasant emotions are likely to become much milder if you resolve toxic beliefs you adopted as a child. This is what most people want anyway. Extreme, black and white happiness can also be childish, but if it doesn’t have unpleasant consequences, why work on changing it? It is quite all right if some parts of you remain childish, if they are constructive and creative, if they are not related to toxic beliefs about yourself and others.
On the other hand, as you learn to perceive more and more aspects of the world around you, your experience of happiness might become less intense and simple, but richer and more complex. This is like a difference between a cake that contains so much sugar that not much other flavor can be detected, and one that is less sweet, but much more flavorful. The choice is yours – it depends of your taste.
Still, I feel that what you say means that I’m expected to be overly calm and calculated, instead of passionate and full of life!
This is an exaggerated interpretation. If you are extroverted by nature, emotional maturity doesn’t mean suddenly becoming an introvert. Extroverted people often believe that introverts lack passion, which is not true – the passion is simply experienced and expressed differently. Introversion / extroversion, or your ability to feel passion, have nothing to do with emotional maturity. If you are an extrovert, you can still enjoy intense stimulation and communication, as long as you can take responsibility for your emotions and choose your own words instead of repeating worn-out accusations and criticisms.
Following the above comparison of happiness with cakes, we can compare extroversion with enjoying very spicy food. Introversion in this case would be represented by people who enjoy mild flavors and find them rich and complex. Neither is better than the other – as long as you can respect other people’s choices instead of forcefully pushing chili peppers in their mouths, ears and nostrils and expecting them to like it.
So who decides if an emotion is “appropriate for its context”? Does it mean that the majority is right and I have to conform to it? Or does it mean that a few individuals pose as authorities over others?
Neither. Although the distinction is not always clear, just as there is no clear boundary between “spicy” and “mild”, you can find some indications in the other criteria of mature behavior I mentioned above: recognizing many aspects of a complex situation, understanding others, respect for yourself and others and taking responsibility. There is no mathematical formula, but if you pay attention to all of those aspects, you can get a clear enough idea of what it means to be mature.
Another important indication can be the consequences of your behavior. Does your behavior result in inner harmony, balanced communication with other people and more or less pleasant relationships, especially with people who are close to you and know you well? Or does it result in mutual frustration, conflict and control games? Of course, some people will react unpleasantly no matter how mature your behavior is, but those are a minority.
The next indication is your ability to empathize with other people. Are you focused on yourself and put your feelings and desires above those of other people, or do you perceive their feelings and needs as equally important as yours? Do you appreciate other people’s efforts and what you receive from them, or do you only notice your own contribution to their lives? Can you find balance and compromise when possible, and peacefully end a relationship if it is not possible?
A further important aspect is how honest you are with yourself. Most people (except sociopaths, but genetically induced sociopathy is rather rare) feel an instinctive internal warning if their behavior is selfish and hurtful to others. (This we feel because, as a species, we have evolved to be empathic, so that we can live in groups and societies.) Do you listen to this voice? Do you pay attention to those feelings whispering that perhaps you weren’t just or honest in a certain situation? Can you listen to all of your inner voices and then peacefully decide which of them appear exaggerate and simplified, and which seem to perceive a wider point of view? Can you resist the need to feel better than other people?
Finally, maturity and responsibility are not something that anybody could impose on us. They are our own choices for our own benefit. We choose to exercise maturity not in order to fulfill some external criteria, but because we want to improve the quality of our internal and external lives. We choose maturity out of self-love and appreciation for other people. We choose long-term happiness over short-term relief.
This all still sounds boring to me!
In this case, perhaps you have learned to associate suffering and unpleasant emotions with love, and to find some sort of pleasure within suffering. This is a reason why some people might feel bored in relationships that are not full of abuse and drama.
Perhaps you have very little experience of fulfillment and happiness within healthy relationships, so you don’t want to give up the dubious pleasure you find within drama, suffering and victim games. If you cannot even imagine a different kind of happiness, you might strongly resist the idea of giving up the little pleasure you are familiar with.
There is no need to go into extremes and strive for perfection. Perfectionism is white & black perspective and therefore childish. Some parts of us will always stay immature. Nobody expects you to be always perfectly reasonable, moderate and controlled; it all depends of when you decide is enough and what consequences do you want. Sometimes a bit of immaturity and exaggeration is fine, if you are aware of it, if you don’t hurt other people with such behavior, and if you can keep it in line instead of being controlled by it.
The decision is always yours, and so are the consequences (even if some of the consequences might influence other people first). If you really enjoy drama and fighting, by all means continue. Be aware, however, that this is your choice and do not blame people who will rather choose not to be around you – or those who strike back.