We tend to think of emotionally mature and immature as concepts that apply to children:
- Little Lisa is just so polite and respectful and always waits patiently after asking for something. Emotionally Mature
- Little Johnny throws a fit when he doesn’t get what he wants, something even his younger sister doesn’t do. Emotionally Immature
But here’s the thing: Emotional maturity is not something you automatically grow into as you age.
You don’t instantly become emotionally mature when you turn 18 and society labels you an adult. Nor do you magically become emotionally mature when you get your first job, get married, have a kid, or retire.
Unlike physical maturity, which happens more or less automatically, emotional maturity is largely learned, practiced, and reinforced. And many of us were not taught the skills and habits that foster emotional maturity. Or perhaps we learned the basics, but not much more.
In my work as a psychologist, I spend all day talking to adults of drastically different levels of emotional maturity. I have clients who are brilliant doctors, prestigious lawyers, and successful entrepreneurs but they struggle mightily to simply describe how they feel emotionally. Outwardly, they’re paragons of maturity and achievement, but emotionally, they’re stunted.
This isn’t their fault, of course. As a society, we train our kids to be critical thinkers and hard-working athletes, but too often we ignore or discourage anything involving feelings or emotion. So it shouldn’t be surprising that most of us have somewhat underdeveloped levels of emotional maturity.
Luckily, it’s not that difficult to become more emotionally mature—to learn more about our emotions and how they work (emotional intelligence), and to cultivate habits and routines that strengthen our mental health and wellbeing (emotional fitness).
One of the best ways to do this is to examine people who do have high levels of emotional maturity and break down the specific traits that lead to it.
What follows are 3 common traits I’ve observed among people I consider to have a high degree of emotional maturity, plus a few brief suggestions for how anyone can begin to cultivate these traits in themselves.
1. Emotionally mature adults are flexible in their thinking.
Emotionally mature adults have relatively stable emotional lives. While they do experience mood swings, bouts of anxiety, and bursts of frustration or anger, their overall emotional level tends to be fairly consistent and even. On the other hand, those with low emotional maturity often have large, erratic swings in their emotional lives.
While something as complex as the range of our emotional experience isn’t very amenable to sweeping generalizations, it’s hard to ignore the following observation:
Behind most patterns of extreme emotion are habits of extreme thinking.
In particular, there’s one dimension of thinking that seems to have a profound effect on how we feel emotionally: Rigidity/Flexibility
Rigid thinking means you tend to think the same way over and over again even though it’s unhelpful.
Here are two examples of rigid thinking:
- Worry. Worry is problem-solving applied to a situation that is either not actually a problem or not a problem you can solve right now. Sometimes we get stuck in worry because it gives us the illusion of control and power over a situation that makes us feel afraid and helpless. Unfortunately, by definition worry never actually solves anything, but it does produce a lot of anxiety and stress. This is why the key to undoing any form of anxiety is to change the rigid thinking style that drives it—worry.
- Rumination. Rumination is a pattern of thinking that, like worry, pretends to be a form of problem-solving, but in reality, is massively unhelpful. It involves replaying an event from the past—often a mistake we made or a perceived slight against us by someone else—over an over again in our mind. Unfortunately, rumination rarely solves anything but frequently leads to ever-increasing levels of shame, depression, and anger.
Emotionally immature people tend to see thinking patterns like worry and rumination as things that happen to them over which they have little to no control. This is understandable because they often didn’t have adults in their lives at a young age who modeled this for them and taught them how to be aware of and take control over their thinking.
On the other hand, people with higher levels of emotional maturity have developed the mindset that believes while thoughts can initially be quite automatic and outside our control, it’s always possible to become more aware of them and modify them. They’ve learned to control their attention and their thinking styles in a way that’s flexible, realistic, and useful.
