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Self-Knowledge • Growth & Maturity

12 Signs That You Are Mature in the Eyes of Psychotherapy

As we know only too well, becoming an adult has very little to do with turning 18 or 22, driving a car or being entitled to drink, getting a mortgage or having a child. An adulthood worthy of the name is an internal process which may post-date the acquisition of a formal adult identity by many years. We might be 92 and still, very slowly, leaving adolescence behind. If we lived to be 450, many of us would still be struggling to acquire the fundamental constituents of a grown-up mind.

There is one definition of adulthood that it is worth focusing on in particular: adulthood as defined by the discipline of psychotherapy which, more than any other, is devoted to working out a path from psychological infancy to maturity.

Henri Matisse, Dishes and Fruit, 1901

Here are twelve elements of an adult identity as seen through the lens of psychotherapy:

1. We understand, at last, some of the ways in which our childhoods have shaped who we are today. We are not confused by a question like, ‘How did your relationship with your mother influence how you see women?’ Or: ‘How did your father shape your sense of what a man might be?’

2. We give up on the temptations of believing that we might be simpler than we are. We stop saying that the past doesn’t matter, that we can change whatever we like about ourselves simply by wanting to do so, that willpower is everything – and more modestly accept that we might need to explore our minds rather more deeply than would be convenient if we’re going to bring about the changes we seek.

3. We develop a sober appreciation of how easy it is to lie to ourselves. We have a sense of the massive hold of ‘denial’ on our relationship to reality. We appreciate how easily we may get sad when we are in fact angry, anxious when there is a specific thing that concerns us or stern and proud when we are warding off vulnerability. We get a measure of our powerful wish to evade ourselves.

4. We learn to tell others with slightly more accuracy what’s really going on inside us. We don’t expect to be understood without speaking. We translate our paranoia and rage into something that someone else will be able to hear. We sulk a little less.

5. We understand, when we aren’t tired, the difference between what someone meant to do to us and what we experienced at their hands. We realise that not every hurt we register was powered by a conscious desire to harm us.

6. We forgive ourselves for the strangeness of our minds. We learn to almost delight in how odd we are: what peculiar thoughts are constantly flitting through consciousness, the daunting surprises of our fantasies and dreams and the perpetual ups and downs of mental life. We don’t condemn this in ourselves or censor it too much in others. We take comfort from knowing that there is a strong difference between a thought and an action.

7. We allow ourselves to get angry at certain things that might have happened around those who put us on the earth – but don’t stay stuck in a position of fury. We hold in mind an uncomfortable but genuine balance of ideas: that our progenitors were not necessarily ‘bad’ but that some genuinely difficult things might well have happened at their hands. 

8. We accept that sometimes reality may be less awful than we assume it will be – because we appreciate how much of our difficult histories may be colouring the lens through which we look at the world. We accept that catastrophes don’t happen as often out there as they do in our minds. 

9. We accept how many of our moods rely on the vagaries of our bodies. We get better at monitoring how much we sleep. We become passionate about early nights. We never try to have any significant conversations with anyone past 9pm.

10. We learn that we are not compelled to say everything that passes through our minds the moment it does so. We might register a wish to blow up a relationship and take up with someone new – and hold the thought inside for now. We achieve a little more space between what we feel and what we need to do and say. We learn to move slowly.

11. We get patient and encouraging towards those who are less advanced than we are. We don’t hold it against them that they haven’t already figured everything out. We guess that there might be something more hopeful and tender lurking beneath their bad mood or anger. We remember how often people have cut us slack – and cut them slack in turn. We know and get bored by how easy it is to condemn.

12. We remain aware that any progress we feel we have made is always liable to be temporary. We hold our victories lightly. A new storm may be along any moment. We are extremely grateful for every day that unfolds calmly. We lose our taste for excitement; we have nothing against the idea of having a delightfully boring rest of our lives.

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