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What Is Maturity?

Authentically creating a refuge in an age of anxiety.

We’ve long worried deeply about the same basic stuff: health, love, family, work, and money. But like most therapists, I’m seeing more and more anxiety in the people coming in for help.

There’s a sharper edge to what lies beneath common life concerns, as the very foundation of our shared social experiment increasingly feels shaky. We have less and less faith in the basic adult capacity of the people and institutions making the world’s most important decisions. A patient of mine recently summed it up as well as anyone when she said, frantically, “Who the f— is running this place?”

A couple of years ago, when my daughter was maybe 5, she called out to me from her bedroom about 15 minutes after I’d put her down. I sighed deeply when I heard her call me; I was tired and just entering the sweet hour of adult time with my wife that marks the end of the day. I entered her room and did my best to muster patience as I asked her what she needed. She said sweetly, “Dad, I just need an adult in the room for a little bit.” My heart softened and I said sure, and I stayed a little while by her bed.

I’ve thought of that moment often. It’s come to me many times in my conversations with people. She named something that we all experience, some of us only from time to time, some of us more pervasively: that feeling that we need to know, to feel, the presence of someone powerful that we can trust, someone with self-possession who communicates “It’s OK, I’ve got this.” A true adult; a person possessed of maturity.

What do we mean by that? What is that quality of maturity that marks the adult we need in the room?

We certainly know it when we see its absence. This is precisely the experience that is driving much of the underlying anxiety I’m seeing in my practice. So many of us are looking around at the enormous complexity of the problems we face as a society and not seeing an adult anywhere near the rooms in which the most important decisions are made. We see increasingly enormous rewards given to those of us who most entertainingly act out our emotional life; and if the emotions acted out are base and primitive, all the better. For some, this is what passes as authenticity.

And yet this “authenticity” is so untethered to wisdom that it could not possibly be authentic. To be a genuine person means to be connected to the essential truths that bind us; it means being connected to the basic facts of living that promote true well-being for oneself and for others. To see a person acting out their baseness or destructive ambition is to witness someone with no clue about what will lead to their own well-being. To call this person authentic is to hold up as exemplary the thin wispy plant struggling to reach the light. To be truly genuine means being relatively emotionally healthy.

Maturity is the behavioral expression of emotional health and wisdom. It is the capacity to know one’s own emotional experience, to be oriented by this experience to some aspect of the truth, to place this truth within the context of other truths, and finally to act in accordance with one’s values.

We urgently need this from each other. Many people in my practice have a difficult time trusting the world because they were raised by immature people. Their parents need not have been malicious or negligent; perhaps they were simply unable to stay present in a consistent way when they were buffeted by their own emotional life. Perhaps they could be punishing and withdrawn when hurt, or they could bring too much of their own neediness to their child when they were insecure. Therapy work with such people largely involves being the adult in the room for them, being present and self-possessed over time, so that they might cultivate within themselves the maturity to hold themselves with a consistency they hadn’t fully been given.

We need maturity within ourselves for our own sake. All too often we act out what we are feeling in ways that take us further from our own well-being. Maturity—the alignment of our truth, our wisdom, and our values—is something we can cultivate.

This is the chief pursuit of the therapy groups I run. In my groups, there are six or seven people who meet weekly for 90 minutes and have ongoing relationships with each other. All kinds of things happen in this space; the relationships run the gamut of what happens between people. It’s an object lesson in cause and effect. What do I want here, for myself and for others? How does my behavior bring me closer or further from well-being? What has to be navigated in order for me to bring it about? How do I most genuinely and effectively show up? Over time, maturity is cultivated, since maturity is required if we are to progress in experiencing and promoting wellness.

Of course, we can’t all be in therapy groups. But we can all pay close attention to cause and effect as it exists in our own lives. What is important to me? Is my behavior in alignment with these values? What is required of me to move towards healthier relationships? What is called for if I’m to move more directly in the direction of my own true well-being?

More from Eric S. Jannazzo Ph.D.
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More from Eric S. Jannazzo Ph.D.
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