How to become a more flexible thinker
There are two key skills anyone can practice to improve their ability to think more flexibly, and as a result, bring more balance to their emotional life:
- Mindfulness. Mindfulness is the best way I know of to build meta-cognition—the ability to think about your thinking. Before you can change your thinking to be more flexible, you have to cultivate the ability to be aware of your thinking. Cultivating a mindfulness practice and practicing ordinary mindfulness are great places to get started.
- Cognitive Restructuring. Cognitive restructuring is a technique from cognitive behavioral therapy that involves identifying unhelpful automatic thinking patterns and then modifying them to be more realistic and adaptive. Basically, it means re-training your self-talk. This often involves learning to identify cognitive distortions and keeping a thought diary.
Remember: The way we habitually think determines the way we habitually feel.
2. Emotionally mature adults are experimental in their behavior.
Emotionally mature adults tend to be humble, especially when it comes to their own psychology: how they typically feel, think, and behave.
In other words, when things aren’t going well, they know they don’t have all the answers. They’re not afraid to swallow their pride, admit what they don’t know, and try to improve, either by asking others for help or trying new things themselves.
On the other hand, emotionally immature adults tend to have a core feeling of insecurity and inadequacy, which means their sense of self feels too fragile to expose to possible failures and mistakes. As a result, they hang on to whatever strategies, habits, and defaults they have, unwilling to update them.
Here’s an example:
Imagine two fifty-year-old men, Adam and Zach. Both are fathers to teenage sons who are “out of control” and chronically engaging in “risky behavior”—drugs, casual sex, dangerous activities like dirt bike racing while intoxicated, etc.
Both Adam and Zach have tried everything they can think of to get their sons “back on track”—grounding, taking away cell phones, switching schools—but nothing seems to be working.
Both Adam and Zach are called into meetings with their respective son’s high school guidance counselors, both of whom suggest the same thing: Part of your son’s issues may be related to your relationship with your son. As a result, we recommend considering working with a therapist yourself to better understand the nature of your relationship with your son and how you might improve it.
Adam storms out of the office, furious about the “hippie nonsense” he’s just heard and doubles-down on his strategies: he destroys his son’s phone in front of him, ships him off to military school, and—though he’s not totally aware of it—starts drinking a little more than usual.
Zach has a similarly angry reaction to the guidance counselor’s recommendation at first. But after sleeping on it, realizes that there may be some truth to the idea, even though it makes him feel a little anxious and maybe ashamed. He buys a few books on parenting teenagers. And while they’re a little “touchy-feely” for his tase, he realizes there may very well be some things he could work on to improve his relationship with his son.
Adam’s refusal to consider—much less try—something new indicates significant emotional immaturity. He’s got his ideas and theories and he’s sticking to them, regardless of new information and developments.
Zach’s willingness to at least experiment with a new way of looking at things by reading some books shows at least modest levels of emotional maturity. He’s got his ideas, but he’s humble enough to realize that they might not be a perfect theory for what’s going on; and as a result, he experiments with a new theory to see if it works better.
In some ways, this is similar to the first trait: thinking flexibly. Zach has indeed started by thinking more flexibly about the situation with his son. But he’s taken things a step further by designing an experiment and testing out a new theory—he’s been flexible in his behavior, not just his thinking.
It’s said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again even though it doesn’t work. The constructive corollary to that is: the definition of sanity is trying new things when old things aren’t working.
To become more experimental in your behavior, learn to design and test “behavioral experiments.”
If something isn’t going well in your life, it’s natural to think about why that is and what do do about it. The problem is, that’s where most of us start and end. We think our way into a solution and blindly apply it without testing it to see if our solution actually lines up with reality.
This like an entrepreneur spending their life savings on a business idea that has no market research or validation behind it. Or a scientist who develops a “cure” for a disease without putting it through rigorous testing and clinical trials.
No matter how good you think your theory is, reality is the ultimate arbiter of effectiveness. This means you must test your ideas in the real world before accepting them and implementing them.
By designing and testing a new set of behaviors—that is, by running an experiment—you’re opening yourself up not only to new ideas but to new data and evidence. And that’s where better theories and improved results come from.
