Emotional maturity is one of the gateways to a fulfilling life. Many people struggle with having the emotional regulation and resiliency needed to function, perform, and thrive in the personal and professional settings that the adult world demands of us because our emotional responses have been stunted due to stress, childhood trauma, poor role models, or lack of positive coping skills.
When we're children, we assume that we will feel "adult" when we become full-grown adults. However, the truth is that there's no magic switch that suddenly makes us capable of stepping into situations with a strong, capable mindset. In fact, patterns and wounds from childhood can leave us stuck in behavioral loops that prevent us from achieving emotional maturity.
The good news is that a desire to replace a negative behavior or belief is a sign that you're ready to step into a place of self-awareness. The even better news is that our emotional health is malleable even if we didn't get a perfect start in early childhood. While maturing emotionally is an ongoing process, the first step is always gaining a better understanding of why you're struggling. This guide to how to become more emotionally mature covers the path to going from struggling to adulting!
What Is Emotional Maturity?
At its core, emotional maturity is an understanding of one's self. It allows us to walk through the world with the self-confidence and trust needed to make decisions that align with our values and desires. Emotional maturity also enables us to get enjoyment from our relationships. While being emotionally mature doesn't mean having all of the answers to life, it does mean that you have the clarity of mind to seek out constructive paths instead of feeling desperate and defeated from life's obstacles and challenges.
What Does an Emotionally Mature Person Look Like?
We'll get into some of the reasons why people fail to develop emotional maturity in just a moment. First, it's helpful to know what emotionally mature adults look like as they operate in the world. Here's a look at some key characteristics of emotional maturity.
Not Afraid of Taking Responsibility
Excuses can keep us from stepping into accountability. An emotionally immature person instinctively looks around for someone to blame when things don't work out perfectly. This locks them into a cycle of blame, shame, and making excuses instead of proactively moving forward. Meanwhile, an emotionally mature person will take responsibility for looking for solutions instead of getting caught up in pinning the blame on someone.
Open to Flexibility
Emotionally mature people know how to go with the flow when it doesn't compromise their values or goals. They are willing to face reality on reality's terms when it's time to pivot away from ineffective strategies. Emotionally immature people often resist when plans don't go exactly how they envisioned. As a result, they block themselves off from progress.
Comfortable With Assertiveness
Assertiveness is one of the hallmarks of emotional maturity. An assertive person feels comfortable setting clear, healthy boundaries with other people. They don't "go with the flow" when they feel that they are being taken advantage of by another person. It's common for people with emotional immaturity to revert to a passive-aggressive stance that quietly punishes the other person instead of speaking up.
Of course, it's important to say that an emotionally mature person can recognize reasonable boundaries. Being assertive is not the same as making demands out of a sense of entitlement. Coming to a place of recognizing, understanding, and enforcing healthy and appropriate boundaries is one of the biggest learning curves on the road to personal maturity.
The irony of staying stuck in a childlike mentality is that we often cling to immature behaviors because we falsely believe that they are keeping us safe. An emotionally mature person isn't someone who is immune to the struggles and pains of life. In contrast, they are acutely aware of the challenges that surround them. They cope with these challenges by embracing vulnerability instead of putting on a puffed-up facade.
Vulnerability as a Source of Connection
What does healthy vulnerability look like? The first step is recognizing that we don't reach maturity when we are able to handle everything on our own. Here's a look at how an emotionally resilient person uses vulnerability to their advantage:
- They ask friends and family for advice.
- They confide in others when they are experiencing doubts.
- They don't let pride, fear of appearing inept, or a sense of defeat stop them from asking for help when they need it.
- They aren't afraid to seek out resources when a task becomes overwhelming.
- They acknowledge the difficulty of the task ahead of them when trying to achieve a goal.
- They admit when they are wrong instead of doubling down to avoid feelings of shame.
- They share their own struggles to help others who are also struggling.
- They are honest about their difficulties instead of always trying to appear superhuman.
Vulnerability can be a tough topic for someone who was forced to suppress their own emotions as a child. It's important to learn to see vulnerability as a strength instead of a weakness if you grew up in an environment where admitting that you were wrong was viewed as a sign of weakness. For those who put in the work, the fruits of vulnerability can be incredible! In addition to helping you to access the support and resources you need to thrive in life, vulnerability can also be a rapport-building tool.
Children have trouble seeing the world outside of themselves. Feeling that you are the center of the universe is actually a normal and healthy part of childhood cognitive development. However, we should ideally outgrow this mindset as we evolve into a mindset of adolescent maturity. People who stay stuck in a state of self-centered thinking struggle with healthy adult relationships because they have trouble seeing another person's perspective. Empathy gives us the ability to understand the feelings of another person from their unique frame of reference.
How We Develop Emotional Maturity
As our brains and bodies grow during childhood, we should also be developing emotional maturity. Every interaction we have serves as a building block for personal growth. Here's what the standard path to developing our emotional blueprint should look like:
- Full Emotional Dependence: During early childhood, our happiness develops in relation to our primary caregivers. The lack of physical maturity in childhood makes us emotionally dependent on our parents. As a result, our mood, perspective, and behaviors are often tied to how we relate to our caregivers.
