Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How to Become More Adult and Successful in Your Life

Become an adult by recognizing and challenging defenses.

Fear is the primary enemy of becoming an adult. Psychological defenses that are limiting, and to some extent dysfunctional, are strengthened and intensified when people become anxious. Yet anxiety states are often reacted to subliminally and defenses are instituted that affect our behavior without conscious awareness. In that sense, you cannot approach your fear directly.

However, you can address the problem of being an adult by recognizing and challenging defenses and altering childish behavior patterns. Besides, people can become alert to situations and personal interactions that trigger their fear of growing up and can take control over negative actions that relieve or quiet the fear. In this blog post, I'll address key issues that are significantly helpful in maintaining an adult posture in life.

Learn how you are childish and challenge a passive-dependent orientation.

Identify behaviors that are symptomatic of the child mode and change them by adopting more adult responses. Among the more straightforward, easily identifiable childish behaviors are sulking, whining, complaining, manipulat­ing to get sympathy, continually seeking direction, acting in a disorganized, incompetent and irresponsible manner, procrastinating, habitual lateness, driving recklessly, carelessness and slovenliness, and neglecting one's health.

In addition, it is important to challenge feelings of inferiority, submissiveness and a passive-dependent orientation in relation to authority figures, friends, and loved ones. By holding on to parental substitutes and continuing to depend excessively on others by acquiescing to their wants, needs, and points of view, it is evident that you will remain a child. It is also important to recognize when you are being defiant or rebellious in your responses and strive to take a more rational adult position. Submission and defiance are equally childish; both are outer directed and tend to elicit pa­rental responses of either approval or disapproval.

Take power over your life.

Anything under conscious control can be changed deliberately. People can consciously change negative character traits, destructive habit patterns, and addictions. Only thoughts and feelings are automatic; they can only be understood and changed indirectly through insight into unconscious phenomena. One method is to look for discrepancies between your actions and your stated goals; these contradictions are often caused by unconscious or partly conscious "critical inner voices." By bringing these voices into conscious awareness and recognizing how they are influencing your behavior, you can change behaviors that are dictated by the internal negative thought process and gain insight into areas of your life where you have difficulty maintaining an adult perspective.

The "critical inner voice" is made up of a system of negative thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes toward oneself and others that predispose varying degrees of alienation. The voice can be harsh, punishing and demeaning, or seemingly positive, self-protective and indulgent. It strongly influences the acting out of self-defeating microsuicidal behaviors that adversely affect one’s life. The voice represents the internalization of parents’ rejecting, negative attitudes or actual hostility toward the child, as well as their maladaptive point of view about life.

A person can learn to identify their self-attacks, recognize their source, estimate their effect on behavior, and counter them by taking constructive action. I have developed systematic Voice Therapy procedures to help clients with this negative process that effectively improves their lives. If you are in trouble psychologically or merely wish to further develop yourself, I strongly recommend seeking out a personal psychotherapy experience. It will offer a unique opportunity to understand yourself and expand your life.

Observe your emotions, but govern your actions by rationality. Your choice of actions should further your best interests and goals and fit your moral considerations.

People are capable of acting rationally in spite of strong feeling reactions. This works most efficiently when they observe and regulate their emotional responses and identify the primal elements in their reactions. Primal feelings are typically intense and dramatic, and there is an urgency to express them. These powerful feelings represent a reliving of emotions you suffered in childhood. Being aware of primal components in your feelings helps diminish their intensity and defuses melodrama and overreactions.

Taking time to reflect on your emotions and considering the consequences of your actions fosters a rational approach to problem-solving.

It is particularly important to learn to accept angry emotions. Anger is a normal reaction to frustration that is proportional to the degree of frustration experienced. Anger, like all feelings, must be allowed free reign in consciousness, while the acting out of anger must be subject to both ethical and reality considerations. Incidentally, angry feelings can be a source of energy and vitality when they are under your control.

Don’t blame others for your failures or rejections. You create your own world.

