What to do when a grown-up needs to grow up?
June 9, 2015 5:34 PM   Subscribe

How does one become more mature, if they are currently very emotionally immature?

I understand that this is a broad question, as it can have so many different root causes, but any answers even in terms of personal anecdotes would be helpful. To narrow it a little, imagine someone who hasn't had any traumas or significant hardships but is extremely immature for their age (almost at the level of covert narcissism?). Just textbook definition type: self-centered, avoidant, inconsiderate, no sense of personal responsibility or adaptability, black and white thinking etc. What is the best course of action to correct this? It seems that "grow up" is often given as advice, and it is valid, but I'm not sure that insisting on the Nike approach without any followup is very useful for someone in that mindset.

Often it seems that big life events or hardships can force people to grow up faster (but probably it is equally true that trauma can actually cause immaturity in some people?) but just waiting for life's inevitable tragedies or big moments seems like an inefficient way to deal with the issue. Things like therapy are probably essential but it seems that the characteristics of emotional immaturity can make it difficult for a person to engage with therapy in an appropriate and effective way. I can't seem to find many resources on resolving this.

I understand that it's very much something a person can only do for themselves but a lot of it seems to boil-down to vague bootstraps sort of stuff. Is that really all there is to it?

If not, do you have any suggestions for someone with this issue?
posted by hejrat to Human Relations (21 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I think it depends on whether you're asking for yourself or someone else. You can't make someone grow up, though if you help them out, you can withdraw support to see if they'll stand on their own.

If you're asking for yourself, I think the main thing is taking responsibility for yourself. Make promises to do things only if you can do them. I see that you're in college -- if you live in a dorm, figure out how you'll get an apartment when you graduate. If you've eaten on the campus meal plan, figure out how you'll get your meals. When you're working, figure out how to set aside money for retirement and emergencies.

If you're having trouble with black and white thinking, I think just getting to know more people helps with that, especially from a wide variety of ages, not just people your age. You could try volunteering at a food bank or advocate for a foster kid in court. You could try going to square dancing or a book club. You could try a few months of only reading books from a diverse books list.
posted by Margalo Epps at 5:50 PM on June 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

Are you correcting yourself, or someone else?

How I learned was by working and working and working and learning to pay rent on time. That is the number one skill or practice I would give to someone: rent comes first. Then utilities. Then food and then other things.

Right now what I do is: rent is paid at least 1 week in advance. Utilities a week or so in advance (those are online so I can pay them 2-3 days before if needed). Library books are renewed on time. Grocery bills are in accordance with other bills, so I will do feast or famine, depending. I can make food with meat or beans.

Going out to eat or takeout is last. Always have emergency funds for car repairs or other crises. Don't spend that money no matter what, keep it in the account. Put money into savings every pay period. Windfalls go into savings and sit for a month before deciding on what to do with them. If they are large, go to an accountant to figure out the best course of action.

I think you're right, that life events can make people grow up faster. I was a single mother years ago, and I had to really budget my money. I have money now, but I still budget it and keep a lot of money aside just in case. That money is invisible to me, it is not something I will spend. My husband is sort of like, we can buy something if you want! But I am more cautious.

The best thing I can recommend is an automatic paycheck withdrawal to savings, even if it's only $25 a week. You feel so much better when you save something.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:50 PM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Sorry for the generality, I was definitely asking for myself but I wanted to keep it broader than my past questions because I generally noticed that it's something people struggle with but also something that's hard to find meaningful advice though. Am absolutely not asking for a specific other person.
posted by hejrat at 5:55 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

"Soon enough, work and love will make a man out of you."

--Soon Enough, The Constantines.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:01 PM on June 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

To a certain extent you get mature by having experiences and reflecting upon them, and learning from them. It's much easier to have experiences and just grit your teeth and ignore them and pretend they never happened, or rationalize how they happened, etc. There's a reason you have the sense that people who endure traumatic or difficult events become more mature more quickly---those experiences teach people a lot and usually are the sorts of situations one can't easily ignore or deflect.

But you're right, there's no reason to wait for someone to die, or become ill, or for you to be homeless, or to blow up a bunch of relationships by being a childish jerk. To me, it would seem like you start by just doing the correct, useful, responsible things in your daily life.

