on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

on my (lack of) emotional maturity

I told a close friend recently that I see myself as an emotionally immature person. She was surprised, saying that I tend to have a harsh assessment of myself. I am not sure if it is harsh, but for me it is an inner truth. It took me a long time to get to a point when I can actually see it in the various ways it manifests, and not be in denial about it.

When I was in my early 20s (like 20 years ago) I dated someone who accused me of being immature. I flipped. As a child I was constantly told I was mature beyond my years, so that became my identity. What I didn’t know then was that there is a difference between intellectual and emotional maturity, and there is also a difference between expressing maturity as a persona versus how we truly feel and react behind closed doors.

In many ways and for many reasons I grew up too fast for my own good as a child. It is only upon reading some child psychology books recently that acting like an adult as a child is not psychologically healthy. As a consequence I feel like I did not fully develop into an adult. It was like a leap between child and adult, and there was a void in between where normally kids would mature in developmental stages, whereas I simply started acting like an adult. A personality is complex, so one can display a maturity beyond one’s years in select situations, and yet still act like a child in others. An example I would apply for myself is that as a child I could carry out conversations with people double my age, but when my security is being threatened I would have a meltdown, especially with people close to me.

It may seem weird because it is so common, but a truly mature adult would not frequently go into meltdowns. I should not have to explain this, but I think many of us are so lacking in psychological knowledge. Losing one’s temper easily, raising voices, being unable to take criticisms and taking them very personally, issuing threats when threatened – behaviour that is actually really common even in really old people (physical age does not equate to emotional age), are symptoms of emotional dysregulation. A well-developed person would calmly assess the situation, take some time to weigh their options – not reacting instantly.

For a very long time I thought I was just an emotional person when seemingly minor triggers would cause extreme reactions. I was a timid person so I would not react outwardly much, but internally it would cause me a lot of turmoil and I would probably cry a lot privately. This affected my relationships, because I could not process people’s interactions with me objectively, I over-read everything, interpreted everything negatively, couldn’t communicate properly, didn’t have a sense of self to fall back upon.

This affected my personal relationships mostly as I over-compensated for my professional relationships by being as high functioning as possible. Yet the stress and disconnect between who I expressed versus who I really was made me burn out multiple times in my career. I took everything too seriously, worshipped my bosses, was over-eager to prove myself beyond my professional responsibilities, had zero boundaries, etc. I attributed my burnout to working too much, but only in recent times that I realised it is our internal narratives/scripts which are the root causes of perpetuating that behaviour.

My extreme personality brought me many opportunities because I tried and did many things many people wouldn’t, it also contributed a lot to any conventional success in my career. But I was like a quick-burning rocket: fast and furious before plunging deep into the ocean. Sometimes I wonder if I could have gone further in a more sustainable, meaningful manner if I had a more balanced personality with proper boundaries.

I was also a terrible partner in many previous relationships though I was mostly unaware of it at those points in time. I deeply regret them. It is difficult to be a good partner when one is always insecure. By the time I met my current partner I was single for half a decade, read enough to know why so I worked really hard on myself but probably wasn’t enough. Thankfully I was able to work together with my partner on improving our relationship, and she is very different from people I was attracted to before, probably because after reading a book I consciously stopped seeking out the previous dynamic that was playing out (once I was aware of the nature of that dynamic).

So, why am I airing my dirty laundry in public (again)? Because I think we don’t talk about what it means to be a work-in-progress, and the existential and environmental factors that contribute to shaping one’s personality. Unlike common belief that a leopard does not change its spots, it is entirely possible to change one’s personality. It is called growth and maturity. We believe one’s character is set in stone, and there are many of us who fault ourselves (and others) for being the way we are. This is a huge contributor to human suffering, I personally believe.

I know I personally emotionally and mentally suffered because I deeply hated myself for who I was – there was a huge disconnect between who I thought I was, who I wanted to be, and who I was truly capable of being. Just in case you think I making a molehill out of nothing because suffering only exists in war-torn zones and people who suffered terrible physical abuse – if that is the case, why is the mental health of the general population declining? Why are there still suicides in economically wealthy and safe countries? Why do people who seem to have everything choose to kill themselves? Why do kids think of jumping off buildings?

Unfortunately, the way we are capable of seeing ourselves affect the way we see others and how we interact in our close relationships. There are disconnects between how we want other people to be versus what they are truly capable of being. To understand why people are the way they are, we have to go deep into evolutionary history, history itself, neuroscience, human psychology, etc. But we judge people solely on their individual outcomes.

I digress. I wanted to write something about my emotional immaturity, and it became almost a full-blown commentary on why society is f*cked up. I guess what I really wanted to write was: once I had a more accurate understanding of who I truly was, where my maturity levels truly were, why they were stunted – the quality of my life improved by leaps and bounds. I stopped expecting myself to be a person I couldn’t be, I stopped expecting other people to be who I wanted them to be, I stopped expecting the world to be a place I thought it should be. I could engage with myself authentically, and I was better at meeting people where they are. I stopped having unreasonable demands or wishful thinking.

A person cannot direct his emotional life in the way he bids his motor system to reach for a cup. He cannot will himself to want the right thing, or to love the right person, or to be happy after a disappointment, or even to be happy in happy times. People lack this capacity not through a deficiency of discipline but because the jurisdiction of will is limited to the latest brain and to those functions within its purview. Emotional life can be influenced, but it cannot be commanded.

Source: A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, Richard Lannon | link

I am not saying we simply accept who we are and where things are. Rather, I am arguing that it is necessary to understand the true reality before we can know what are the tools we can actually use and what is the sort of change we can expect. We can’t expect a person who is born blind to see colours, but that’s what we’re expecting when we want people to be saint-like, rational, and faultless, when neuroscientifically it is virtually impossible.

I am still an emotionally immature person with plenty of flaws. This is not an excuse to behave badly, but I do keep my circle of interaction small so I do not unintentionally hurt people unconsciously. I know I am emotionally immature and have the potential to hurt, so I would rather not. I do try to be more compassionate with myself when I fumble, especially when I struggle with my own behaviour towards myself, such as unkind thoughts or unfair criticisms. My partner has become a great sounding board, though we do run the risk of becoming each other’s echo chamber. I do try to learn widely to expand my worldview and challenge my internal mirror.

I hope this could be clear by now, but I am not writing this post to intentionally praise or criticise myself, but rather – if I failed in my intended communication – to encourage all of us to be gentler in our interactions with ourselves and each other, because it takes a village to raise a child, and unfortunately the village that exists now is deficient, or perhaps a better way to look at it is that we are all – ancestors included –works in progress.

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