It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are. —e.e. cummings
Most people are unaware that they are conducting their lives more from a child’s frame of reference than from an adult mode. Although men and women mature physically and become more capable in their practical lives, rarely do they achieve emotional maturity.
In my view, the primary barriers to maturity are unresolved childhood trauma, the defenses the child forms to ward off emotional pain and existential dread. The latter refers to a core anxiety related to growing up, facing the fact that time is passing, and giving value to life in spite of death’s inevitability.
There are six major aspects of the adult approach to life:
1. Rationality: Adults experience their emotions, but when it comes to their actions, they make rational decisions on the basis of self-interest and moral concerns. As Murray Bowen observed, adults “are able to distinguish between the feeling process and the intellectual process … and [have] the ability to choose between having one’s functioning guided by feelings or by thoughts.” They have a strong sense of identity and strive to live with integrity, according to their own principles and values.
2. Formulating and Implementing Goals: Adults formulate goals and take the appropriate actions to achieve them. In this respect, they establish their priorities in life. In contrast, people living within a child’s frame of reference often overreact emotionally to events that are insignificant in the overall scheme of their lives, and fail to respond to events that are important or crucial to their well-being. Because adults tend to pursue their goals and priorities honestly, their actions are more likely to correspond to their words.
3. Equality in Relationships: Adults seek equality in their relationships whereas those who operate from a child’s perspective often assume the role of either the parent or the child in relation to their loved ones. In Voice Therapy, I described how adult individuals interact in a close relationship: “People whose actions are based primarily on the adult mode relate to each other as independent individuals with considerable give and take in terms of reciprocal need gratification.” They have developed their capacity for both giving and accepting love and do not attempt to recreate a parent in their partner by forming an imagined connection or fantasy bond with them for safety and security.
4. Active versus Passive: Adults are proactive and self-assertive, rather than passive and dependent. They don’t feel victimized by life or complain or dump their problems onto other people. Instead, they face their problems or challenges directly and work out solutions rather than depending on others for direction. They seek help only in relation to what they actually need, as in areas where they lack expertise, not in relation to unresolved emotional needs from the past.
5. Non-defensiveness and Openness: People who are emotionally mature do not have defensive or angry reactions to feedback; they do not offhandedly disagree with negative commentary. Instead they are open to exploring new ideas, welcome constructive criticism and, in this way, they expand their self-knowledge and self-awareness.
Adults seek self-knowledge to know themselves and develop an accurate self-concept; they are aware of both the positive and negative aspects of their personalities and have a realistic perspective of themselves in relation to others. In their pursuit of self-knowledge, they are aware of unconscious motivation, open to the analysis of that dimension of mental life and attempt to integrate it to the best of their ability.
6. Personal Power: People do not have control over their thoughts and feelings; these arise unbidden in the course of everyday life. However, adults take full power over every part of their conscious existence. Indeed, they change any behavior or characteristic that they dislike in themselves, such as being overweight or abusing substances. In this sense, adults approach their lives from the standpoint of being responsible for their destiny.
The Child Mode
When people experience the world in the child mode, they feel powerless and at the mercy of others as well as overpowered by their own feeling reactions. In the actual world of the child, the child is helpless and totally dependent and is often the victim of negative circumstances that are beyond his or her control. Children feel, but they are generally unable to act or protest outwardly in their own defense.
I was impressed with the way one woman described a child’s perspective in a personal narrative:
Recently, someone reminded me about the unconscious desire to be a child, and it hit me. I never heard it that clearly. It’s ruining my life and making me unhappy. I’m 41, and I’m sick of it.
The life of a child is helpless, scary and powerless. Functioning in an adult world as a child creates a never-ending misery of inequality, fear, and paranoia. As a child, anyone can control and overrun you. As an adult, of course, you own your life and destiny. But if you remain a child in your adult life, you look at the world around you as dominating, controlling, and dangerous. That’s a miserable life.
I’ve lived my adult years searching for my parents; not the obvious ones I was born to, but their replacements. My subconscious desire to have parents in my adult life has caused me years of discontent.
The major deterrent to living an adult existence lies in the fear of growing up. This includes the fear of breaking imagined connections with parents, being alone, standing out as an individual, having a strong point of view, recognizing one’s value and confronting the inevitability of death, the ultimate separation from self.
Like this woman, many people have a strong desire to hold on to fantasy bonds or imagined connections to parents and their symbolic substitutes that offer safety, yet at great cost to their personal development. To live like a child in an adult world is itself a defense against death anxiety.
In her story, the woman revealed how, in an attempt to preserve the illusory connection to her parents, she recreated her father in her husband and her mother in close female friends. She went on to describe why she held on to her identity of being “the bad child” for so many years.
To hang on to this old identity with all my might, for many years, was so compelling … why? All I can answer to this is remaining a child, although miserable, is farther away from the agony of aging and death. So the compelling draw is hard to let go of.
Of course, I still have my moments of childish reactions, but I’m learning to catch them, notice the almost physical feeling that comes on, and stop it before I engage. I will make mistakes, but I plan to forge forward as an adult, and search instead for equality. Nonetheless, this leaves me very alone. And the aloneness leaves me anxious, and sad … but it’s real. And life as an equal, although painful, is fuller. And I’m ready for the challenge.
In summary, living in the child mode is largely chaotic and dysfunctional, whereas living one’s life as an adult is generally more adaptive and successful. Retaining a child’s frame of reference has numerous disadvantages: For example, people who operate from this perspective often find it difficult to formulate their goals and priorities in life and tend to feel helpless and victimized. They blame others for the problems they encounter rather than taking responsibility for how people react to them. In reality, people largely determine the course of their lives and determine the way that others respond. Lastly, reacting to life in a childlike manner can be quite emotional but often lacks a depth of genuine feeling.
Accepting the premise that living in the adult mode is obviously preferable, why is it that so many people function as children emotionally and stubbornly refuse to grow up? This question will be answered and the psychodynamics of the situation elaborated in part two of this series.
Read more from Dr. Robert Firestone at PsychAlive.org