What does it mean to feel grown up?
Feeling mature perhaps, or decisive. Knowing that you’ve figured some things out — that you’re no longer following more adolescent impulses. You can be more objective about yourself and others. Maybe it means feeling competent to take care of your own needs and the needs of others who count on you.
But one key attribute of true emotional maturity is also the recognition of early coping strategies that may have served you extremely well as a child — in fact, may have been vital to your emotional survival — but are no longer serving that purpose well today. Maybe even, if you’re still using them, you’re living your life as if the past still existed, and you’re not living in the present.
Some people luck out… and some do not.
Maybe you lucked out.
If you did, you had mature parents who had somehow managed to learn how to love, discipline, and guide you without being cruel or manipulative. Your parents were people whose inner integrity shone through despite whatever weaknesses or vulnerabilities they had and who were committed to helping you grow and learn. They sheltered you, and then, when it was time, supported your journey into your own adult life.
Maybe you got some version of that. If you did, you have a pretty good chance of having some healthy emotional strategies for living.
But maybe you didn’t.
Maybe you were born into poverty, with parents who were so constantly worried about putting food on the table that they didn’t pay much attention to you. Maybe one or both parents were alcoholic, and you shuddered when you heard the first pop of a beer can. Maybe your dad disappeared, or your mom was vicious. Or maybe you were coddled and spoiled, because one lonely parent needed you to be there for them. Maybe you were pushed to achieve, because your parent needed you to make them look good.
Children devise unconscious strategies to stay emotionally safe…
Somehow, you survived. Your childhood self came up with a strategy for as much emotional safety as you could create.
You got a job at nine, trying to get approval. You tiptoed around when dad was drunk, attempting to be invisible. You became a pleaser in hopes mom wouldn’t get too mad. You stayed at school, totally involved with football or student government, so you wouldn’t have to go home. You had sex at thirteen, insecure but craving attention. You hid things from a nosy, smothering parent, just to have your own life.
That strategy, whether rational or not, was the way you coped.
But what happens when you become an adult?
When childhood strategies keep you tethered to the past…
Many of us don’t change our strategies. We keep on living like we did as children, believing those same behaviors will bring satisfaction and safety — not even realizing they no longer fit.
Pleasers keep trying to please. Overachievers become workaholics, still trying to get approval. Invisible children become invisible adults, avoiding any sort of conflict. Children who had no control become secret keepers.
You don’t really grow all the way up. You’re still following the rules that may have protected you as a child.
So how do you figure this out?
Here are four ideas.
Four compassionate steps to help you emotionally grow up…
1) Identify the stress of what you were dealing with.
What was in your life that you had to find a way to emotionally stay safe? Or keep others safe? Maybe you can use this as a journal exercise, and write about other situations with which you had to deal in your family, in your culture, even in your country.
2) Recognize the strategy you used to stay emotionally as safe as you could.
First be compassionate toward yourself. This is about acknowledgement, not blame. But that acknowledgment can lead to much greater freedom.
Remember yourself as a child — how it felt to be you. What did you do to try to feel loved, secure or safe? What role did you play in your family? Diane once told me that her job in the family was to make her very drunk dad laugh, so he wouldn’t be vicious to the others.
Yet how did this affect her as adult? She was still using it. She was “the jokester,” someone who used humor to hide pain that she felt. It had become her armor as well, never allowing others to get too close; she was quick with a joke but reluctant to have deep interactions with others in which she might feel truly seen.
3) Identify the beliefs you formed about yourself, your role with others and with your world.
That could be, “I’m not worth being loved.” Or, “I have to be the best.” Or. “My job is to take care of others.” If you still are living by that engrained belief, it can cause chaos.
Walker, who was abused as a child, was told, “You’re never going to amount to anything.” His emotional survival strategy was to believe, “I’ll be successful, no matter what.” He was a super achiever as a student, receiving a scholarship to a highly-rated school.
Who was Walker now? A highly successful entrepreneur, who sadly looked at me, and said, “I have everything anyone could ever want. But I can’t stop trying to do more, make more money.” Although his personal life was completely empty and he had very little insight into who he was or what he actually wanted for himself, he could see that he was still allowing that belief — or his strategy — to govern him. But he couldn’t risk changing.
That’s the last step.
4) Risking change.
Walker could see that he was still living by his old strategy. But he struggled to risk changing.
And change, even positive change, can be very difficult.
He would encourage you to try to do what he, at least at that time in his life, couldn’t seem to do.
Look around your life for examples of how and when you’re still acting on the beliefs you formed as a child. It could be anything; perhaps you want to wear your hair short but don’t — because you were mocked by school bullies for having big ears. Or maybe you’ve don’t allow others to help you because you still believe your job is take care of everyone. Or perhaps you don’t reveal feelings of grief because it was necessary to hide your own suffering from a father who thought expressing sadness was a sign of weakness.
Maybe some of the strategies are keepers. Or you can realize that your childhood doesn’t have to be played out anymore.
And you can enjoy the freedom of emotionally growing up.
You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
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Originally published on July 9, 2016 and updated on January 11, 2020.