Refrain from blaming other people or circumstances for your mistakes, failures or rejections. People are largely unaware of the degree that they are responsible for the situations that they face in life. For example, we recreate the world of our childhood through our selection of partners, in the way we actually distort them, and finally in the way we provoke them.

Recognize that perceiving others as responsible for your problems is immature and maladaptive. In actuality, you create your own circumstances, so you can be active in changing them. Furthermore, when things go wrong, it serves no purpose to attack or punish yourself as well. With the right attitude, you can simply learn from negative experiences and handle things differently. Be more accepting of your mistakes, because if you believe that you dare not fail, then you cannot act. People who are paralyzed by insisting on perfection end up berating themselves and others for their failures.

Don’t be defensive. Seek out feedback, particularly criticism, and respond accordingly.

It is valuable to seek objective criticism. Honestly‑stated critical percep­tions of you are actually gifts that can contribute to your self-knowledge and understanding. You are fortunate to find out the truth about yourself, even if it is negative. In a relationship, refrain from reacting to feedback by attacking your partner, crying or falling apart, punishing with the silent treatment or “stonewalling.” These are childish responses that effectively silence the other person and gradually lead to a shutting down of lines of communication within couples.

Instead, look for the truth in any information you hear that is negative, even though your knee-jerk reaction may understandably be one of anger or embarrassment. Carefully consider or explore feedback rather than reject it summarily, then decide which aspects of the feedback you agree or disagree with, and respond from an adult perspective.

Develop goals, both personal and transcendent, and live by them with integrity.

An important aspect of being an adult involves envisioning goals that express your unique identity and interests, and then taking the actions necessary to achieve these goals. Actively strive and compete for your objectives, both personal and vocational, rather than seeking satisfaction in fantasy. Make a concerted effort to maintain personal integrity in your life by insisting that your actions correspond to your words.

Investing energy in transcendent goals and activities that extend beyond one’s self-interest, for example, to improve the lot of others, helps build self-esteem. In a certain sense, it is selfish to be generous and giving, and it is a sound mental health approach.

Become aware of your defenses and challenge them.

Psychological defenses that protected you from painful feelings as a child are now dysfunctional, restrictive, and interfere with developing a mature, adult perspective. It is important to challenge the methods you still use to protect yourself from pain and anxiety. Be especially aware of reliance on fantasy, additive patterns, and actual addictions.

In a very real sense, it is safer to be vulnerable and open in relationships. Adults, unlike children, can cope with the possibility of rejection and loss; they are not dependent on others for maintaining their lives. Besides, remaining defended tends to guarantee negative outcomes or failure in developing close, satisfying and loving relationships. Beware of forming fantasy bonds or illusions of connection with your partner. Although they may reduce anxiety and offer a sense of security, they limit your ability to love or accept real love in your life. Utilizing others for safety or as a defense against one’s sense of aloneness and existential pain seriously interferes with genuine relating.

Cope with the fear of death.

Latent or actual death anxiety acts as a core resistance to adult development. In Beyond Death Anxiety: Achieving Life-Affirming Death Awareness, I wrote, “Facing issues of mortality can imbue life with a special meaning in relation to its finality and heighten an awareness of the preciousness of each moment.” When death fears surface in the course of everyday life, you can face up to the realization of your personal mortality, identify the accompanying emotions of fear, sadness, and rage, and find a way to communicate your thoughts and feelings to those people you trust.

Focus your attention on living fully in the present rather than imagining the future. Death is not happening to you now, and it serves no purpose to dwell on the fact that you are going to die someday, or to rehearse or ruminate about the anguish of how you might feel at that time. Actually, it is counterproductive to anticipate and pre-live negative outcomes of any kind. It causes unnecessary pain and suffering and arouses debilitating voice attacks. It requires courage to remain in the present and to live fully despite your finite existence. Living in an adult mode involves remaining vulnerable to both the joy and sadness inherent in the human condition.

Learn abut Dr. Robert Firestone's latest book, The Self Under Siege: A New Model for Differentiation.

More from Robert W. Firestone Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today