Before we jump into our main question – defining emotional maturity – it is worth noting an implication of this question; trying to define one type of maturity means there are different types of maturity. Someone may be more mature in one aspect of life and less mature in another. With academic aptitudes this is self-evident; a student may be good in English but struggle in math. With types of maturity, it can be less intuitive.
For illustration sake, we can list six types of maturity: (1) physical, (2) mental, (3) social, (4) emotional, (5) spiritual, and (6) decisional. Now, imagine a 10 year old boy who hits his growth spurt early and looks like a 13 year old young man. There are several that are likely to be true of his life.
- He is physically mature beyond his years. He is taller and stronger than his peers.
- Mentally, his maturity may vary. He could be “above grade level” in science and “below grade level” in reading.
- Socially, his size is likely to become a challenge. He will face the expectations of being more mature than he is. Adults may tell him, “Act your age,” when what they mean is, “Act your height.”
- Emotionally – that is what we’re trying to figure out how to gauge in this reflection.
- His mental and social development will impact his spiritual maturity because they influence the social awareness necessary to make moral decisions or express care for others.
- Decisional maturity has to do with impulse control. Does he opt for quick relief or reward choices or can he hold out for choices that have more long-term benefit?
There are two things we see from this list of examples. First, there are different types of maturity. Second, each type of maturity is interdependent; meaning, they influence one another. Our question is, “What are we trying to gauge or observe when we talk about emotional maturity?”
Some people would define emotional maturity as being stoic – having mastery over your emotions so that you feel only what you want to, when you wanted to feel it, to the degree you want to feel it. Most often these individuals ascribe to a “less is more” philosophy of emotional maturity. To others it would be sentimentality – feeling everything there is to be felt to its fullest extent. Most often these individuals ascribe to a “more is better” philosophy of emotional maturity.
Here I will propose another definition. Emotional maturity is the ability to differentiate and accurately name one’s emotions while granting yourself the freedom to experience whatever emotion is appropriate to a given situation. There are four key terms or concepts in this definition.
- Differentiate – an emotionally mature person can distinguish the difference between feelings that are similar; for instance, boredom, depression, and lack of purpose.
- Name – an emotionally mature person can put into words what they are feeling. The emotionally mature person can invite other people into their experience.
- Appropriate – an emotionally mature person has a sense for which emotions situationally and morally fit a given moment. For example, an emotionally immature person laughs in a tense situation as an instinctive means of escape.
- Freedom – an emotionally mature person does not declare unpleasant emotions bad or off limits simply because they are uncomfortable. For example, an emotionally mature person can say a time of grief was “hard but good.”
This definition is neither stoic nor sentimental, because it recognizes that emotions are neither inherently good nor inherently bad. Emotions make declarations about our experiences. Those declarations can be either accurate or inaccurate, uplifting or tearing down, situationally appropriate or poorly fitted to the moment, adding to our flourishing or detracting from our flourishing.
Understanding the neurology of emotions can make this definition more difficult is to apply, but provides a beneficial insight for cultivating emotional maturity. Many emotions that go by different names have the same neurological make up. For example, anxiety and excitement are, for all intents and purposes, the same collection of neurotransmitters in our brain. The difference is whether we like or dislike the experience that prompts them. If we like the experience, we label the emotion excitement; if not, we name it anxiety. The neurochemical experience is the same; it’s the narration that changes.
Let’s take a very common case study – an individual in his/her early twenties is engaged to be married and transitioning from being a student to being an official adult while deciding upon a career. What emotions would be common in this set of life circumstances? I’ll pick three: anxiety, excitement, and insecurity.
- Anxiety – How many areas can this person ask, “Am I making the right decision?”
- Excitement – In these transitions there is enthusiasm regarding things we’ve waited our whole life for.
- Insecurity – Who wouldn’t be asking, “Am I ‘good enough’ for the job/marriage I’m wanting?”
What do all three of these emotions have in common?
- Neurologically, there is a high degree of overlap in the neurotransmitters involved.
- The bodily reactions of these emotions are highly similar; elevated heart rate, sharpened attention, release of adrenaline, etc. That is to be expected when the neurochemistry is the same.
