Coming Of (Emotional) Age

2009 November 14

When I recognize that I’ve been having variations on the same conversation with multiple people, it’s usually a good indicator that the subject matter might be something worth writing about. This week, it’s been the emotional aspect of growing up. I discussed the material nature last week and the disconnect a lot of  Gen Yers seem to experience between the traditional benchmarks of adulthood and how they expected these maturity markers to make them feel, but we didn’t really delve into the intellectual or emotional side. I’m not a fan of the child/adult, youth/age dichotomies and don’t happen to personally subscribe to the notion that being a grown-up is some sort of fixed state that one reaches or inhabits. I prefer the idea that as we accumulate experiences and exposure to the world, we continually refine our sense of self and our sense of the world/others. It’s not so much a process of growing up (although, for the sake of simplicity, I will use that phrase), as it is one of growing increasingly nuanced in both what we think/feel and how we interpret these thoughts and feelings. I am, therefore, loath to offer a checklist for what I believe constitutes being an emotional adult. And really, who am I to say? Rather, I’d like to shine a light on several* general shifts in thinking that I believe tend to go hand in hand with the process of refining and redefining ourselves. Think of them as symptoms of increasing maturity if you will. And don’t worry, the prognosis is pretty good, even if we’re all terminal cases in the end.

233119530_239fc8efb3Photo by cognitive.evolution

Expecting less of ourselves and more of others

Sounds selfish, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s merely an inverting of the way many of us have spent years thinking – pressuring ourselves to live up to expectations of achievement, behavior, appearance and disparaging and doubting ourselves for failing to meet them, while at the same time giving others latitude we’d never grant ourselves. Growing up involves examining this power dynamic and the way we’ve allowed it to control us. It involves realizing that we’re our own worst enemies (and forgiving ourselves for being so very merciless for so long) and figuring out that, 90% of the time, falling short of so-called expectations goes unnoticed by anyone but us. People are too busy living in their own heads to spare more than a cursory thought (if that) for our foibles. Examining the power dynamic also means questioning the sway we’ve given others over our happiness and the importance we’ve placed on external approval and acceptance, the treatment and inequity we’ve accepted in the pursuit of love, friendship and the desire to be validated as worthy by someone whose opinion we’ve prized over our own. Growing up involves reclaiming that power in the name of giving ourselves a break, painstakingly building and guarding a sense of self that we can wholeheartedly stand behind in the face of disapproval, conquering the fear that we aren’t enough to warrant acceptance on our own merits and learning that we don’t have to capitulate or compromise as compensation for being less than we’ve convinced ourselves we ought to be. And it involves discovering and defining our terms and using them as the guide by which we invite people into our lives and manage our relationships with them. A tall order, but that’s what the ever increasing average life expectancy is for.

Prioritizing being understood over simply being liked

Isn’t being liked enough? Surely, we shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth? If we’ve been lucky enough to find someone (or multiple someones) who enjoy our company, appreciate our personalities and genuinely care for us, what more is there to it? Well, there’s being understood. As we grow older and we realize that acceptance isn’t the holy grail we made it out to be, we also come to figure out that being liked isn’t an anomaly, that believe it or not, we have qualities and attributes that attract others and that if we’re pleasant, considerate and accepting people (or simply not egregiously repellent), being liked on a social level shouldn’t come as a surprise. We come to realize that most folks aren’t that particularly discriminating and that passing muster as an okay individual is much easier than it seemed in our angstier younger minds. But this epiphany is a double-edged sword. Being liked suddenly isn’t enough. We long for something deeper and more meaningful. We want to be understood. We want others to get us, what we’re about at the core. We want them to want to strip away the humor, the charm, the empathy or whatever it is that drew them to us initially and to feel compelled to find out what’s under there. And we want them to be able to put the pieces of what they find together and to still stick around after they’ve solved the puzzle. And year by year, we get a little wearier of hashing through our backstory and waiting for someone to nod knowingly and jump in to say it’s okay to skip straight to the last page.

Losing our tolerance for uncertainty

Whether it’s the fact that we simply become overwhelmed by limitless choices/possibilities/potential futures and want to seek refuge in a smaller evoked set of options or we start to worry about amassing resources to buttress us against our own mortality, as the years stack up, we start to see the future in narrower terms. When we’re younger, the idea that anything can happen is more exciting than frightening, but somewhere along the way, the scales tip in favor of the fear and we start to see an ambiguous future as a cause for dread rather than optimism. We replace rock star daydreams with anxiety over ticking biological clocks and dead-end jobs. Is it because we feel we have more to lose (materially, emotionally and temporally) by embracing the unknown? Maybe we’re simply rationalizing the choices we’ve made and the paths we’ve ended up on and find it too painful to contemplate the way it might have been. The older we get, the more it seems as if we cling to sunk costs and use them to justify not altering our future course of action.

Realizing that being happy and/or “successful” isn’t a zero sum game

Some of us never manage to (fully) conquer the green-eyed monster, but others of us, if we’re lucky, eventually begin to realize that there is more than enough contentment and joy to go around, even if we’re not currently experiencing it. It may feel as if it’s rationed, but it isn’t. The universe isn’t robbing Peter to pay Paul and no one is unjustly hogging the happiness that’s meant for you. Put another way, others’ good fortune isn’t at our expense and is in no way indicative of our own prospects  for the same.  Just because your brother lands a sweet promotion doesn’t meant you’ll be stuck working for minimum wage for the next 30 years to keep some sort of cosmic balance. The sooner we realize this, the closer we get to being able to feel and express genuine, unreserved happiness for the accomplishments of others and to  freeing up the energy we’ve been wasting on stomach-clenching envy and self-doubt for more productive purposes.

*There are obviously plenty of other realizations that could be mentioned, but I think a few of those (for example, the unless you’re pulling them out of a burning building, you have to accept that you can never actually save someone epiphany), deserve their own separate discussion.

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