What is Emotional Maturity?

Sparked by the School of Life, I’ve been contemplating the components of emotional development. I’ve been asking myself questions like:

  • How do we know when we’re developing emotionally?
  • What are the signifiers?
  • What are some ways to develop emotionally?
  • How do we recognize emotional immaturity?

Throughout that exploration, I’ve come up with these various markers of emotional maturity that you can use to gauge your own developmental process.

Depth of Connection

One marker of emotional maturity is the degree of connection that we have with others. This is the case because we only understand others to the extent that we understand ourselves. Therefore, if we have profound connection with others, this is a mirror on our own emotional development.

If someone feels seen by you, it’s because you understand your own emotions enough to fully get what they’re going through. For example, if you’ve never gone through heartbreak/grief before then you will have 0 capacity to be empathetic to someone going through this experience.

The larger the range of experiences that we have, the higher capacity we have for emotional connection.

Hanzi Freinacht speaks on this topic, writing:

“Great-depth” people are the ones who have experienced a wider range of subjective states, who are well acquainted with being in such states and who have learned to handle them. … Depth is developed by the recognition of tragedy, by the successful acceptance of such tragedy, and by the resolve to work, as Sisyphus eternally lugging rocks, against it.. … It is the depth that grows from living with a broken heart. Tragedy is necessary for us to mature”

You could have 100 friends that you party with every weekend, but if the connection lacks depth it will remain emotionally immature. Whereas 2 friends with whom you explore tragedy, beauty, mystery, and the truly important things in life, and is more than enough.

“[W]e are marked by an intense wish to move away from loneliness, shame and isolation and to find opportunities for understanding, sincerity and communion. We long to share with friends, lovers and new acquaintances an authentic picture of what it means to be us – and at the same time to enter imaginatively into their feelings and experiences.” - Alain De Botton

Depth of Self-Expression

overwork GIF by Carlotta Notaro
overwork GIF by Carlotta Notaro

We can understand the need for self-expression as:

“The desire to fathom, bring into focus and externalise our ideas and creative and intellectual capacities – a drive that manifests itself particularly around our work and our aesthetic activities. We seek to gain an ever-greater understanding of the contents of our minds … to give a voice and shape to some of the many perceptions that course through us – and in some way, however modestly – left a fruitful imprint on the world.” — Alain De Botton

An aspect of emotional maturity is the degree to which we can listen and attune to the inner compass. Through attunement, we can more effectively tell when we’re out of integrity with what we deem as most important in life.

The process looks something like this:

  1. Try one mode of self-expression.
  2. Fail.
  3. Learn.
  4. Reflect.
  5. Attune more precisely to our internal compass.
  6. Repeat steps 1-5

Another way of understanding the attunement of self-expression is through Vervaeke’s notion of an agent-arena relationship. This says, in short, that in life we may find ourselves in a multitude of different arenas, playing as different agents.

A few examples may be:

Emotional development can be characterized by an attunement of our internal needs with the highest-alignment agent-arena relationship. For example, if we love writing then the more that our job allows us to write and express our self in the written form, the better. Whereas if we love to write but we find our self in an agent-arena relationship of being an investor in a board room, this will largely stunt our emotional maturation.

Ability to Be with Emotions without Running Away

“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” —Blaise Pascal

Do you have the courage to sit with yourself and not run away? Can you be … just … be … with difficult emotions? No one in sight. No help on the horizon. Just you. Your emotions. And the bravery to let them knock you cold. Then stand up and go about the rest of your life.

Or you can always run and just patch up the pain with validation. It will be alright won’t it? Sure it may lead to unconscious neediness and co-dependence, but hey, you don’t have to feel the painful emotions.

Now don’t mistake this for “Okay, Ethan’s telling me to feel the deepest emotions possible right now!” We don’t want to end re-traumatizing our wounds and regressing.

I like these explorations:

  • How mindful am I when a wound gets triggered?
  • What emotions do I run from?
  • What triggers cause me to go unconscious and act in self-destructing ways?
  • When is it most difficult to sit with myself?
  • When do I feel the urge to act out old patterns?

Intimately Knowing Our Needs

One maker is how well we understand what it is we really need.

If we’re constantly distracting ourselves and pushing our attention outwards we’ll never have the opportunity to discern our true bio-psycho-social-spiritual needs. So many of try to meet our needs in entirely inadequate ways. We make attempts that never have a chance at resolving root problems.

Sit back. Be still. Listen.

Our bodies are sending us the most refined, complex signals. It’s up to us to develop the capacity to listen to them.

Not Mistaking Pain for Not-Enoughness

Traveling Black And White GIF by Chemical Sister
Traveling Black And White GIF by Chemical Sister

One marker is the ability to get rejected and know that it isn’t a reflection on our character. Sure we got hurt. Sure we feel pain. Sure suffering is present. But this doesn’t imply anything about who we are.

*The feeling that we don’t deserve to be loved *is core to so many of us. It’s take serious emotional maturity to overcome it. When something triggers this feeling, we don’t blame. We realize this is the perfect opportunity to unpack our core wound.

Trust me. This wound is something I work with almost daily. It’s a sucker. Perhaps this is why Vervaeke called it reciprocal narrowing — a complex, adaptive, self-organizing negative feedback loop of the psyche.

For some assurance, here’s a journal entry I wrote 6 months ago.