Remember: Theories without evidence are dangerous. Learn to be a good scientist in the experiment of your life.
3. Emotionally mature adults understand that environment matters… a lot.
Emotionally mature adults have a nuanced understanding of the influence of our environment on the way we think, feel, and act. They understand that while people do have agency, control, and freedom in their lives, this freedom is always constrained to some degree by their environment and context.
You get home from work, and as soon as you walk through the door, your spouse comments that you’re late and you need to hurry up and get ready to meet the Joneses for dinner.
Imagine how you might respond to that scenario under different circumstances:
- Circumstance A: You only slept 5 hours the night before because of a flair-up of chronic pain in your back, you missed lunch because you were stuck in yet another pointless team meeting, and there was horrendous traffic on your commute home.
- Circumstance B: You got a solid seven and a half hours of sleep the night before, had a really productive 1-on-1 lunch meeting with your boss where you got to introduce that new idea you’ve been sitting on for months, and—even though there was traffic on your commute home—your best friend from college called you up and you had a great catch-up chat.
What are the odds that you snap back sarcastically at your spouse, get into an argument, have a tense dinner with the Joneses, and go to bed still mad that night given Circumstance A vs Circumstance B?
I don’t care how reasonable, thoughtful, self-possessed, emotionally intelligent, and full of will-power you think you are, you’re crazy if you think your odds of responding constructively to your spouse’s comment are the same under those different circumstances.
Context matters. A lot.
Emotionally mature adults understand that many things we think of as universal traits or abilities are actually highly context-dependent. From problem-solving and work ethic to physical stamina and cheerfulness, how we think, feel, and behave is profoundly affected by our environments—both past and current.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that people don’t have individual strengths and weaknesses, or that individual effort and will don’t matter. They do. But to assume that that’s all that matters is naive and actually dangerous.
If you keep telling yourself that you should have more patience when your spouse makes sarcastic comments toward you, you’re ignoring alternative strategies that could be far more helpful and effective—practicing assertive communication, for instance, or prioritizing sleep and exercise as a form of emotion management and self-care.
Acknowledge the powerful influence of environment on how we think, feel, and behave isn’t just a nice insight; it’s a crucial ingredient in more effective habits and strategies for living well.
How to become more realistic about the impact of environment on us and others
Practice looking for the subtle but powerful ways our environment shapes us.
Just like a good architect knows that the design and layout of an office building will ultimately impact the effectiveness and wellbeing of the workers in the building, start to observe how different aspects of your environment and context affect you or other people in your life:
- Do you often find it hard to resist that bowl of ice-cream each night after the kids go to bed? Maybe it has less to do with your lack of discipline and more to do with the fact that you buy ice-cream every week at the grocery store, which means it’s always available and tempting at the end of a long day.
- Is your wife always cranky after dinner? Maybe it has less to do with her personality and moral fiber, and a whole lot more to do with the fact that you’ve never once offered to make dinner one or two nights per week.
- Does your toddler have a hard time paying attention during story time before bed? Maybe it’s not a budding case of ADHD, and instead, has something to do with the fact that they spend all day watching insanely hyper-stimulating cartoons on their iPad and so, understandably, Pat the Bunny seems a little underwhelming by contrast.
Remember: Will-power and discipline aren’t strategies; they’re a last resort. Design your environment to be more conducive to your goals and you’ll rarely need all that willpower you consistently overestimate.
All You Need to Know
Emotional maturity is not something we attain automatically simply because we’re grown up, educated, successful, intelligent, or sufficiently “advanced” in any other dimension. It requires a careful attention to and cultivation of our emotional lives, something most of us instinctively avoid.
Think flexibly. Live experimentally. And never underestimate the power of environment.
But what do you think?
Emotional maturity is a complex concept and I certainly don’t have all the answers. These are simply the traits I’ve observed and found admirable and worthy of imitation.
What are some signs of emotional maturity for you? What did I miss?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!