Inconsiderate? Challenge yourself to do a nice thing for someone else every day.
Self-centered? Start volunteering in a way that takes you out of yourself--say, at a food bank or a soup kitchen.
Black and white thinking? Start reading A LOT, reading news and blogs and novels, and getting exposed to the gray areas of the world.
No sense of personal responsibility? Set up your life so there are consequences. Get bills in your name and pay them, or else find yourself without a phone or internet.

You may notice that this list of steps looks kind of like training wheels for having a regular adult life -- and you'd be right. But one thing I can definitely tell you is that the BIG STUFF, death and illness and heartbreak? They don't wait for a convenient time. So if you've already got some practice being a grown-up, you're going to have a lot more in your toolbox when the big shit hits.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 6:01 PM on June 9, 2015 [15 favorites]

doing thing ahead of time. Like, taking your car in before it breaks down. Saving some money. Not spending your entire paycheck just because it's there. Paying your bills when they're due (or a day before).

And that can also be health -- yeah, maybe that pizza is great now, but will you feel OK in an hour? Yeah, maybe you don't want to go running today, but you'll be happy you did it tomorrow.

This can be something you're always learning and it's tough when money is tight. But yeah, think of it as helping yourself out in the future. Sometimes that's the short term (Future Self will be happier if she wakes up tomorrow and doesn't have to get gas). Sometimes that's in the longer term (Future Self will like having that buffer of savings when she needs it a few months from now). That may sound a bit selfish, but it works for me. It's about focusing not only on the needs you have right now, but the needs you'll have later. The rest of it will begin to follow.
posted by darksong at 6:03 PM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Maturity is nothing more than keeping your promises. If you say you'll help someone move house on Saturday, you show up and do it. If you say you'll complete a project, you complete it. If you tell someone you'll pay them back by the end of the year, you pay them back by the end of the year. You keep up your end no matter what, even if you feel bored, tired, angry, or would rather do something else. So it's hard.

Nobody's perfect. We all fail to keep our promises from time to time. But the more promises you keep, the more mature you are. Simple as that.
posted by mono blanco at 6:25 PM on June 9, 2015 [11 favorites]

self-centered, avoidant, inconsiderate, no sense of personal responsibility or adaptability, black and white thinking etc.
These are all choices being made one at a time, every day. They're not set-in-stone definitions that describe a person's soul. You have to try to identify opportunities to be considerate, helpful, adaptable, etc. and then follow through on them.
posted by bleep at 6:44 PM on June 9, 2015 [4 favorites]

So many of your other questions are basically "I am ugly and inferior and a failure, how do I deal with that". This makes me think that this question you are asking now may not be the right one to ask.

Look, when I was younger I was tormented - far past what is normal - by how ugly, inferior and failed I thought I was. I also thought I was terrifically self-absorbed, and indeed, I was not a model of charity. This is because I was unhappy, really, really unhappy. (Also just because I was kind of young.) Unless in the last year or so you have resolved all of your feelings of inferiority, directionlessness, etc and are a focused powerhouse who is simply self-centered, then you are not self-absorbed. You're suffering. It may not be the same kind and degree of suffering that you would endure if you were impoverished in a war zone, etc, but it's still suffering.

The way to become more grown up is to forgive yourself and come to terms with yourself. Then all the headspace that you've been devoting to hating yourself, worrying about your looks and inferiority, etc, will be freed up to be turned outward. You will find, for example, that if you were someone who never remembered to ask about someone's kids, or never remembered to bring someone something they needed, that once you're no longer worried about dealing with yourself, you will easily remember those things - and you will actually care about many of them.

For me, it took forever. What helped me that may not help you: coming out; getting old; really figuring out how I wanted my hair to look; therapy; teaching a community ed class; sustained exercise; journaling.

People talk about maturity as if it's a moral choice. And it's true, you can actively choose to be selfish and mean. But to be "mature" - really mature, not just literally forced by circumstances to act that way - is about being able to care for others.

Look, there are two novels that I return to when I think about this stuff, both (in a way) tales of therapy. One is The Manticore, by Robertson Davies - it's about coming to terms with your parents and how you've made yourself in response to them. (My parents are not like the parents in the book.) One is The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. Seriously - Bastian is weak and sad, and the process by which he comes to be able to love is really important. Having the patience to find what you want, to do the difficult and unpleasant work of digging in Yor's Minroud without even a light to guide you - that's what my therapy process was and still is about. I feel lucky that I have become able to love and to feel, when before I was frozen by pain and self hatred.

