“The willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life is the source from which self-respect springs.”
— Joan Didion
Emotionally mature people have a healthy relationship with their emotions, which comes from healthy habits of mind.
On the other hand, when you have unhealthy mental habits, it tends to produce emotional immaturity. Which is a problem because…
Emotional immaturity is a recipe for insecurity, low confidence, poor relationships, and chronic stress.
Here are 4 bad habits that interfere with emotional maturity. Learn to identify and address them, and your emotional maturity will improve.
1. Getting defensive
Let’s get something clear right away…
Feeling defensive is very different than acting defensive.
Everybody feels defensive sometimes…
- Your boss makes a harsh comment about some of your work, and you immediately feel a mixture of shame, anxiety, and anger, all the while ruminating on why they’re insensitive and don’t really understand you and your work.
- Your spouse brings up a mistake you made 10 years ago and you immediately feel both disappointed in yourself and mad at them, all the while stewing in your mind about how “she can’t ever let things go…”
In other words, when you’re attacked or criticized, it’s normal to have an initial defensive reaction internally.
What separates emotionally mature people from immature ones is how they react to that initial feeling of defensiveness…
- Emotionally mature people acknowledge to themselves that they’re feeling defensive. They validate that it’s normal and okay to feel defensive. Then they respond to the criticism assertively, that is, in a way that’s direct, honest, and respectful to themselves and the other person.
- Emotionally immature people often don’t have enough self-awareness to even realize what exactly they’re feeling when they get defensive initially. And because they can’t process those difficult feelings in a healthy way, they end up acting out their defensiveness as a defense mechanism—they respond passive-aggressively, give the other person the silent treatment, criticize them back, etc.
There are two big problems with acting out your defensiveness:
- You ruin the relationship. When people try to give you constructive feedback and it’s always met with defensiveness, they tend to stop giving you feedback altogether (or they stop being honest about their feedback), and then eventually, they stop interacting with you much at all—because, if we’re honest, who wants to be in a long-term relationship of any kind with someone who can’t take feedback well?
- Self-ignorance. When you’re in the habit of acting out your defensiveness, you’re keeping yourself ignorant of your defensiveness, which makes it increasingly difficult to acknowledge and address in a healthy way. In other words, the more you act defensively, the harder it becomes to be less defensive overall.
If you want to become more emotionally mature, you have to break the habit of acting out your defensiveness. And the key to this, counterintuitively, is to stop ignoring or avoiding your feelings of defensiveness, and instead, start acknowledging them and dealing with them.
2. Avoiding conflict
Here’s a little secret about conflict avoiders….
They’re not actually avoiding conflict. What they’re really avoiding are the emotions that they imagine will come with the conflict.
- Suppose a family member says something you find insensitive during a holiday get-together.
- It bothers you in the moment, but you decide the middle of dinner isn’t the time to “make a scene.” Still, you tell yourself that it does need to be addressed, so you resolve to call them the next day and tell them how you feel.
- But the next day comes and you find yourself procrastinating on your call, and actually, you’re avoiding even thinking about it because you’re terrified of the conflict that will ensue.
- You imagine your family member getting super angry and yelling at you. You imagine yourself getting anxious and tongue-tied, unable to articulate what you wanted to say well. As a result, you imagine feeling ashamed and embarrassed. Finally, you imagine the other person telling everyone else in your family and how anxious you’ll feel the next time you’re at a family gathering.
- You feel so bad imagining all this, that eventually you decide not to even call them by rationalizing to yourself that “Oh, it’s not worth it.” Or “Better not to rock the boat.”
See what’s going here?
Yes, superficially you’re avoiding the conflict. But there are two things to realize about what’s going on here on a deeper level:
- Everything up to this point is imaginary. All the stuff you want to avoid is based on stories you’re telling yourself in your head. Some of which might be at least kinda based in reality, and some of which might be totally unrealistic and unlikely. But the bigger point is that what you’re really avoiding is a version of the conflict that you’re imagining ahead of time.
- Next, if you’re honest about what makes the conflict scary and something you want to avoid, it’s not the conflict itself, but instead, the emotions you imagine it will lead to—both in the other person and in yourself. For example, are you really afraid of your family member saying something mean to you, or, are you afraid of them feeling angry and you feeling anxious about them getting angry? If you pay attention and introspect a little, I think you’ll find that 9 times out of 10, what you’re really afraid of is the emotions, not the conflict itself.
Emotionally mature people make decisions based on their values—what they believe the right thing to do is—they don’t make decisions based on trying to avoid difficult emotions, which themselves are the product of imaginary stories they’re telling themselves about a hypothetical future.