  • I feel like I'm not enough because I wasn't able to express my feeling with [person].
  • I feel a self hatred because I feel sadness.
  • I feel deeply that it's not okay to feel sadness.
  • I feel sad that I'm not open enough and I'm not truly connecting with people and sharing my emotions in a way that I want to.
  • Exposing the deeper wound that I’m not enough and that I’m worthless and that I don’t have value in the world

Understanding One’s Childhood

Art Flashing GIF by heartslob
Art Flashing GIF by heartslob

“Our capacity to understand our adult selves may depend on reaching back and making sense of a range of awkward and, at points, traumatic childhood events. It seems we have no option but to try to interpret – and then in time overcome – the trickiest aspects of our past.” - Alain de Botton

Our childhood holds the keys to our current patterns. We, just like everyone else, procured emotional trauma growing up and have agency to work through it. Peering into the past unlocks new ways of contextualizing our experience. Upon unpacking the ways in which we didn’t receive love as a child we begin to see why we are the way we are.

Peering back into our childhood experiences we can begin to understand why:

  • we continuously enter into relationships that are bad for us
  • ghost people when the tension gets touch
  • have abandonment issues
  • hate ourselves
  • take rejection personally
  • have random tantrums of anger
  • feel insecurity in the bedroom
  • feel a relenting compulsion towards over-achievement
  • plus many more examples

In the internal family systems model they put forth three different layers of our psyche. Each layer is more traumatized than the last.

  1. Protectors
  2. Firefighters
  3. Exiles

The role of #1 and #2 is to stop threats so that nothing pokes our core wounds (#3). It takes a lot of work and a lot of time to uncover our exiles. It will take months, years, or perhaps decades to fully work through all of our exiles.

The goal of emotional work is to work through our wounds in a way that doesn’t re-trigger them and cause further trauma. We must walk gently and lovingly into our more insecure and frightened parts.

Transcending Selfishness

“My lack of understanding of you, your needs and perspectives, hurts you in a million subtle ways. I become a bad lover, a bad colleague, a bad fellow citizen and human being. We are interconnected: You cannot get away from my hurt and wounds.” - Franzi Heinacht

The more emotionally developed we are, the less we take things personally. In integrating the lessons of interdependence — that we are part of a social web that is entirely enmeshed with everything else in culture — we can begin to see how my wounds hurt you and your wounds hurt me.

As we work through enough of our wounds, the energy that was previously expended by protector parts (aka coping mechanisms) is freed to direct outwards.

And furthermore, we will never have the capacity to truly love others until we learn to love ourselves. If we’re in a constant state of self-hatred then all of our energy will be directed inwards at protecting the pain that we fear, whereas once we learn how to work with these parts we unlock the capacity to direct our energy outwards towards the ills of the world (what I like to call all-encompassing self love.)

Personally, I tend to reduce selfishness to survival. If someone is selfish it’s most likely because their emotional pain is forcing them into survival mode and they have little capacity to expend energy on anything (like care, empathy, or love) other than surviving. This survival also includes emotional, spiritual and interpersonal survival. The degree that someone has social/emotional anxiety in a crowd is the degree to which their capacity for selfless love is drained.

Being Comfortable Feeling Our Emotions Around Other People

If we feel scared and unsafe feeling emotions around other people we’ve still got a bit of work to do.

An emotionally developed person is someone who doesn’t take their emotions personally and thus integrates the lesson that feeling sadness/shame/depression/etc. around other people doesn’t mean that they’re inadequate.

Learning to Love and Validate Our Entire Emotional Landscape

art loop GIF by tdhooper
art loop GIF by tdhooper

Emotionally mature people profoundly integrate the experience that emotions aren’t bad. That every emotion is perfectly okay, and in fact welcomed. There’s nothing wrong with any of it.

There’s nothing wrong with us for feeling unpleasant emotions. Even the feeling that there’s something wrong with us is okay. Everything is perfect, even the imperfections.

Our cultural attitude towards emotions suggests that we pathologize and demonize aspects of self with the mask of *self-improvement. *This makes unconditional acceptance of emotions a challenge, but not impossible by any means.

Understanding Our Triggers

Podcast Mystery GIF by WNYC Studios
Podcast Mystery GIF by WNYC Studios

The more awareness that we bring to our emotions, the more what trigger us, and why.

This is a long and slow process, which involves asking for third-party feedback.

The more we develop emotionally, the more narratives, beliefs, and attitude we bring to the surface. We notice assumptions and worldview-operating-systems that we didn’t even know we were running.

Not Craving Fame/Success/Achievement

“We are equally not encouraged to note the way in which contentment with modest achievement can be a sign that things have gone very well for someone emotionally. It is evidence of health to have no particular wish to be famous and not to mind too much if one does not have a fortune; to be able to have a so-called ordinary life, to place friendship and love at the centre of things.” — Alain De Botton (School of Life)

Craving fame, success or status is a symptom of lack of love from a childhood caregiver. If one of our parents was absent growing up we may feel the need to win their validation through the acquisition of titles, status, wealth, fame, or any other social accolades that proves to them we’re good enough.

Emotional maturity brings with it the recognition that our desires to be successful in the world’s eyes are just parts of ourselves that are lacking love and seeking to solidarity through unhealthy means.

And this is also exacerbated by the fact that, the current social-cultural institutions reward narcicissm, emotional immaturity, and coldness in order to climb to the top of the social ladder. In a sense, if you want to be successful in today’s world, you’ll likely have to sacrifice your integrity and emotional development.

Feelings of Safety as Opposed to Fear

A good marker of the amount of trauma still present in our bodies is the degree of fear that we have towards:

  • of getting close to others
  • of being abandoned
  • of being humiliated
  • of sex
  • of one’s body
  • of parties
  • of the world at large

Emotional development is a deepening into greater degrees of safety.

As always, thank you so much for reading this far.

I appreciate you.

Till next time.

Subscribe to Ethan Nelson
Receive the latest updates directly to your inbox.
Mint this entry as an NFT to add it to your collection.
This entry has been permanently stored onchain and signed by its creator.