Truly, you'll be mature when you can be decent and kind to yourself.
posted by Frowner at 6:51 PM on June 9, 2015 [60 favorites]

Volunteer. For animals or for people, in a hands on way -- at a shelter or a soup kitchen. It will diminish your ego and put the trite concerns that characterise immaturity into the larger context of the world we share.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:54 PM on June 9, 2015

For me, a lot of grown up maturity is risk, reward, and consequence. If you don't pay your bill and it goes to collections, it's going to screw you over later. If you are rude to someone because you're being selfish then they won't want to be around you anymore (at the least). Don't take care of your finances? When your car breaks down you'll be SOL. Don't keep good credit? Good luck getting a loan!

I think that yes, often people may need to be in a situation where the maturity is needed. For example, my parents divorced when I was 15. Before that I already had to be pretty emotionally mature to deal with the home-situation. After, it was just my dad and me so I had to learn to do stuff. I worked, helped pay bills, etc. I had to figure out all the paperwork and loans for college. I was actually astonished upon going to college and realizing that most students didn't even have to fill out that paperwork because their parents did it for them!

So, you need to give yourself grown-up tasks and goals. Whether that means emotional and social goals such as starting to listen to people, doing favors, and practicing empathy. Or if that means financial and household goals such as saving money, building credit, and keeping things tidy.

I overall think that if it's something you know you're lacking in, a good step would be to go to the experts! Not all mature people just KNOW these things. They have to learn too! So, see a financial planner, a therapist, a life coach, or whatever suits you and your needs.
posted by Crystalinne at 6:59 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

To add: when I was younger and hated my looks, inferiority, directionlessness, etc, I also beat myself up for being selfish and a bad person. If there is one thing I really think it would have been easy to do differently, it would have been to turn off those narratives about "covert narcissisim" and other moralizing psychological terms that only people who already have decent hearts turn against themselves. You are not a covert narcissist.

(Internet shit - I have a friend who is a lovely, lovely person and a bit self-absorbed as she copes with huge personal changes and a young adulthood of rejection and instability, and every once in a while she'll drop into the conversation something about how she fears that she is is "narcissistic withdrawal" or some other Freudianism that she's picked up online and is using to crystallize her fears that she's not good enough. That stuff is pure poison and if there were never another internet quiz about how you, yes you may well be a covert crypto borderline socio-psycho-schizopath if any of these vague statements could be applied to you by an ill-meaning acquaintance....well, if I could scrub those things from the internet I would have done a good day's work.)
posted by Frowner at 7:00 PM on June 9, 2015 [20 favorites]

The reason why challenging life experiences (with some introspection) spur on maturation is because in many cases, this increases your capacity to be compassionate towards others and yourself.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 7:20 PM on June 9, 2015 [7 favorites]

At the risk of being over-literal and boring, here are some concrete experiences that I think help most people grow up: (yes, emotionally as well as practically)

1. Cut out the safety net. Really give up mommy and daddy's (or grandpa's or auntie's) money cold turkey.
2. Move somewhere you don't know anyone.
3. Get a pet or even plants- some living thing you have to care for.
4. Live alone.
5. Buy your first car.
6. Watch someone give birth.
7. Watch someone in declining health at the end of their life.
8. Pay for your own insurance.
9. Get an IRA or 401k
10. File your own taxes.
11. Learn how to manage your own credit.
12. Pay for your own vacations.

Less boring and practical:

Read literature. A ton of it. The older, the better. Read it enough until you learn human nature hasn't changed and you are not unique.
posted by quincunx at 7:37 PM on June 9, 2015 [23 favorites]

From a practical standpoint: Pick something small and routine and do it. When I started therapy, for instance, I took up reading a book (instead of the internet) again every night before bed. And I started flossing every morning. I just read books that enticed me - I didn't seek out "important" books.

I've also found that going to the gym helps me, for some reason. Try weights. Barbell is good - something where you can work out three times a week for forty five minutes a time and still see some progress.

Basically, if you're truly directionless and full of anxiety, start with some small steps - you'll start to become someone who can set their mind to a task and finish it, and that will give you both confidence and structure.

Don't undercut yourself - it's good to get a job, for instance, but saying "I'm going to be totally financially independent even if it means living in a rat hole without any health insurance" isn't necessary. (If that's an issue for you.)

