A Headshrinker's Guide to the Galaxy

Psychoanalytic wisdom for everyday life

Why Grow Up?

If we didn't have to grow up, why would we want to?

Growing up is one of the facts of life. We all have to do it. We may dread it, avoid it, and delay it, but most of us eventually get around to it. Because it is so very human to resist growing up, I have been wondering if there is some reason beyond necessity that we might actually be motivated to do so. In other words, hypothetically speaking, I pose this question: if we didn’t have to grow up, why would we want to?

It is an important question to ask in the world of psychology, psychotherapy, and—in my particular case—psychoanalysis. There is a way in which people tend to be very resentful about having to grow up to deal with reality and with themselves. We tend to idealize being babies. We want to be taken care of, to be protected and adored and unconditionally loved. We tend to view work as a burden and responsibility as a necessary evil. We must fight the urge within us to stay under the covers. We must work to overcome a basic predisposition toward avoiding the demands of reality. Like Peter Pan, we want to live in the Neverland of an eternal childhood.

Part of the work of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis—in fact, the work of all helping professions—is to quicken the impulse that we also have to grow. For the truth is that, side by side with the urge toward inertia, we each possess an innate urge toward development. I think this urge is hard-wired in us because of necessity—we need it in order to survive. But also, deep within, I think this urge is rooted in an instinctive knowledge that development and growth are rewarding. A satisfying life is one in which we grow not only because we have to but because we want to.

Some of you may be thinking that the benefits of growing are obvious: when you grow up, you get to do more and have more in life. For you, then, this is kind of a no-brainer post. So I’m really talking to those of you—or (dare I say) the unconscious parts of all of you, the unconscious parts of all of us—that are perplexed by the question of why anyone would want to grow up. This post is for the doubters, the nay-sayers, and members of the why-bother club.

I got to thinking about this to-grow-up-or-not-to-grow-up dynamic because, here it is September, and all of my Facebook friends are posting photos of themselves and their children doing the hard work of growing up. What made me sit up and take notice is the clear impression that they’re all excited about it. There are photos of the first day of school and the first ballet class. Photos of the new college dorm room and the new internship office. Photos of the letter from the state board of psychology that professional licensure has been granted. In the photos, everyone is smiling. There are a lot of exclamation points in the status updates. The “Like” button is on fire. When we really stop to take it in, the delight in achievement is something special to behold.

This observation helped me answer my question: why would we want to grow up? We want to grow up because it involves achievements that make us feel good about ourselves. And we can’t feel good about ourselves in that way, unless we know that we have earned it. And earning it means we worked for it. And working for it means that we are growing. We are pushing ourselves beyond ourselves. We are learning something new, doing something we have never done before, pushing ourselves further than we have ever gone before. Not only do we collapse with exhaustion when we reach the finish line, but we do so with a smile on our faces, a thrill in our hearts, and a “Woot! Woot!” from the crowd. Accomplishment is a psychological reward beyond measure.

I just finished reading a touching novel by Erica Bauermeister called Joy for Beginners. One of the characters says, “Adults need to have fun so children will want to grow up.” I love that idea and I believe deeply that it is true. But at a deeper level, the real meat of her story is that each of the characters takes on the challenge to do something that they have never been able to do before. They are urged to push themselves beyond their limitations—to grieve a lost loved one, to fulfill a dream, to face a fear, or to invest more heartily in life. One by one, they each take up the task of growing up. Each accomplishment delights the soul. Each demonstrates another important truth—that children will be inspired to grow up when they see adults enjoying the rewards of doing so themselves.

Copyright 2013 by Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D.

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Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, working with adults and couples in her private practice in Pasadena, CA.

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