The pioneering psychiatrist Murray Bowen devoted a lifetime of thinking and clinical practice to understanding emotional maturity. His work gave humanity a good start in defining the markers of lower and higher functioning.
Dr. Bowen generated a host of important ideas, but he didn’t leave behind a neat package. Instead of an unchanging recipe for “wising up,” we’re left with a web of variables, some defined, others yet to be widely accepted.
Why is maturity so hard to pin down?
Human complexity and inconsistency have something to do with it. For example, an individual might act more maturely in one area of life-say, business decision-making-while behaving less maturely in another-say, close relationships with siblings or a spouse.
I often hear this question: “How come I am cool at work even under the pressure of tight deadlines, and I can deal with my immature co-workers, but when I arrive home, I get tipped over by my kids?”
That kind of fickleness befuddles us, but it gets more intriguing: We’re also imposters.
Part of our maturity complexity is our ability to fake it. For instance, some of us can act calm on the outside while concealing the tension or anger lurking under the surface. To novice observers, we look very “put together,” but the real story might be murkier.
Another example of fakery might be one who distances herself from another believing she is acting rationally when, all the while, her distance is being steered by anxious reactivity to the other’s behavior. How many of those who flee to the islands – purportedly to “get some space” – cart with them boatloads of resentment?
Most of us do well at knowing what foods we like for breakfast, but typically, we cannot tell the difference between a conviction based on clear thinking and one driven by strong feelings.
Despite these challenges, it’s possible to make reliable judgments about what maturity- in-action looks like. Here are five important pieces to the intricate puzzle of emotional maturity:
1. Responsibility – The willingness to take full responsibility for one’s own thoughts, feelings, needs, wants, decisions and destiny, without blaming others or the circumstances.
A responsible individual works at seeing his own part in any problem that pops up in his family, workplace or community.
One graduate of our Advanced Leadership Course related a crisp example of her focus on self-responsibility:
“I found myself getting more and more resentful towards my brother for not repaying a loan. With some help, I started thinking about all the ways I have maintained a one-up position with him, going back to when we were kids. It’s unreasonable for me to believe this would have no effect on our long-term relationship. I’m thinking about how I want to address this…”
2. Emotional regulation – the ability to suspend or reduce automatic emotional reactivity. This does not entail – as many believe – a suppression or denial of emotions. The aim is to feel and express emotions thoughtfully vs. automatically.
There’s no formula for calming oneself down. But there are numerous strategies to experiment with. Reliable reports have been published on the benefits of meditation, prayer, neuro-feedback, exercise and confiding in a trusted friend or family member.
3. Flexibility – a mindset of openness to new experience and new information. This includes the capacity to change one’s course of action based on shifting circumstances or realities.
A flexible leader is not headstrong, or blinded by his own convictions. Beliefs can be strong while remaining provisional. In an emotionally mature person or group, ambiguity is viewed not as a threat but as an invitation to investigate.
4. Discernment – the ability to weigh options and consider a broad range of variables in an effort to identify an optimal course based on the situation.
A discerning individual does not jump to conclusions. She shuns black/white ways of looking at the world. She is suspicious of easy answers, quick fixes, superficial approaches and the fantasy of perfection. Instead, she considers which option is “best” and what strategies and timing are “good enough.”
The weighing and sifting that defines discernment can be detected in deliberate yet inconclusive language:
“There’s no one right answer. It depends on the situation.”
“I’m considering the pros and cons before committing.”
“A decision this important warrants a second round of questions.”
5. Connection – the willingness to stay in meaningful contact with important others in the family and work systems.
More mature individuals maintain solid connectivity with the people who mean the most to them, and to the future of the family or organization. On the personal side, this includes spouse, children, siblings, parents and living members of one’s extended family.
On the work side, the most important relationships are those with direct reports, boss, peers and one’s most significant customers, patients or clients.
Connecting involves a cluster of skills and attitudes, including the ability to listen actively and deeply, a commitment to setting aside one-on-one time, an openness to “let the other in” to one’s own experience, the ability to accept differences, faults, personal quirks and immaturity in the other, and genuine curiosity and fascination about some aspect of the other’s life.
The effort to raise one’s level of emotional maturity requires steady focus over a lifetime. The changes that can happen as a result impact all areas of life. It’s a challenging and rewarding journey, with lots of brain-twisting surprises!
7 Responses to “May 2015: Promoting Emotional Maturity Beginning with Self”
May 02, 2015 at 1:45 pm, Jon said:
You’ll find Emotionall Matuity somewhere under the heading – Wisdom
May 05, 2015 at 7:21 pm, Rev. Dr. Constance Mentzer said:
Thank you for your reflection on five aspects of emotional maturity. It occurs to me that the first characteristic is the most important: Responsibility. Parish ministry affords a veritable petri dish of examples of immature emotional behavior and choice as it relates to owning personal responsibility. If you aren’t willing to “own” it, you will find it harder to regulate your emotions, think and act with an appropriate measure of flexibility, discern a measured and reasonable course of action, and stay connected to key leaders or participants. In a faith community which, in its identity and mission, purports to embody love and accountability, sometimes it is difficult to locate congregants who are sufficiently differentiated to recognize to whom/what they are/aren’t responsible.
May 06, 2015 at 1:04 am, Pamela McGuire said:
Thought provoking and a copy reminder in a concise piece. Thank you.
May 06, 2015 at 2:52 pm, Juan C. Penhos said:
I fully agree with Rev. Dr. Mentzer that responsibility is the most important aspect, although the other characteristics are clearly complementary; they are almost corollaries. What I find most difficult is getting across the difference between responsibility and blame, since the latter usually elicits defensiveness, anger or avoidance. While one might openly admit responsibility, the other interprets that as “admission of guilt” or “blame” which in turn absolves the other in any part of the problem! Almost without exception, this confusion comes up. I certainly do not have an easy answer.
May 07, 2015 at 4:05 pm, Leslie Fox said:
The way I see the “responsibility” piece of the emotional maturity puzzle is that responsibility is one’s capacity for self-reflection on the part one is playing in amplifying anxiety or in keeping a system stuck. Having awareness of one’s own part in the problem isn’t about “admitting, or assigning blame to anyone”, it is about a shift in one’s own thinking that informs one’s actions going forward. For example, I try answering for myself such questions as: Can I listen to others without judging them? Can I stay present and accounted for even when I don’t agree with others? Can I better control my temper? Can I avoid participating in gossip. Can I communicate a clear position based on facts? Can I ask thoughtful questions? These are some of the challenges humans face every day and if I can keep working on these questions for myself, I can become part of the solution more often, and not so much a part of the problem.
May 09, 2015 at 1:36 am, Kelly Matthews-Pluta said:
I find the connection piece challenging. Distance is an easy, reactive position to take. We are urged to distance all the time. You don’t like something, someone, just forget about it and move on, it or they are toxic. The ability to stay in it, even when you are not sure what to do or say takes a lot of maturity (and practice). Someone wise said “Don’t just do something, stand there”.
May 13, 2015 at 3:28 pm, Lynn Acquafondata said:
Thank you for this excellent article on the components of emotional maturity. The description in the opening of the complexity of all this is important. We can fake emotional maturity to ourselves also. I can think of times when I have ignored my inner anxiety, because I could maintain an outer calm. Using your list can help discern when we are doing the work of being emotionally mature from times when we are avoiding the work and fooling ourselves. In addition, noticing fakery in others can help us to see it more clearly in ourselves.