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8 Essential Emotional Skills for Every Adult

Create your own vision of the adult you want to be.

Source: PKpix/Shutterstock

What does it mean to be grown up, adult, or “mature”? We’re not talking about holding down a job (though that certainly helps) or paying your bills on time, but rather the way you run your life, yourself, and your relationships.

Following is my list of eight interrelated skills. I stress that these are skills—learnable, though they require practice, and accessible to most of us apart from the temperament we were born with, and the personality traits we may have inherited. I offer them as food for thought as you compose your own adult life, whatever your age:

1. Achieve emotional regulation.

We particularly associate emotional regulation, or the ability to control your emotions, with anger, and that is obviously true: Those who struggle to control their temper get kicked out of class, fired from jobs, wind up divorced, and are easily and often unhappy. There are plenty of tools available these days to help us slow our emotional processes down, even phone apps that let us know when it’s time to take a deep breath and chill. But I'm also talking about the softer side — regulating anxiety, reining it in when we begin to get overwhelmed, “freak out,” shut down or fall apart.

The skill here is learning to quiet that over-active amygdala and bring our rational side back online in order to control our brains and our emotions.

2. Tolerate confrontation and the strong emotions of others.

Even though it’s good for us to self-regulate, many of those around us can’t. Tolerating others' strong emotions is about our own self-regulation — not getting angry in return, not getting overwhelmed — but also not allowing ourselves to be abused. But the bigger issue here is that if we can’t tolerate confrontation and strong emotions, it’s easy to learn to blanket-avoid them, and then we can’t step up and say what we need and want. Not only do we then have trouble getting these needs met, but others never really get to know us at a more intimate level, and we spend much of our time walking on eggshells, trying to make others happy as a way of managing our anxiety. Our own lives become stunted.

The skill is calming our own anxiety and mentally realizing that others' reactions and problems are not our own.

3. Admit mistakes.

Admitting mistakes means admitting them to ourselves and others. By admitting them to ourselves, we move away from a sense of entitlement or grandiosity; it helps us be more considerate of the mistakes of others. By admitting them to others, we show humility and our humanness.

The skill here is realizing that mistakes are mistakes, not character defects. They do not deserve our punishment (mentally beating ourselves up) or the punishment of others. They require only that we repair them and learn from them.

4. Be honest.

This is a broader version of admitting mistakes. Honesty is often confused with truth, which is about facts and evidence. But honesty is about emotion, saying what is in our hearts and minds in the moment, which can certainly change over time, and should not be confused with dishonesty or lying. Being honest can be extremely difficult because it requires first that we know what we feel and think, and then that we have the courage to state it. For some, the knowing itself is an obstacle; for others, it is fear of confrontation and walking on eggshells.

The skill is slowing down and asking what it is we truly think and feel, and then stepping up and saying it.

5. Approach anxiety.

We all have anxiety, and we can avoid it — do what we need to do to make the feeling go away, whether it's to accommodate, shut down, or drink a quart of bourbon. We can bind it — keep the feeling at bay by staying in a small, constricted world that never lets anxiety in. Or we can approach it. Approaching anxiety allows us to expand our world and ourselves. By taking acceptable risks, we bring intimacy into relationships and we discover what we did not fully yet know.

The skill is taking baby steps to move outside our comfort zones, desensitizing ourselves to the feeling of anxiety itself. With practice, it all gets easier: we become braver, and we expand. The antidote to anxiety is learning to run toward what we fear.

6. Ask for help and support.

In order to take these baby steps toward anxiety, it helps to have others support us. Some of us have learned to not trust and lean on no one, and thus lose both the comfort of relationships and self-expansion. The goal is not to be independent, but to realize that we are interdependent and that asking for support does not diminish our power.

The skill here is once again stepping up — baby steps.

7. Be proactive.

It’s too easy to be reactive, to be always responding to whatever is coming at us or to go on auto-pilot and just do what we do and not be awake. Being proactive is being deliberate, conscious, and shaping what we do, what we decide, and what we want. It's about running our life, rather than bouncing off of or spending our time sidestepping the lives of others.

The skill here is first to step back and look at what we are doing and why and how we are doing it, and then to make decisions — about what we want to keep, and what we want to change.

8. Determine and live by your own values.

This is being proactive writ large, but also maybe the starting point for our notion of being grown up. What is our vision of how we want to be — not in terms of big, concrete goals like jobs and relationships, but in terms of what we value in life? It is being grown up because it enables us to step away from the “shoulds” that we received from our parents. It helps us step away from the looming shadow of our past and its guilt, and enables us to sidestep appeasing others in the present.

The skill here is stepping back to envision what we believe and hold dear, what is on top of our list of how to be, and what we need not to have a life of regrets. Then setting out to put these into operation every day, intentionally, with mistakes, with honesty, and with compassion for ourselves and others. This creates a life of integrity, in which our inner and outer worlds finally match.

That’s my list. Think about your own, then set a path to learn the skills you need to develop to grow up and become the adult you envision.