And it's okay to start small. You don't need to transform yourself overnight.
posted by Frowner at 7:55 PM on June 9, 2015 [4 favorites]

Honestly, what tends to help people grow up the most is consequences. The people I know who were very sheltered and had their parents take care of everything for them were the least equipped to deal with life as an adult and generally learnt the hard way.

If you don't pay your phone bill, it gets cut off. If you decide you don't feel like doing your job properly or turning up at all, you'll lose it. When you don't have money coming in, you won't be able to pay rent. If you don't bother doing your share of cleaning your apartment and leaving it to your girlfriend, she'll probably leave you. And yes, I've seen people go through all of these in the process of learning to be an grown up. Eventually they discover that it's easier just to do it. But the ultimate adult-maker is having a child. And you really want to have your act together before that happens...
posted by Jubey at 9:37 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'd agree with DarlingBri that volunteering would be a good idea (although I'm not assuming your concerns are trite) and I'd agree with Frowner that you are probably going through a bad patch and this is just another way of hating on yourself.

That being said, I think it can be a mark of maturity for a young person to want to mature. That shows that you're not really some careless, selfish chucklehead; you are concerned about how your behavior affects others, and you what to do some good in the world. A lot of people don't care about stuff like that at your age, or ever.

Life will find you and kick your ass. Unless you are very lucky indeed, you have some unimaginable suffering ahead. (You're human, and most humans suffer horribly at various times.)

I think there's some good advice in this thread, but I think that maturity is really something you kind of have to define for yourself. Some mature people struggle to pay their bills every month and live in cluttered lofts when they're 50. I don't think you can make a list and say these are the things a person has to do before they're mature. People have different priorities.

I'm middle-aged, I've watched loved ones die, and last year I survived a pretty terrifying cancer treatment, the implosion of my career and the death of a cat who was basically my small, dopey, fuzzy child. In some ways I feel 25 years older than I am, and in some ways I feel like an overgrown teenager. I think I've matured a lot emotionally, but I still suck at a lot of grownup stuff. (I am a hopeless idiot if numbers are involved in any way. Invoke decimal points and it's like I instantly lose 50 IQ points.) I don't worry about maturity. I just worry about being the best person I can be. It's a process, and sometimes I do better than others.

Talk to a shrink. Do some volunteering. Try to get better at managing money and taking care of your health and all that stuff you know you gotta do. But stop hating yourself for not being the ideal you yet. Every day you spend trying to get there is a day well spent.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 10:55 PM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

From what I've experienced, there's no formula. Achieving emotional maturity is a gradual, often unconscious process that comes out of accumulating experiences and learning from those experiences. But, here are things that worked for me:

-Committing to something I find challenging/slightly out of my comfort zone that I know will eventually push me to grow and develop a richer inner life
-Finding a passion and dedicating myself to it relentlessly
-Reading The Brothers Karamazov
-Finding a role model/religious mentor I can trust, look up to, and be inspired by
-Making an effort to improve my self-awareness, empathy, and sensitivity every day by living a life less focused on my wants, needs, and discontents
-Cultivating an attitude of thankfulness

I hope this helps and good luck!
posted by tackypink at 11:13 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think you should get a library card and start reading fiction. It's not a magic solution: it won't make you braver or more responsible or more considerate in one fell swoop. But I think it helps to spend some time every day thinking about the world from someone else's perspective, and reading is the surest and most intimate way to do that. Also, books are usually written by grown-ups, so they will give you a wider perspective than, say, reading Reddit regularly.

So, here is a completely idiosyncratic list of books that I think you should read, simply because I have read and loved them and they still have a big influence on me. I have organized them loosely from easier-to-harder. The first part of the list is kids' books, the middle part is normal adult fiction, and the last section is books that are a bit harder, mostly because it takes a minute to figure out the context and/or some of the language since some of them are from more than 100 years ago. If you don't like a book, just skip down to the next one. If you do like it, go look for other books by that author.

