Emotional Immaturity

Emotional development is invisible to the eye because it is hidden by appearances. Give a man a beard and a business suit, and we assume he is as grown-up on the inside as he looks on the outside. Likewise, at first glance a full-grown woman will appear to have inner maturity as well. 

If only we could get a snapshot of where they actually are in their emotional development! We would be astounded to see how many emotional children are passing as card-carrying adults. We might be horrified to see how many emotional three-, four-, and five-year-olds we are entrusting with our children, our bank accounts, and our futures.

Many of these psychological youngsters have educated adult brains capable of buying houses, driving cars, and making a living.The human brain can learn competencies and skills independently of one’s level of psychological maturity. Our brains are multifaceted, and highly trained parts can coexist alongside parts still so immature it would shock you to see it. 

To make it even trickier, emotionally immature people often imitate emotionally mature behaviors. However, their maturity is superficial and unreliable because they did not naturally evolve in a true process of maturation. A familiar example might be the man who sweeps a woman off her feet with sweet attentiveness, but then unravels into bad moods and irritability when the frustrations of real life come along. Or it could be the fun and sexy girl who inexplicably turns jealous and controlling.

Emotional immaturity shows up fast under the right kind of stress. This is one of the best reasons for taking time to get to know people before committing to them. The pressures of adversity and frustration will ultimately show the psychological age of the person you are dealing with. But what’s a quick way of telling who is emotionally mature and who is not?

If you know what to look for, emotionally mature people are readily recognizable. Emotionally mature people have their own interests and do not give you the impression that they are looking for someone to complete them. They have a track record of satisfying relationships and productive work before they met you. Their activity is motivated not by restless or driven energy, but by their own inner life. They care how other people feel. They experience gratitude and know when to apologize. They are able to truly listen and are interested in what you want to tell them. People like this feel safe and comfortable to interact with. In their presence, you don’t have to worry about being guilted, shamed, or exploited.

On the other hand, emotionally immature people pressure you to make things right for them. People who are very young inside crave exclusive attention from others in order to regulate their inner emotional states. Without the ability to stabilize themselves, emotionally immature people expect others to fix things for them, turning to emotional coercion as necessary. You feel you can’t say no or you will be judged, and you will feel wrong or selfish for having your own opinions and needs. Your job in the relationship is to meet their expectations—a non-stop task guaranteed to drain your energy. 

Understanding the characteristics of emotional immaturity is the best tool for coping with these people. You have to decide if it is worth it to put in the emotional work these people require, but you will take it less personally and stay calmer if you realize the true psychological age of the person you are dealing with. Some of these exhausting relationships have to be terminated for your own health, while less toxic ones may just need limits and leadership as you work toward outcomes that will be good for you, too. Your steadfastness in not allowing the other person to take over is crucial. It is a self-protection that must be fought for internally in nearly every interaction with an emotionally immature person.

Remember, they experience you as existing to make things better for them. But if you lose sight of your own needs and goals, your physical and emotional health will begin to suffer. You can’t re-parent a person whose development stopped years ago, but you can be a good parent to yourself and not allow your life to be dominated by someone else’s immaturity.

When you finally put a limit on someone’s unfair expectations, watch for the inevitable relief and sense of freedom that you will feel. Sometimes it is only when we start setting limits that we realize just how much we have been giving. It is then up to the other person to decide whether he or she will still be interested if the relationship becomes more fair and mutual. 

Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, visit www.drlindsaygibson.com.
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