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Self-Knowledge • Growth & Maturity

The Ingredients of Emotional Maturity

Emotional maturity is a state few of us ever reach – or at least not for very long. But it may help us to try to lay out what some of its constituent parts are so that we have an idea what we might aim for:

If we were to grow into emotionally mature people, this is some of what we would have learnt how to be:

– We would understand the primordial role of self-understanding in helping us to grow into more reliable and predictable partners, parents, friends and colleagues. Our greatest ambition would be to reach a heightened understanding of our own minds.

– We would constantly be aware of not being able to complete more than a fraction of this elevated goal and would hence be deeply cautious in all our assertions and conclusions. ‘Sorry’, ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybe’ would be some of our favourite words. 

– We would recognise what unfaithful allies our conscious minds are for the project of self-discovery; how much of us wants to know ourselves and how very much more doesn’t want to in the least. We would be humbled by the strength of our inclinations to distraction and denial.

– We would properly realise that we were going to die and would put this terrifying thought to use on a daily basis to nudge us towards greater appreciation, authenticity and focus. It would help us to say, at points, and at last, ‘no.’

– We would realise, with considerable dark humour, that we were fools. We are idiots now, we were idiots then and we will be idiots tomorrow. There are few other options for a human being.

– We would shed our pride; we would realise how much we constantly misunderstand – and never more so than when we begin to have faith in our competence and sanity.

– We would acknowledge the influence of the body on the mind. We may sink into existential despair not because there is anything objectively tragic at hand, but because we are in urgent need of an orange juice or missed out on an hour of sleep.

– We would respect the art of diplomacy and the importance of politeness; we would acknowledge the surprising thought that other people may be just as easily hurt as we are.

– We would learn, painfully, to use language to give those around us an indication of what is at play within us. We wouldn’t hold it against them that they didn’t understand things we had never bothered to teach them.

– We would realise how much others long for warmth and reassurance and would be less inhibited about offering those two very serious categories of gifts: cosiness and sweetness.

– We would acknowledge that it was impossible to be friends with, or liked by, everyone. Attempting to please universally ultimately only leads to offending many; we would know how to disappoint frankly and quickly to avoid drawn-out appeasement.

– We would feel more carefree at the idea of being strange and even in areas ‘perverted’. These terms wouldn’t frighten us any longer. Public opinion would matter less, because we would have seen enough of the shallowness and reflex moralism of crowds. This would be our one life, we would know; and we would have the courage to be oddballs where we needed to be.

– We would take our own boredom as a guide. Everyone else might declare it a brilliant book or an extraordinary play. We might toss it aside or walk out.

– We would strive to understand the specific ways in which our childhoods had made us crazy. We would accept that most of what we are is shaped by relatively small events that unfold before we are ten. We would find a good therapist.

– We would notice the patterns. Perhaps we wouldn’t need to keep trying to impress older figures of authority; or to fall in love with distant people who were involved with someone else. We would acquire a (low-resolution) map of our neuroses.

– There would be a little more delay between feeling something and having to act on it. We might even at times simply observe a feeling and do nothing.

– We could bear to listen. We would no longer cut across and say, ‘That reminds me of something…’ just as another person started to share their story. We would soothe our own wounded egos into silence, look warmly into their eyes and say, ‘Tell me more, this sounds so interesting…’

– Fewer people would strike us as being either very good or very bad; we would sense the struggle in everyone to keep afloat. We would judge that we were all a mixture of the good-hearted and the egoistic. We would have less of an impulse to stone wrongdoers.

– We would take measures to stay pessimistic about how things turn out; we would remind ourselves on an hourly basis that all relationships are riven with pain, all business ventures are maddening, and all families are demented. We wouldn’t feel so persecuted; this is how things universally are (it’s just that other people carefully omit to speak about it). We would get less hopeful and – therefore – less bitter and less furious. Of course, things are often slightly disastrous, of course, we have made some terrible mistakes, of course, we have been betrayed and treated badly. It would all feel eminently and supremely normal.

– We would cease lamenting our wrong turns: we probably did marry the wrong person; we almost certainly did choose the wrong career. Probably we are living in the wrong country (and definitely the wrong house). We invested in useless things. We befriended unworthy sorts, we made awful errors bringing up our children, we neglected our health. We would be starting to get it right if we lived to a 1,000 or could do half a dozen practice runs.

– We would acquire a correct measure of the difficulties we had imposed on others, especially those we loved. We would marvel that one or two people had – sometimes – put up with us.

– We would realise that there is no manual on how to live. Everyone is making it up as they go along. No one is normal, and no one understands more than bit of anything. We would remember Montaigne’s dictum: ‘Even on the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses.’ We would get a bit less shy.

– We would realise that most experiences are a mixture of hope and disappointment. Even in the most beautiful moments, regret and melancholy are never far away. Nothing is as pure as we would crave it to be; much is bittersweet.

– We would marvel at the passage of the years. Growing old: what a strange thing to happen to a little boy or girl.

– We would have been through a sufficient number of summers and winters to know that things do pass, eventually. What looks at one time like a mountain will – over the years – be worn down to a pebble. Some of our greatest losses wouldn’t even register anymore. What we are weeping about today may make no sense a while from now. They say you’ll get over it – and you will.

– We would laugh more richly because we had capitulated to the darkest truths.

This is some of what we might think and feel if we ever became those paragons of true intelligence: emotionally mature people.

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