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What It Really Means to Be Mature

It starts with taking responsibility when things go wrong.

Key points

  • Medical science has shown that adolescence continues into one’s 20s when the frontal lobe fully comes on board by age 26.
  • In order to navigate committed relationships and marriage, we must first grow ourselves up.
  • Exploring how one cuts off others, creates relationship triangles, and resists conformity or groupthink displays emotional maturity.
  • Taking responsibility for one’s missteps is a hallmark of maturity; crafting villains into one’s story with finger-pointing is the opposite.

Commencement speeches provide wisdom to graduates of all ages. With this passage, we often assume that those donning caps and gowns have it all together as they embark upon higher education or leave for promising careers.

Not so fast. As a topic, maturity is debated in the medical literature since neuroimaging shows that the brain matures well into one’s 20s. The frontal lobe, governing executive functions like working memory, impulse and self-control, planning, and time management, is among the last brain area to mature.1 This occurs typically around age 26.

Other studies have considered having different ages of majority, depending upon legal issues, as being truer to the developmental science than one set age for all matters. One boundary could apply where there is emotional arousal, time pressure, and coercion whereas another is designated for those aged 18 and older where psychosocial immaturity compromises judgment.2

Defining Maturity

According to Merriam Webster, maturity means adulthood and full development. Unofficially, many adults who read the sage words of the late advice columnist Ann Landers may remember the column titled "Maturity," easily found in an online search.3 In that classic prose, Landers wrote that people display maturity in patience, perseverance, decision-making, dependability, self-control, and humility; that is, the ability to admit simply “I was wrong.”

In 2013, Washington Post columnist Carolyn Hax wrote about how to be one’s best self. She posed a probing list of questions including: Do you realize that your needs have the same status as everyone else’s? And that you’re not the hero in every encounter with others?4

During the global pandemic, Kathleen Smith, Ph.D., wrote “Telling A Story Without Villains” in which she reports that the focus on other vs. self leads to rigid, reactive behavior and tossing immaturity back at others.5 “Staying stuck in a narrow framework of right and wrong, of hero and villain,” she says, “doesn’t free you up to think creatively about the problem and your part in the solution.”

Never Too Old to Grow Up

Jenny Brown, MSW, writes in Growing Yourself Up: How to Bring Your Best to All of Life’s Relationships that the overriding question remains: Am I up for addressing the immature part I’m playing in relationships?6 “Seeing what we need to change about our unhelpful reactions, and working on them in the world of relationships, creates positive rippled effects into the systems we’re part of,” Brown writes. “It can even ripple into future generations.”

In what Brown dubs the “change and blame dance,” she reports, “When we’re finding fault with others, we stop working on ourselves. Our growing gets stuck in the blame rut.”

Brown’s book presents maturity through the lifespan from young adulthood to middle age—with discussions of sex, marriage, separation, and divorce—to one’s older years facing mortality. She does this through a Bowen family systems lens.

Family Systems Front and Center

Our families of origin serve as a relationship template. It’s where we learn how to be and think and what the roles of husband, wife, father, and mother look like.

In 2018, Roberta Gilbert, M.D., updated her classic book The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory—which I often point therapy clients to, to obtain a quick understanding of the nuclear family emotion system, family projection, and multigenerational transmission (of anxiety), sibling position, cutoff, triangles, and differentiation of self.7 Differentiation means how susceptible one is to family of origin conformity and groupthink.8

Dr. Gilbert writes that feelings will come and go, but learning to be more thoughtful over the life course and learning to see the family as an emotional unit, not the individuals, is best. Thinking systems, and working on one’s self where one has that control rather than finger-pointing and insisting others change, which is typically futile and out of one’s ability to change—that’s the work to be done. Hence, an emotional maturity measure.

Key Behaviors That Show Maturity

The list below succinctly explains many family systems tenets:

  • Think “How do we all impact one another?” rather than “Why can’t that person…”
  • Resist the childish impulse to blame others when things don’t go well in life.
  • Do not over-function for others, for extended periods. Practice true help by setting them on an independent and successful path.
  • See triangles form, and recognize how futile they are in any group or family. This prevents immaturity pitfalls and aids problem-solving between the two people who need to work things out.
  • Realize that relationships are much like geometry: the closest distance between two points is a straight line, not through a third party.
  • Refrain from fault-finding but consider your own role and how you’ve contributed to any upset. Take responsibility for it and work on yourself to prevent the dynamic in the future.
  • Keep from being a chameleon shifting views to curry favor with others. Know your values and be principled in your decisions. Counseling sessions can help people identify these so that they don’t indecisively fence sit.
  • Summon your best maturity skills for committed relationships, especially marriage. If one party acts childishly through passive aggression, under-functioning, pettiness, blame, or defensiveness, therapy should be sought.
  • Resist settling for less. Mature adults consciously work on becoming better humans, partners, lovers, and parents, regardless of age. Finding this won’t be easy but worth it in the long run.

Copyright © 2022 by Loriann Oberlin, MS

See also: Dating & Mating Characteristics and Speaking Up When Stressed


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