By definition, the longer we live on this planet, we have to get older. There are various physiological changes that we experience as we go through the process of aging. Ignoring the legends of immortal beings that walk the planet, we all grow older physically. Genetics, supplements, a positive attitude, plenty of water, exercise and healthy diets can help us look young as long as possible, but the best we can expect is a cause of death that reads: “died of advanced age.” I remember the slogans, “live fast, die young.” Now that I am over 60, I look forward to my life well after 100 years of age.
Even though physical maturity is inevitable, emotional maturity is not. I observe that many people with emotional and mental suffering are stuck in their emotional growth process somewhere in their adolescent years. Greed, immaturity, fear, blame, shame, resentments, anger, confusion and suffering are all signs of arrested emotional growth. When we get stuck in our emotional development, we cease to learn how to take responsibility for our actions and our lives. We get stuck at the point of some trauma that happens in our life that we don’t know how to let go of or to process. Abuse, death of loved ones, an unkind word or a fearsome event can all cause arrested emotional development. When we stop growing emotionally, life becomes overwhelming.
Many psychologists believe that we go through stages of development in our physical life. These stages are youth, adolescence, young adults, adults, and elders. You will notice that even though there are ages assigned to these stages, everyone is different and some people can appear to stay younger longer than others. However, we have to go through these stages eventually.
Emotion development also goes through stages, and if we are healthy the emotional development matches physical development. I believe that we go through the emotional stages of helplessness and need, formation of personality, fear and suffering, responsibility and acceptance, and finally, peace. Again, although we all start at the state of helplessness and need, these stages are not age specific. We all have probably met people who are stuck in one of these stages.
Trauma and training have a lot to do with where we are in these stages. If we suffer trauma of abuse (sexual, physical, emotional) we will get stuck in the fear and suffering stages. We believe that life is unfair, hard and dangerous. We all know people who are stuck in this stage. With help and guidance we can all grow through the fear and suffering stage into the acceptance and responsibility phase.
When we experience fear, anger, shame, blame, guilt, and other negative emotions, it is because we are stuck in some aspect of our emotional development. Let me give you an example I recently experienced. I was counseling a person whose former spouse died. The couple had divorced because of the years of abuse one heaped upon the other. Someone had told my client that the former spouse may have been schizophrenic which may have caused them to act out all those years.
My client had latched onto that backseat diagnosis and started blaming him or herself that if they had been more observant they could have gotten the abusive spouse help and saved the marriage. I was dumbfounded by the acrobatic logic this person had used to feel guilty and take total blame for the divorce. I asked some more questions and discovered that the person was actually blaming himself or herself for the abuse they had suffered, sort of a “battered spouse” syndrome. It was quite enlightening to see how this person insisted that they were to blame for their former spouse’s abuse because they should have seen the mental illness and gotten the former spouse help.
I started asking myself “how would an emotionally mature person handle this situation?” My opinion of that was that an emotionally mature person may have grieved the passing of someone they loved for a long time, but would not have taken responsibility for the abuse in the marriage. It appeared that the client’s taking on the guilt of not being “all knowing and all seeing” was a bit like playing God.
True emotional maturity involves taking responsibility for your actions, not the actions of others. If we have to protect ourselves, emotional maturity means we do not feel guilty about that. If we find out something later that might have changed our earlier decisions, we do not beat up ourselves about that. We simply accept the lesson and go on about our lives as happily as possible.
I contend that to be truly emotionally mature is to be happy. Certainly life has its experiences and we do not need to be “Pollyannaish”, but when we learn a lesson in life we can be grateful for the insight and change our behaviors. Life is always about course corrections. We keep going on our journeys until we learn new ways of thinking and acting and we change our course and behavior accordingly. We do not need to know everything that will happen in the future, we just need to know what we are going to do for the next few minutes.
When we want to drive from Florida to Washington State, we do not need headlamps that will light up the whole way. All we need is headlamps that will light up the next one hundred feet. Emotional maturity means that when we come upon a bend in the road or an intersection, we make the necessary course correction that will get us to where we want to go. That can be all the way to Seattle or the next one hundred feet, whichever brings comfort.
Similarly, emotional maturity brings happiness and fulfillment no matter what we are doing. We do not need to know our life purpose, the reason we are here. All we need to know is what we are going to do for the next few minutes, hour or day. Everything else is a great deal of speculation. We can be happy and fulfilled being a doctor, lawyer, or shaman. We can be happy being a baker, banker, barber or masseur. When we reach emotional maturity, we understand that what we do has nothing to do with how we feel. If we are emotionally mature, we have the discipline to do the things that keep us healthy and feeling happy and to not do the things that cause us suffering. This is the blueprint that everyone is looking for.
I have a spiritual teacher that is forever telling me to “get over it.” I have learned that really means, “Grow up.” When I grow up, I want to be happy.