- Partial Emotional Dependence: As we move into adolescence and adulthood, we begin to attach our emotional states to friends, romantic partners, and colleagues. It's common to feel frustrated in this stage because the actions of others weigh heavily on the way we feel at any given moment. We may feel easily triggered by external forces.
- Emotional Interdependence: This is a stage of awareness that allows us to see that our emotional health and mental well-being are linked with our connections with others. We begin to feel a strong pull toward serving instead of merely being served. In this phase, we begin to understand connection and reciprocity. We are able to demonstrate caring, empathy, and concern for others.
- Emotional Independence: This stage is the goal of anyone on a journey to emotional maturity. We are finally able to understand that our emotions do not depend on others. We take full responsibility for how we think, feel, and act in all situations. We no longer feel easily triggered by external factors.
Not everyone moves through these stages smoothly. Painful experiences can cause our bodies to relive past emotions in the present moment instead of seeing situations in their fullness. For example, you may automatically shift into a complete mental shutdown when a boss comments on your work if you grew up in an overly critical environment as a child. Your brain simply never learned that feedback can be used constructively because feedback was always associated with punishment. If you're an adult who is struggling with shallow emotions, overpowering emotions, or anything in between, you may need to pinpoint where early interactions with family members or caregivers disrupted your emotional growth.
Why Do Some People Fail to Mature Emotionally?
Don't beat yourself up if you're struggling to become more emotionally mature. The truth is that many people have a lot stacked up against them in the form of childhood trauma, poor role models, mental health issues, and other life circumstances that can keep them trapped in loops of immature thinking. Adverse childhood experiences that occur at about the age when a child should be experiencing increased emotional control and personal growth can cause setbacks.
How Early Experiences Can Affect Emotional Maturity in Adulthood
Life circumstances in childhood can cause us to form emotional triggers that make us feel unsafe. In an attempt to protect us from harmful stimuli, the brain may fly into an emotional response that's focused on survival mode. It is very hard to practice emotional regulation when stress hormones are coursing through the body. Signs that you are emotionally stunted due to trauma or adverse experiences can include:
- Reacting with anger or rage when you feel scared, challenged, or threatened. Due to deeply embedded childhood fears, you may feel like overpowering or overwhelming the other person is the only way to stay safe.
- Difficult expressing anger. You may resort to passive-aggressive behaviors instead of expressing your concerns because you feel that you are not allowed to use your voice to enforce healthy boundaries.
- Reacting with helplessness when things become difficult.
- Lack of self compassion and self esteem. You are afraid to admit that you are wrong because being wrong equates to being "all bad" in your mind.
- Lack of self control that makes delayed gratification and long-term planning feel impossible.
- Being unable to cope with emotional discomfort.
- Responding harshly to criticism.
- Not taking responsibility for your actions.
- Being unable to cope with rejection, disappointment, or failure.
- Having difficulty compromising with others.
- Making poor choices.
- Using avoidant behaviors instead of tackling hard things.
Most of these reactions happen at the subconscious level. You may feel frustrated because your reactions are actually moving you further away from where you want to be. While your body may grow with time, the part of your brain that regulates emotion stays stuck in a perpetual state of immaturity because you have never felt safe enough to mature. Allowing yourself to feel safe enough to emote authentically is a crucial part of developing emotional maturity.
Becoming an emotionally mature person takes work for most of us. Nobody is born with a fully developed emotional core that allows them to respond perfectly in every situation. Early experiences that are largely out of our control create the emotional scaffolding that we'll use to respond to situations. Subconscious triggers can keep us stuck in unhealthy emotional dynamics until we finally begin investigating the role that our own emotions play in creating inner peace!
Questions and Answers How do I improve my emotional maturity?
There are many exercises that people can do to become more emotionally mature. Many people find that journaling, writing down goals, and setting boundaries all help them to make changes. Working with a mental health professional or family therapist can help you to identify triggers, utilize cognitive tools, and make behavioral changes that allow you to tap into your own emotions in a more complete way.
Why do I lack emotional maturity?
Many people who lack emotional maturity grew up in emotionally unresponsive environments. Poor attachment with a caregiver, abuse, neglect, and criticism can all cause a person to develop defense mechanisms that leave them emotionally stunted.
What is an emotionally mature person like?
An emotionally mature person takes responsibility for their own emotions and actions. While they are connected to others through accountability and vulnerability, they are not dependent on others for emotional validation. They are also able to feel and express their own emotions authentically in the company of others. Additionally, a person with emotional maturity tackles problems without avoidance, pivots to new strategies instead of clinging to failed ideas of perfection, compromises when necessary, admits to failures, and sets healthy boundaries.
How do I know if I'm emotionally immature?
If you're struggling to lead a fulfilling life, you may be lacking the emotional intelligence needed to thrive, relate to others, and process negative emotions properly. If you feel out of control in your emotional life, this is a strong sign that your emotional regulation is out of sync. You may also lack healthy adult relationships because you are either codependent or avoidant in your interactions.