The BFG, Witches - Roald Dahl
Winnie-the-Pooh - A.A. Milne
Alanna: The First Adventure - Tamora Pierce
The Wee Free Men - Terry Pratchett
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone - J.K. Rowling
To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
The Dark is Rising - Susan Cooper
Kenneth Graham - The Wind in the Willows
The Giver, Number the Stars - Lois Lowry

American Gods - Neil Gaiman
Night watch, The Wyrd Sisters, Small Gods - Terry Pratchett
The Diary of a Young Girl - Anne Frank
Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes
The Outsiders - S.E. Hinton
I am the Cheese - Robert Cormier
And Then There Were None - Agatha Christie
The Jungle Book - Rudyard Kipling
Franny and Zooey - J.D. Salinger
Nineteen Eighty-Four - George Orwell
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles - Haruki Murakami
Farenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury
Slaughterhouse-Five - Kurt Vonnegut
Travels with Charley, Tortilla Flat, The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
The Once and Future King - T.H. White
Watership Down - Richard Adams

Pride & Prejudice - Jane Austen
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - James Joyce
Mrs. Dalloway - Virginia Woolf
One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Mill on the Floss, Middlemarch - George Eliot
A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
posted by colfax at 3:27 AM on June 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

There are various traditional stages of life where you mature - toilet training, separation from mother, midlife crisis etc. If development during an earlier stage was incomplete or even failed entirely often you get a repeat shot at developing that way when the next maturity hurdle comes along. Neurological growth and identity change during these periods in life and perhaps the brain is more plastic. These times are windows of opportunity. Of course you get fewer of these transitions as an adult.

Put someone else first. Pick someone you don't especially like for whom you don't have strong emotional feelings for. An ideal person would be a supervisor, or a neighbour or a landlord, or a peer in your classes. Then put their needs ahead of your own without developing an emotional attachment to them. The reason I say it is better not to do this with someone you get emotionally attached to is because if you have narcisistic tendencies you can get your own identity muddled up with theirs and switch to seeking their approval or defining yourself as the Ideal Tenant or The Best Employee. At that point you would end up putting them first for your own sake rather than theirs. Ideally you want this person to be someone who is indifferent to you and to whom you are indifferent. The idea of this exercise is to get practice in switching off your ego.

Look for ways to develop a stronger ego. The maturity you seek lies in not needing other people or defining yourself through other people. It's contradictory. You need to have a stronger ego so that you are not so self focused. Mentally examine who you are. Make a list of things that make you ashamed - whiny, scared of crowds, clumsy, said something really, really dumb in front the entire class in grade two (random examples of things that might trouble you during the long dark teatimes) - and then practice acceptance. It is okay that you have these faults and made these mistakes and you are entirely acceptable with these faults and with this history. It may be that you will want to change the way you behave so that you learn not to be afraid of crowds, but it is more than okay to be afraid of them now. In order to get over being afraid of crowds you need to validate your own fear and even assess if what you wish was not a part of you is something to retain as valuable. Perhaps your fear of crowds is sensible and part of being sensitive to people and you should cherish it and keep it.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:16 AM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I will suggest that "growing up" is about insisting that The Buck Stops Here. And then figuring out how to keep that commitment, in spite of the million and one ways things will inevitably go wrong, any of which can make a convenient excuse for saying "Oh, hey, not my fault!" It may not be your fault, but a mature person will take responsibility for it anyway and will do whatever it takes to make it right, in spite of life getting in the way, which it almost always does.

Parents and military personnel get held responsible for things that they have no direct control over. For example, parents can wind up paying the costs for dumb shit their kids do. Figuring out how to humanely and compassionately get results so the kids quit doing certain things is a tough job and it is learn as you go. Small business owners also are subject to a similar dynamic.

But you do not absolutely have to join the military or become a parent or start a business in order to start taking responsibility for your life, no more excuses. To some extent, it is a mindset and a choice from which experiences follow that inform you how to effectively execute. But it basically starts with that mindset and that choice. It is a decision and thus it is an internal thing.

Crises can facilitate it because it can make it relatively easy to let go of dumb stuff that you thought mattered. In other words, if looking good to others matters to you overly much and then you have a life-threatening crisis that requires you to either look good to others or survive, you either make the decision that looking good isn't such a big deal or you die. Thus, the folks who don't jettison the trivial matters don't live. In some situations, you grow up or you die out.

But you don't have to be faced with a situation like that to start taking yourself and life in general more seriously and just make that decision that "It's my life. The Buck Stops Here. No more excuses." You can decide that purely based on the fact that none of us gets out of here alive and the clock is ticking. Every minute you waste is gone forever.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 10:59 AM on June 10, 2015

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