- Cognitively, for all three emotions, thoughts race and make predictions that tend to be extreme (either really good or really bad).
So, what happens for the emotionally immature person? One challenge (not the only challenge) that often emerges is, they pick one emotion as their problem. From our definition above, they fail to differentiate so they only have one category for their experience. That becomes the focal point of their thinking. Two emotional challenges (anxiety and insecurity) and one emotional blessing (excitement) become one large, insurmountable struggle.
If the person views themself as an “anxious person,” then all their excitement and insecurity also get labeled as anxiety. This does two things. First, it makes the strategies for dealing with anxiety (even biblical ones) two-thirds ineffective. Second, it creates a gravity where every unpleasant emotional adds to the overwhelming sense of anxiety. For instance, the “graduation fever” they experience during their last semester is also labeled anxiety and becomes further “evidence” of how overwhelming their struggle with anxiety is.
How can we help?
First, we can help our friend separate their emotional experiences. We might say something like this:
“It sounds like you’re calling everything that amps you up ‘anxiety.’ Parts of what you’re experiencing sound more like excitement to me. Other parts sound more like insecurity – meaning you concern is more on what key people will think of you than how situations will pan out.
If we used these three categories – anxiety, insecurity, and excitement – as baskets to sort your experience, what parts of your life would go in each? Do we need a fourth or fifth basket for other experiences?”
We don’t get to tell our friend what they are feeling, but we can offer an outside perspective and serve as a prompt to better differentiation of experientially similar emotions. On this first point, there is not much to “do.” The focus of our care is on shaping how our friend narrates their experiences. Another metaphor, if our friend assigned a color to each emotion – red for anxiety, orange for insecurity, and yellow for excitement – could they see all three colors each day, or only red?
Second, (which is too often where we begin) we can provide good-biblical-practical guidance for our friend’s struggle. We might say something like this:
“It sounds like we need at least three approaches to what you’re facing. For those things that are ‘just exciting,’ we need to learn how to respond with grateful, eager anticipation. For those things that reveal ‘insecurity,’ it would help us to assess if these relevant people are unduly important and how to be more authentic with them. For those things that reveal ‘anxiety,’ since they are about future events, it seems we need to learn how to wait well by remaining grounded in the opportunities God gives us in this moment. It also wouldn’t hurt to think through what we can plan for in ways that show the wisdom espoused in the Proverbs.”
This second points focuses on the “freedom” and “appropriate” elements of our definition for emotional maturity. This second point provides many more opportunities for our friend to be active in their response to their emotions.
What does all this mean? Here are five conclusions we can draw.
- We can be emotionally mature, and life still be hard. Maturity doesn’t make life easy.
- When we are emotionally mature, we can garner more social support because we can invite people into our experience. This is why emotional immaturity often feels lonely.
- When we are emotionally mature, we can develop approaches to each aspect of our experience because we’re not just having “one big experience.” This is why emotional immaturity often feels overwhelming.
- When we are emotionally mature, we don’t fear our unpleasant emotions because we realize they are often appropriate. This is why emotional immaturity often feels shameful.
- We can always be growing in emotional maturity. Every emotional experience – pleasant or unpleasant – is an opportunity to grow. This helps us feel hope even when we see the need for growth.
With these things in mind, I hope you begin to enjoy the process of becoming more emotionally mature. I pray it helps you grow spiritually and socially; that is, in your relationship with God and other people.
This article was written to set up the presentation for the free webinar “What Is Emotional Maturity?” The webinar will be Thursday March 11th at 1pm EST. My goal in this twice-monthly series of free webinars is to teach one primary counseling concept or skill each month and then provide a case study that allows participants to become more proficient at utilizing that skill or concept.
These are great events for:
- Pastors, chaplains, and ministry leaders looking to enhance their pastoral care skills
- Counselors wanting CEU credits to help them learn more about the intersection of their faith and practice
- Leaders in church-based counseling ministries looking to grow in their case wisdom
- Undergraduate students looking to discern a calling to vocational ministry or a career as a professional counselor
- Friends and small group leaders committed to walking faithfully alongside their peers in tough times