Chapter 3.Self-Knowledge: Know Yourself


5 Signs of Emotional Immaturity

The best thing about physical maturity is that it’s very easy to spot; we can so easily tell when someone has another decade of growth to go – and can therefore set our expectations, and our levels of forbearance accordingly. But we have no such luxury when it comes to emotional maturity. Here we can be constantly surprised by whom we have on our hands. The most stunning forms of immaturity can coexist with all the trappings of adult life and a confident and knowledgeable manner. It may be a long time into a love affair or working relationship before we realise that we are unwittingly dealing with an emotional neophyte.

It pays, therefore, to try to arrive at a few general guidelines for how an emotionally immature person can be spotted and if necessary skirted very fast. Here are some of the lines that emotionally immature people have tendencies to come out with in conversation and that should, at the very least, set alarms ringing:

‘I’m not so good at spending time on my own.’

What separates the mature from the immature is, perhaps more than anything else, a capacity for being on their own, without distraction, and thinking about who they are and what they have experienced. The mature person can allow themselves to examine and as it were ‘feel’ their own feelings, even when these are very difficult and hugely unwelcome. They can stomach an encounter with their own rage, their own envy, their own shame. They don’t have to do what the immature person is compelled to do: constantly find someone or something else to prevent them from any risk of understanding their own mind.

‘I don’t really remember much about my childhood.’

There are very few childhoods in which difficult things didn’t unfold. Without anyone meaning for this to happen, with the best intentions, children’s development gets impeded and bruised. What counts therefore isn’t that someone had a ‘happy’ childhood (almost no one on the planet did entirely), but that a person should have a calm and insightful view of what their childhood was actually like, in its good and bad aspects. An inability to remember much about the past doesn’t indicate that it was idyllic or just ‘a long time ago…’, rather that it hasn’t begun to be processed.

‘I’ve never really thought about that before…’

Emotionally immature people have great difficulties with conversations that require them to draw on a knowledge of their own enthusiasms, sorrows, projects and histories. So, as one sits with them over a drink and asks, for example, why their last relationship broke up, or what meaningful work constitutes for them or what they regret most from childhood, one has an above average chance of hearing (perhaps quite sweetly) a reply along the lines that this is all too new and that they have ‘never thought about this before’. It isn’t that the emotionally immature person is being cagey; they simply haven’t properly inhabited, in its authentic pain and intensity, the life they are actually leading.

‘Everything is pretty good. It’s fine, all fine…’

It would be churlish to begrudge anyone a good mood. Nevertheless, the emotionally immature person isn’t often just in a good mood, they are rigidly unable to enter a bad one. Everything is declared fine (their parents, job, love affair, sex life, ambitions) because they have no resources for coping with anything that might be more nuanced and more real, that might entail anger, loss, confusion or wayward desires. One comes away from a dialogue with such a person disoriented and lonely at the idea that any life could be quite so cheerily one-dimensional. 

‘That’s just a load of old psychobabble…’

As soon as a conversation threatens their emotional integrity, the emotionally immature person will shut it down with the imperious verdict that it is a piece of over-complicated nonsense. They appeal to an idea of robust simplicity instead, as though the origins of all our problems might lie in thinking too much. It’s the sort of attitude that might lead them to recommend that an anxious person ‘pull themselves together’ or to claim that a lot of mental distress comes from not getting out enough. But of course, none of this stems from confidence: it’s a terrified way of blocking one’s ears and saying ‘No’ to truths that might hurt very much.

Emotionally immature people can be extremely charming and at points entertaining to be around. But as a general rule, we’d be advised to give them a very wide berth indeed and aim to check in on them in a decade or two. Life is in the end far too short, far too interesting and far too lonely to spend very long around people who lack any interest in trying to be, where it counts, emotional grown ups. 

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