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  • Dr Kate Owen

Emotional Maturity - how do we get there?

Isn't it weird that you can meet a 15-year-old who is wise beyond their years, and meet a 60-year-old that has bigger tantrums then your two-year-old?


Why is that?


What is the secret ingredient for strengthening emotional maturity regardless of age?


Well, lets first define what emotional maturity is. In Family Therapy, we use the term "Differentiation of Self" to describe emotional maturity. Differentiation of Self is the capacity for someone to think and reflect, and not respond automatically to emotional pressures from others (external) and themselves (internal).


People with low levels of Differentiation heavily rely on the acceptance and approval of others and will adjust their thinking and what they say and do, to please others. Alternatively, people might demand or pressure others to accept and conform to their ideas.


Mum: We are having a family dinner on Saturday, bring the kids.

Adult Daughter: I have been flat out at work mum. I was hoping for a quiet night.

Mum: But we haven't seen you or the kids for ages. Your father is really missing them.

Adult Daughter: Yeah I know. I have just been so busy. Maybe we can catch up next week?

Mum: But I have already invited everyone for this Saturday. Your brother will be working away next week.

Adult Daughter: Ok. No worries. We will see you then.


Outwardly the daughter appears to be accepting of her new choice, but internally the daughter is feeling irritated that her feelings were dismissed. In this family, the daughter might feel as though her role is one of "people pleaser".


People with higher levels of Differentiation can balance thinking and feeling; notice when strong emotional reactions come up but resist the urge to automatically respond and reflect on how they would CHOOSE to respond. The more differentiated a person is, the more that they act in line with their values and beliefs whilst respecting (but not always agreeing) with the values and beliefs of others. And this is the hallmark of emotional maturity.


Mum: We are having a family dinner on Saturday, bring the kids.

Adult Daughter: I have been flat out at work mum. I was hoping for a quiet night.

Mum: But we haven't seen you or the kids for ages. Your father is really missing them.

Adult Daughter: Yeah I know. I have just been so busy. Maybe we can catch up next week?

Mum: But I have already invited everyone for this Saturday. Your brother will be working away next week.

Adult Daughter: Thanks mum, but I am feeling pretty worn out. But I would be happy for you to take the kids for the night and I will catch up with you all in the morning.

How do you respond when someone has a different opinion to you? Do you feel triggered that they are "wrong" and you work hard to make them see your perspective? Or do you feel triggered that you have a different point of view that might be wrong or upset the person, and so quickly dismiss your thoughts and start agreeing with the position of the other person?


These automatic responses are normal and you will never reach a point of being completely centred and grounded in every conversation and interaction.


It is what happens AFTER these reactions present themselves which determines if you are on the path to strengthening your emotional maturity.


5 Steps Towards Emotional Mature Responses


Step 1: Recognise

To strengthen emotional maturity, first you must enhance your ability to recognise when you have been triggered in a situation or relationship. The easiest way to catch yourself is to be aware of the level of reactivity in your body.


Watch out for signs of irritability, anger, defensiveness, anxiety, wanting to placate, or feeling shut down and numb.


Step 2: Find Your Calm

Actively, consciously, and with intention, take steps to reduce the level of reactivity in your body. When we are highly aroused we primarily sit in the limbic system of the brain, which is our "emotional brain", and our ability to think is impacted.


Make a list of all the strategies that help you to regulate and find your calm. Keep the list on your phone, or on a piece of paper that you keep in your pocket. Or have a set of Keep Calm Cards close by.


If you can excuse yourself from the situation to take a few deep breaths, then do so.


Keep in mind that you might not be able to "Find Your Calm" immediately in a situation, and you may respond in a way that does not truly fit with your values. If that happens, wait until you have regulated your nervous system, even if this is one or two days later, and then follow through with the remaining steps.


Step 3: Find Your Clarity

When you can step out of the reactivity of the situation, take the opportunity to check in with yourself. What is it about this situation, person, or conversation that is triggering you?


Then decide, how do you want to respond in this situation? What are your thoughts, feelings and position?


The real test here is to understand if your position is "for you" and your integrity, or is it to influence the other person? For example, "If I do or say this....then they will do or say that"


If you hope to secretly influence the other person, then go back up and read the start of this article.


Step 4: Speak Your Truth With Respect

This may come easy to you, or this may feel like a huge challenge.


My best tip for this step is to mentally rehearse what you will say. Imagine yourself being confident, clear, assertive and respectful. Even though this is in your mind, your brain still considers this to be a practice run.


Step 5: Predictions and Planning

The right choice for you will not always be the most popular choice for others.


If others are not used to you exercising your emotional maturity and living congruently with your beliefs, values and opinions, then expect some mild to moderate reactions.

Make predictions about how others might respond. Will they increase pressure on you to conform to their wishes? Will they emotionally withdraw from you in an unconscious attempt to increase your anxiety? Or will they respect your position?


When you can predict how others might respond, then you can be prepared and rehearse how you will respond in turn.


Case Example

Mum: We are having a family dinner on Saturday, bring the kids.

Adult Daughter: I have been flat out at work mum. I was hoping for a quiet night.

Mum: But we haven't seen you or the kids for ages. Your father is really missing them.


The daughter starts to feel tightness in her chest. She notices that she is holding her breath and her shoulders are tense.


Adult Daughter: Yeah I know. I have just been so busy. Maybe we can catch up next week?

Mum: But I have already invited everyone for this Saturday. Your brother will be working away next week.


The daughter takes a moment to take a breath and unclench her jaw. She consciously relaxes her shoulders and puts a small smile on her face. She quietly says in her mind "Stay strong"


Adult Daughter: Thanks mum, but I am feeling pretty worn out. But I would be happy for you to take the kids for the night and I will catch up with you all in the morning.


The daughter respects her needs and honours this, and in this situation can problem solve a win-win solution.


Do It For You And Do It For Your Kids


It looks simple enough on paper, but this is an ongoing challenge for everybody. So remind yourself that strengthening emotional maturity is a lifelong journey that requires intention and action on a sometimes daily basis.


Practice, practice and more practice is the key.


And as you strengthen your emotional maturity, reduce your reactivity, and live more consistently with your values, you will role model a healthy template for your children.

Helpful Resources

  • If you need strategies to help with finding your calm, then check out the Keep Calm Cards.

  • For counselling and mental health professionals wishing to learn more about Differentiation of Self and Family Therapy, check out these workshops.

Please note that this article is general in nature and is not a substitute for professional assistance. Please seek support from a professional if required.

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© 2019 Dr Kate Owen