In other words…
When you have a healthy relationship with your thoughts and emotions, you don’t need to avoid them. And when you’re not constantly trying to avoid how you feel, you’re more free to do the right thing.
Learn More: How to Be More Assertive
3. Ignoring emotions
Most people habitually ignore their emotions for the simple reason that acknowledging emotions is often painful. So why experience emotional pain when you can avoid it, right?
- A friend asks how your day went. Truthfully, your day was terrible and you’ve been wracked with anxiety and disappointment ever since that morning meeting. But without even thinking, you respond with “Oh, fine.”
- Seeing your obviously furrowed brow and tensed shoulders, your child asks you if you’re angry. You are in fact VERY angry. But you respond immediately by saying, “No, honey, I’m just a little tired.”
- You wake up at 2:00 am feeling incredibly sad and ashamed about how you recently were let go from a job you loved. Your immediate reaction is to tell yourself “Stop being silly and go back to sleep.”
The rationalization for these moments of emotional avoidance are probably something like: “Well, I didn’t want to burden them with my troubles” or “I just wanted to get back to sleep.” But most likely these are reasons you constructed after the fact. In the moment, the only reason you avoided the emotion was simply that acknowledging feeling bad feels bad. And you didn’t want to feel bad so you ignored it.
This is natural enough… Pain is often a sign of danger or vulnerability, so avoiding things that cause pain is sometimes a good strategy.
But pain isn’t always a sign of danger…
- If you feel sad, that could be a sign that you’re working through grief—an uncomfortable but entirely health process.
- If you feel ashamed, that could be a sign that you did something wrong and your mind just wants to remind you not to do it again—an uncomfortable but perfectly adaptive process.
- If you feel angry or frustrated, that could be a sign that you need to be more assertive about something in your life—again, an uncomfortable but perfectly normal and beneficial process.
So here’s how it goes…
- Avoiding emotional pain = short-term relief, long-term suffering.
- Acknowledging and accepting emotional pain = short-term pain, long-term confidence and relief.
Emotionally mature people get this.
They understand that, like many things in life, what feels good in the moment often leads to worse outcomes in the future (think: junk food, impulsive sex, heroin, skipping leg day, sarcasm, etc.).
Similarly, they know that the best long-term outcomes often require the acceptance of short-term pain or discomfort (think: saving money for retirement, practicing scales on the piano, leg day, meal prepping, apologizing, etc.)
It’s no different with emotions….
Emotionally immature people can’t tolerate feeling bad, so they engage in behaviors that give quick relief but make things worse in the long-run.
Emotionally mature people understand that just because an emotion feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad. And in fact, acknowledging that emotion and dealing with it despite the pain is usually how you end up feeling good in the long-run.
Learn More: How to Validate Your Emotions
A little bit of reassurance never hurt anybody. But neither did a little bit of gambling.
Like so many things in life, reassurance is harmless in small doses but becomes a major problem when it’s habitual.
- Once every couple weeks, you have a conversation with your partner or spouse about something frustrating at work. At one point in the conversation, they validate your frustration and concern about your manager thinking you aren’t good enough and remind you that you are in fact very competent. As a result, you feel some reassurance. Great.
- Anytime you feel anxious, your immediate reaction is to call or text your partner hoping they’ll reassure you and make you feel better.
Example A is healthy reassurance. It happens periodically and is not something you actively seek out or depend on. It’s not a crutch.
Example B is basically the definition of a psychological crutch. You’re outsourcing your emotional well-being to another person, and in the process, fragilizing yourself.
Emotionally mature people see reassurance as an occasional nice-to-have—sort of like extra credit. But they don’t seek it out or depend upon it to feel good. It’s certainly not a habit. They take full responsibility for their own emotional health. And while they absolutely ask for help when they need it, they’re careful not to seek help just because they want it.
Emotionally immature people lack confidence in their own ability to navigate difficult emotions, in large part because they’ve gotten into the habit of reassurance-seeking and outsourcing emotional work to other people. If your parents always did your homework for you, you’d understandably start to feel pretty anxious and lacking in confidence around your school work. Similarly, if you are in the habit of relying on other people to deal with difficult emotions, you will understandably feel pretty anxious and lacking in confidence whenever difficult emotions come up.
Emotional maturity comes from taking responsibility for your emotional health, not outsourcing it.
Learn More: How to Stop Reassurance Seeking
All You Need to Know
Here are four habits emotionally mature people avoid:
- Acting defensive
- Avoiding conflict
- Ignoring emotions