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Spotting Emotional Immaturity in High-Conflict Personalities

Knowing the signs of emotional immaturity may help you navigate relationships.

Key points

  • High-conflict personalities and people with Cluster B personality disorders tend to be emotionally immature.
  • Recognizing the differences between emotional maturity and immaturity can help someone spot such individuals.
  • Once recognized, steps can be taken to effectively deal with the relationships and set realistic expectations.

As discussed in a previous article, Cluster B personality disorders—broadly conceptualized as "high-conflict personalities"—may be more common than previously thought. People with these disorders tend to be prone to engaging in "emotional dramas" due to core deficits in their personality (Lester, 2021); as a result, they often cause relational harm to those around them.

Since it's possible that you have people in your life that meet these criteria, it is important to be able to recognize the behaviors these individuals tend to engage in and respond to them accordingly. One frequently shared feature of these "high-conflict" personalities is emotional immaturity, a trait that can cause substantial problems in interpersonal relationships.

What Is Emotional Immaturity?

Emotional maturity is, in essence, the ability to deal with reality (Gibson, 2015). Emotionally mature people are self-reflective, take responsibility for their actions, and have flexible and adaptable personality traits that help them navigate the world with minimal detrimental consequences.

Conversely, emotionally immature people are often unable to deal with reality and tend to alter their perceptions of reality to fit their own needs. As Gibson (2019) states, their bodies may have grown up—but mentally, they have arrested development and are often “stuck” at an earlier emotional age. It may be even possible to roughly identify the age at which a person is functioning at an emotional level. Do they throw chronic tantrums? Do they shut down consistently? Are they insensitive to the feelings of others? Are they stuck in maladaptive thinking patterns (seeing everything in black-and-white, for example)?

Regardless of their emotional "age," emotionally immature people tend to lack emotional sensitivity, be self-preoccupied, or behave in ways that cause you to question your own reality. You may find communication difficult, or even impossible. They may be deceptive, manipulative, or impulsive with their actions and emotions. They struggle with navigating circumstances without negative consequences due to these deficits. For example, since impulsivity is common in emotionally immature individuals, they may chronically lie and cheat because their feelings override reason and morality.

Characteristics of Emotionally Immature People

The following are characteristics and descriptions that may help you recognize emotional immaturity and deal with it effectively (Gibson, 2019). The purpose of this article is not to diagnose people; diagnoses should only be given after examination by a qualified mental health professional. However, it can be helpful to be able to spot emotional immaturity in others in order to handle the situation both realistically and tactfully. It is impossible to deal with a situation unless it is recognized and acknowledged.

  • They tend to think of themselves first, engaging in chronic self-absorbed behavior.
  • They do not know how to repair relationships effectively; conflicts are rarely resolved and may be ignored. A frequent mantra is "just move on."
  • They are unable to take others' perspectives or stand in their shoes.
  • They frequently show a lack of guilt or remorse.
  • They do what feels best—which means they often don't learn from past mistakes and may continue to repeat behavior that has negative consequences.
  • They engage in little self-reflection.
  • There is a history of conflict and drama in their relationships.
  • They have a history of denying reality due to affective realism (reality is what it feels like instead of what it is) or distorting it (making up a new narrative about a situation) in order to deal with it.
  • They demonstrate a pattern of impulsive behavior; they feel more than think.
  • They often get enmeshed in relationships instead of engaging in healthy emotional intimacy.
  • They tend to disregard others' well-being and safety.
  • They rarely do emotional work.
  • They demonstrate little or no empathy.

Recognize How You Feel Around Emotionally Immature People

After seeing the signs above, it's also important to notice how you feel around emotionally immature people and those with high-conflict personalities. Feelings of discomfort, anxiety, confusion, exhaustion, and irritation are common.

You may feel like every conversation is one-sided; you may feel hurt because your experiences and feelings are often discounted and ignored. You may feel like you are walking on eggshells, or that the person is overly negative and “draining.” Emotionally immature people often provoke anger because others in their life tend to feel dismissed, unseen, or as if their reality is questioned.

Because such people at times employ gaslighting to discount others' reality, you may feel “scrambled” or like you can't think straight after an interaction. Finally, ongoing depression, anxiety, or other similar symptoms may arise after dealing with these personalities over time.

Recognize How You Feel Around Emotionally Mature People

In contrast, you likely feel energized when interacting with emotionally mature people. You may even feel grateful after you spend time with them. Colloquially, they have “good vibes” and leave you feeling validated and understood. You feel empathy from them.

They usually take responsibility for their actions, feel bad or guilty when they think they hurt you, and apologize for their behavioral missteps. They are able to think and feel at the same time. They are self-reflective, are able to build deep emotional connections over time, and their defenses adapt to reality. Emotionally mature people are able to deal with both outer and inner reality and are realistic, adapt, and accept what is.

Emotional Maturity and Dealing with Conflict

All relationships are stressful at times. However, chronically stressful relationships may be indicative of a larger problem in one or both parties. When conflicts arise between two emotionally mature people, their attempts to repair the relationship often help make it stronger. Both parties may end up feeling more understood, closer, and warmer towards each other, in spite of the original conflict.

In contrast, there often is no genuine conflict resolution with emotionally immature individuals. It is vital to acknowledge and recognize these dynamics in areas where you have to deal with them, such as at work, and deliberately choose whether or not to deal with them in personal relationships. Once you do, you can change both your tactics and expectations of the relationships to promote the most successful and safe outcome for yourself and others.

Part II in this series, Dealing With High Conflict Personalities will help you navigate these relationships if you choose to do so.

Originally published on www.drtracyhutchinson.com

Copyright 2022: Tracy Hutchinson, Ph.D

References

Dingfelder, S. (2004). Treatment for the ‘untreatable’. American Psychological Association, 35 (3).

Gibson, L. (2019). Recovering from Emotionally Immature Parents/Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents (2015).

Gibson, P., & Gavin, M. (2016). Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents. Tantor Media, Inc.

Godwin, A. & Lester, G. (2021). Demystifying personality disorders. Clinical Skills for working with drama and manipulation. (PESI).

Lester, G.W. (2018) Advanced Diagnosis, Treatment, and Management of DSM-5 Personality Disorders. Ashcroft Press.

Roth, K, Friedman, F. (2003). Surviving a borderline parent: How to heal your childhood wounds & build trust, boundaries, and self-esteem. CA: New Harbinger.

Sweet, P. (2019). The Sociology of Gaslighting. American Sociological Review, 84 (5).

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