Emotional Adulthood

I do not like broccoli. And I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid, and my mother made me eat it. And I’m President of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli.

– George H. W. Bush 1990

When I first read the term “Emotional Adulthood” in a book by Jed McKenna, it struck a chord in me. I am still not completely sure what he meant by it, but those two words conjured up childhood memories of observing my parents’ behaviors, especially when they were upset. When I was fourteen years old, it dawned on me that my mother and father often behaved childishly when they were confronted with emotionally uncomfortable situations.

Later on, when I became a husband and a father, I started to notice that I was behaving in similar fashion to my parents whenever I was reacting to some kind of emotional discomfort. I could be coldly taciturn like my mother or sulky and petulant like my father whenever a conflict erupted between my wife and me, and I often indulged in angry outbursts of admonishments or threats when I perceived my children to be misbehaving. Afterwards I would review my reactions and cringe at the realization that I was becoming everything I had judged to be inappropriate and childish in my parents.

It seems that most of us don’t keep up emotionally with our physical and intellectual growth. Perhaps this is because, in the process of protecting our fragile vulnerabilities, we created such a perfect defense system that it has completely walled in our feelings, and blocked us from experiencing our “growing pains.” Since this defense mechanism was built in childhood, our defensive reactions toward discomfort would naturally appear childish. (Of course, we would dress them up differently as our bodies grew older, and make our defenses appear more sophisticated and mature.)

Nowadays if something upsets us, we tend to add intellectual rationalizations to justify our right to be angry and even to retaliate with blame, criticism, and judgment toward some outside influence, assigning it to be the cause of our unhappiness. There is nothing wrong with this reaction; it’s simply a reflection of our level of emotional maturity. What I find interesting is that although growing up physically is virtually guaranteed, no such assurance is given to one’s feelings. Many people live to a ripe old age without ever seeming to become emotional adults. So what is the key to such growth in the human community?

Actually, the answer seems to concern a “choice” between acceptance and rejection. It’s been my consistent experience that rejecting my discomfort initiates an unconscious pattern of habitual, compulsive, and defensive behaviors. On the other hand, acceptance of my vulnerability and discomfort leads me to what I might call an “awakening” experience. With acceptance one can peacefully observe the discomfort and, with increased awareness, come to see the uncomfortable feeling as an expression of energy, neither good nor bad. Upon further observance one can recognize a benign and benevolent power at the heart of that energy, and even transcend the feeling altogether.

Another experience available through acceptance is the pleasant observation of the feeling passing through one’s awareness, much like watching a cloud traverse the sky and eventually disappear from view altogether.

Emotional immaturity turns your own discomfort into something that is wrong—a dysfunctional adversary that must be destroyed, repaired, repressed, or avoided. You will employ measures developed in childhood and refined over time, but which maintain properties that are not designed to support growth in awareness, acceptance, or appreciation. Quite the opposite, actually—your defense mechanism is designed to perpetuate unconscious rejection, and fear of your own vulnerability.

It seems pretty simple:

  1. We grow toward emotional adulthood when we accept our vulnerability and bring our apparent fears, weaknesses, and hurts into the light of awareness, coming to see these human aspects as mere facades that can obfuscate the Truth of what we are, as long as they are kept in the darkness of our own ignorance.
  2. We remain emotionally immature when we reject and judge our fears, weaknesses, and pain, and remain ignorant of our essential nature that resides quietly within the cloud of our vulnerability.

There are only two directions in the human experience: one initiated by rejection and the other by acceptance. Whether we grow by choice or by some mysterious design, the key characteristic of emotional adulthood—acceptance—is essential.