Q: My spouse says that I'm immature because I get offended easy and have a hard time knowing how to handle those situations. I know I get emotional and reactive at times and I have a hard time communicating how I feel. I blame others for making me mad and I often resort to sulking or giving them the quiet treatment until they get the clue that something's wrong. Can I learn how to handle things with more "maturity" and how could one do that?
A: We call this psychological or emotional maturity and this is something you can definitely work on and change. The problem is how, because they don't teach this in school (though they should). So where are you going to learn it?
Some people were lucky enough to have psychologically mature parents who taught them how to think situations through accurately and logically and talk about their thoughts and feelings. But many of you didn't get that. Many of you had a parent who was a bad communicator, a drama queen, easily offended, reactive or closed off. These good people didn't know a better way to behave and they did the best they could, but they didn't handle life in a mature, calm thoughtful way. You can break the cycle of immature behavior, though, and learn how to respond more appropriately. You can develop what I call CLARITY (the ability to see yourself, other people and situations accurately).
You can and must learn how to do this if you want to have healthy relationships.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to test your psychological maturity:
• When you get upset, do you understand why? Can you see that being upset is a choice?
• When you get offended, do you understand why? Can you see that being offended is a choice?
• Do you take responsibility for your choice to be upset or offended, or do you blame your feelings on others?
• Do you have the ability to see a situation from another person's perspective and have empathy or compassion for them?
• Do you share your thoughts and feelings with other people, or do you feel safer keeping them to yourself?
• Can you admit when you are wrong and apologize without experiencing shame or creating self-pity drama around it?
• When offended, do you take action to talk about and resolve it, or do you hold on so you can cast the other person as the bad guy?
• Do you feel jealous or threatened by other people and their successes?
• Are you addicted to the feeling of being angry and justified? Does it make you feel powerful?
• Do you handle rejection badly?
• Do you carry grudges? Do you hang onto self-pity stories?
• Do you look for solutions to problems, or do you just complain about them?
• Do you over-react and take things too personally?
• Can you adjust to change and be flexible when things don't go the way you want?
These questions will give you a good idea of how emotionally mature you are.
Tal Ben-Shahar, an author and lecturer at Harvard University and the author of "Being Happy," says psychological maturity has three components. The first is the ability to step back from a situation and see it from a more "big picture" perspective, letting go of your first emotional reaction and choosing a more logical response. The second is the capacity to step back and see things from another person's point of view. The third is the ability to detach from your need to be right and be teachable and open to changing your perspective.
He encourages readers to be mindful and aware of their current perspective. Are you seeing this situation from only a current, here and now, emotional perspective or can you see this issue from a long-range perspective that is more rational than emotional? How big of a deal will this issue be five years from now? What is the long-range outcome I'd like to create with this person, not just how I feel like behaving right now?
It takes self-control to stop your emotional reactions and step back and evaluate a situation more logically. It takes authentic love for other people to go further than your own perspective and put yourself in another person's shoes and really understand how they feel. There are many worksheets on my resources page on my website which will step you learn to do this.
Nathaniel Branden wrote an amazing book in 1969 called "The Psychology of Self-Esteem." In the book he attaches psychological maturity to a healthy sense of self-worth. He believes that as human beings we are destined to be thinkers, not instinctive reactors. When we react without thinking, with little awareness of others, or from a place of fear, we will end up hating ourselves. He believes it is only when we gain control of ourselves and our emotions and learn to think through situations and respond rationally, that we really like ourselves. I agree that there is a connection because as I teach my clients how to think more clearly about themselves, people and life, the result is an almost immediate increase in self-esteem.
Braden says psychological maturity is the ability to think about principles, not emotions. Psychological immaturity is being overtaken with emotion and losing sight of the bigger picture. He says, "Only if we have a rational approach to our emotions can we be free of paralyzing self-doubt, depression and fear."
In my book "Choosing Clarity: The Path to Fearlessness," I recommend writing a set of personal policies (principles) and procedures (processes) that help you to think through situations more logically and respond more maturely. You must have a policy about your value and what or who you will allow to diminish you. You must have a procedure for handling situations when someone offends you. You need a process to run through in your mind to help you calm down and look at things from another's' perspective. Then you must start practicing these new techniques until they become second nature.
If you invest conscious effort at this and remind yourself often about the importance of thinking situations through before responding, you will gain more and more control over your life and behavior, and your self-esteem will improve.
Don't be discouraged if it feels difficult at first. Many of my clients initially feel it is impossible to change this behavior, but I promise: You can do it. We help clients change this kind of behavior daily. It just takes education and practice.
Set a small goal to work on one aspect of your psychological maturity each week. Put a reminder (as your wallpaper on your phone) to remind you to see things from another's perspective, think before reacting, or choose trust over fear.
If you work on it one piece at a time, you can do this.
You may also want to seek out a coach or counsellor to help. A little professional guidance goes a long way.