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Self-Knowledge • Growth & Maturity

The Drive to Keep Growing Emotionally

We know well enough that we are equipped with an innate drive for physical growth; that the human animal is geared to keep developing towards its outward mature form, adding muscle and bone and fatty tissue, in a spontaneous process of development that begins in our earliest days in the womb and ends around our sixteenth year.

What is less obvious is that we are marked by an equally innate, equally powerful, although here life-long, drive towards emotional growth. Without anything mystical being meant by this, unless we are impeded by internal or external obstacles, we are set on an ineluctable path towards emotional development.

An obvious conceptual difference between the two drives is that we can know easily enough what it means to be fully grown physically, but it is rather harder to pin down what equivalent emotional maturity might look like.

©Flickr/Yann Cœuru

We can hazard a twofold answer. Our emotional drive is made up of two strands: the first is a will towards ever greater and deeper connection; the second comprises a will towards ever greater and deeper self-expression.

To consider connection first, we 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. What we call ‘love’ is merely a subsection of the drive to connect, which extends across a range of activities and types of relationship, stretching to encompass the body and our desire for physical intimacy, touch and sexual play. We can count ourselves as emotionally healthy in large measure according to what degree of connection we have in our lives.

By the drive to self-expression, we mean 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, especially of our values, our pleasures and our way of seeing the world, and to be able to give these a kind of expression that makes them public, comprehensible and beneficial to others. We will feel we have had a rich life whenever we have been able 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.

These two aspects of the drive for emotional growth help us to get a handle on our most acute moments of unhappiness. It’s because of the primordial importance of the drive to connect that it hurts so much when a friendship is broken off, when an established relationship starts to lack physical contact or when we can’t find anyone we see eye to eye with in a new city. And it is because of how powerful the drive to self-expression is that we suffer so much when our studies fail to engage our minds, when a job ceases to reflect our interests or when, on a Sunday evening, we feel in a confused way that our talents are going to waste – just as the same drive can explain the intensity of the envy we feel when we hear of a friend’s success in an area we aspire to.

Calling this aspect of human nature a drive, and equating it with that towards physical maturity, emphasises its essentially non-negotiable nature and hence its power over us. It is as misguided, painful and nonsensical to try to stop someone growing emotionally as it is to bind their feet. The drive takes precedence over all manner of more convenient options: the longing for respectability, money or stability. It won’t leave us alone until it has been heard. It might make us leave a marriage that would – from many perspectives – have been so much easier to remain in or to throw in a job that was hugely convenient financially in order to take up another that more properly answers the call of our deep selves.

If the drive to emotional growth continues to be unattended, and perhaps even unknown to us, it can short circuit our whole lives in a bid to be heard. Fed up with waiting, it may simply throw us into a paralysing depression or lock us into a state of overwhelming anxiety. By breaking us in these ways, the frustrated, stymied drive is trying to be interpreted and accommodated. What it lacks in eloquence and focus, it makes up for in persistence and strength. A breakdown is a roundabout attempt to create opportunities for a breakthrough, that is, a new stage of emotional growth.

By understanding more clearly how basic and important the drive to emotional growth can be, we may come to better recognise the symptoms of its frustrations and the logic of our longings. And, at points when we upset the otherwise steady course of our lives in its name, we can be readier to explain to ourselves and those who care for us what might be behind our puzzling behaviour: we have not forever lost our minds, we recognise the role of respectability and status, we would love to be less difficult and demanding. It’s just that we have to honour another, even more vital side to our  nature: we are under an inner imperative to continue on our path towards emotional growth.

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