How Old Do You Feel? 4 Steps to Being the Adult You Are

We all can have little-kid feelings. Knowing your triggers, you can push back.

Posted Dec 21, 2019

Source: Pixabay

You’ve undoubtedly met folks who say, “Though I’m 40, in my mind l feel like I’m still in my 20s—got the same energy, passion, ability to do things.”

Good for them.

These aren't the folks we’re talking about. We’re talking about a good number of us on the other end of the spectrum, those who always feel in their everyday lives like a 10-year-old, not like the adult they are. Or no, it's not all the time, but get them within 15 feet of their boss, and they feel small and vulnerable.

These are those “little-kid” feelings that can cause us to suddenly feel overwhelmed and unsure what to do, to see others as bigger and stronger and more capable than ourselves, or feel that others are judging us and able to see how incompetent and un-adult we feel really are.

While we all are capable of having such moments, for those who feel this way, all too often, the sources are usually tied to childhood or adult traumatic events. If, for example, you were emotionally or physically abused in your childhood or your adult life, if you grew up in a chaotic family, or had extremely critical or controlling parents or partners, you've understandably learned to see the world as unsafe, others as intimidating.

This may result in your struggling with generalized anxiety, where you're always on guard, always looking around corners, always prepared for the worse, always walking on eggshells. Or you find yourself triggered by your critical boss, for example, who can remind you of your critical mom, or your boyfriend, who, when he is irritable, reminds you of your controlling ex. When you get triggered, you go on autopilot, your anxiety kicks in, and you once again feel unsafe and vulnerable.

But you don't have to live this way. Maybe it's time to shake this old wiring. Maybe it's time to become the adult that you are. Here are four steps to get you started:

1. Know your triggers.

Start by stepping back and pinpointing those people and situations that most easily trigger those little-kid reactions. Knowing what and when they get activated can help you anticipate such situations and keep you from emotionally going on autopilot. 

2. Realize when those little-kid feelings are kicking in.

It's a gut feeling, a feeling of anxiety, or feeling small and incapable, or being judged. This lets you know that your old emotional brain is kicking in and flooding your rational, adult brain. The key is learning to practice tuning into these feelings on a regular basis, so you can learn to recognize these feelings early when they are still at a lower level. This gives you time to re-center, and get your adult, rational brain back online quickly. 

3. Practice seeing yourself as an adult.

Once you do, take a couple of deep breaths. Then change your self-talk: Hold on, my little-kid past is getting stirred up. I’m not a child; I don’t need to be afraid. I’m an adult; I’m ______ years old. Doing this is first-aid for those triggering situations.

But it helps also to practice this on a daily basis without triggers. Practice imagining yourself as the adult you are, rather than the child you feel. Look at your own reflection in a mirror and take in that image of the adult you. Say to yourself that you are a capable adult in spite of how you feel. This is the person that others see, the larger, competent self you are, and not the child you feel yourself to be.

4. Be proactive.

Those who tend to see themselves as younger than they are all too easily adopt a reactive and passive stance in relationships, which only reinforces those child-like feelings. Instead, you want to practice being more proactive, not only in specific situations but overall in your life. This is the longer-term cure.

If, for example, you feel intimidated by your upcoming job interview or yearly evaluation with your boss, get into adult mode. Decide what questions you want to ask, what feedback you want to give proactively, rather than walking in feeling small and frightened and unsure what to say.

Practice stepping up and telling others what you need, and then practice taking decisive action to get what you need. Take baby steps, but realize that any acceptable risks you can take expand your comfort zone and, in turn, increase your overall self-confidence

Yes, this can feel difficult to do; this is not a three-day fix. It is not easy to override these old feelings; this old wiring that is so deeply ingrained. But what you are doing by being proactive is doing now what you couldn’t do with your parents. You are pushing back, and by doing so, you're rewiring your brain, so you are less sensitive to these old wounds.

With practice, you can begin to feel like the adult you are.