Developing Emotional Maturity

Since I began this blog journey nearly three years ago, one of the ideas that has dominated much of my thinking is that of emotional maturity, or the development of one’s sense of self. For me, writing is the pathway to understanding truth, morality, justice, and ethics. Reading is the privilege to observe the different ways people respond and to consider the choices they make in very challenging circumstances. I am intrigued by what drives us to do what we do. It is one thing to talk about what the “most right thing to do is” when you on dry ground. But it is quite another to do what you think is the most right thing to do when the ship is going down and there are not enough lifeboats for everyone.

I am convinced that the our ability to act with integrity is greatly impacted by the level of our emotional maturity, or the development of our sense of self. The more fully one’s sense of self is developed, the more power they have to act with integrity.

Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife and Dr. David Schnarch are two professionals whose works discuss emotional maturity quite frequently.

I am working on compiling some of their thoughts to make them more accessible and easy to find.


The following text is some excerpts from a podcast where Preston Pugmire interviewed Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife on emotional maturity.

Developing Emotional Maturity: Podcast with Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife

Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: I think emotional maturity is basically the process of becoming less dependent on other people’s approval and validation. Less dependent on other people to manage our sense of self and growing into more capacity to be autonomous in our functioning. By that, I mean more able to express our unique individuality in the world, to be more able to be a force for good in our own unique ways in the world, to be more able to make moral judgments about what we think is good and right. To be able to have a developed inner compass that we use to be a force for good in the world. 

I think that psychological adulthood and it’s hard to arrive at sometimes because our native state is to be dependent and it’s hard for many of us to grow out of that dependency on other people’s approval, on other people validating where we are in the world. And often that compromises our ability to express our gifts or develop our gifts in unique ways. 

Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife I think we all have some sense of self. Its part of being human is this capacity to forge a sense of self. When you’re a baby and a child you can’t help but borrow that sense from other people, you’re looking to other adults in your life, parents, caretakers, siblings, to give you some sense of who you are and who you are not and how you are seen and so on. And so we start by kind of creating a self-concept through the messages that we’re given. For those of us who are very fortunate, those are very positive messages. Their messages of possibility and goodness and that we are worthy. 

For those of us to grow up in more toxic environments, they’re self devaluing concepts. But for better or for ill we forge a concept of self that comes out of our relationships and our lived experience. Somebody whose work I follow closely is Dr. David Schneier who has done a lot of work in the field of differentiation and differentiation theory and so on and he talks about the fact that we can have a reflected sense of self or a solid sense of self

A reflected sense of self is you’re very dependent on other people to tell you who you. You can’t feel good about yourself if you don’t think you look attractive for example and you need everyone to tell you that you look good or you need everyone to tell you that you’re good enough. That would be somebody who’s still in a pretty early state of self-development that they are dependent upon a reflected sense of self. 

A more solid sense of self is you have less dependency on approval and more ability to reference your own experience, to reference your own values, to reference your self-respect, as a way of judging who you are in the world. And that’s the progression is moving out of that dependency into something that’s a little more stable within ourselves. 

Preston Pugmire How do you find that internal validation? 

Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife I have a simple answer and a little more complex answer. I mean I think the complexity of it is that those of us that grew up in an environment where your parents were solid enough that they didn’t need you to be X Y or Z to validate their sense of self. And they really were able to invest in you as a unique human being and they were able to hold for you the idea that taking risks that you and the child are worth it. You’re worth taking risks your worth making mistakes. You are worth stretching into areas where you feel incompetent because that’s the only way you’re going to develop and your development is a form of self-love. To do things that allow you to develop capacity whether that skill sets or psychological capacity. 

Those of us that are less fortunate grew up in homes in which there are conditions. And where parents need you to either comply with them to make them feel in control or feel like a good parent. Or they need you to do the things that validate their worldview or their sense of self. And so kids they grow up in that environment will feel a lot of angst about stepping off the beaten path or doing anything that they know isn’t going to be in line with what the parents can validate. 

And another way of saying it is people either do compliance or defiance. So if you feel a lot of pressure sometimes you’ll go and do a more rebellious thing. But that can also not necessarily be good for you. You can be doing something that’s not compliant but still is kind of connected to the issue of validation from the parents. 

So whether or not you grew up in the more conditional environment or the more accepting one, what development always requires, I think, is a willingness to stretch yourself, and acknowledge what your highest desires are. What is it that you really want. What is it you want to develop, create, become. It’s about a willingness to tolerate the potential failure, potential invalidation. The discomfort that growing into areas that are not yet known requires. You have to be willing to say it may go badly and yet it matters enough to me to be willing to take that risk. If we won’t, as I’ve heard Dr. Schnurr say, there are two different types of discomfort out there. You can have the discomfort of not growing, of not challenging yourself and feel bad about yourself all the time so you get that discomfort or you can have the discomfort of growth. Either productive discomfort or unproductive discomfort. Which is do you choose.  So those of us who feel freer and freer and freer through time take the productive discomfort over the unproductive discomfort. 

Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife Why do people coddle their anxieties even when they know it isn’t serving them well? Change hurts and it’s uncomfortable. I mean when I’m up against those moments in my life I see why people coddle their anxieties. It’s easy to want to do what you know how to do. You know you have to live at the level you’ve mastered already. It’s hard to break things down, it’s hard to step towards things, hard to exercise the muscles you don’t want to exercise. And so it’s hard. That’s why. That’s why love has moral values because it takes courage. Growth takes courage.  It’s human to be cowardly I think it’s really the reality of it. And it’s pretty human to regress against our fears. So I think sometimes when we make loves the norm we cheapen it. Rather then I think sometimes laziness and hatred is more the norm really. 

I hesitate a little bit to say it’s natural because I think human beings are very much capable of both love and hatred. We’re capable of courage and discourage. But I think that sometimes when we say all humans are well-intentioned, we kind of deflate and devalue how remarkable love is because we push against the sort of natural tendencies and ourselves. To not try, to not have courage. The things that always touch me when I’m watching films or seeing documentaries of devastating times, is the courageous people. It’s so touching to me to see people who do morally courageous things in the face of so much pressure to not do it. 

I guess I should say that I certainly can understand why people live in a cowardly way, although I have my highest respect for people who don’t do it. I think one reason we do it is we want to kind of delude ourselves that we’re justified in deluding ourselves that somebody else is more responsible for our choices than we are.  We want to feel justified that somehow it’s OK that I’m not really trying because I’m a victim of my circumstances.  Or I would be a much nicer person in this marriage if I weren’t married to such a jerk you know or whatever. So people are very good at finding ways to justify their own retreat into their anxieties.  And so what I try to help people do is to un- justify it. You know you’re asking for a spouse who’s courageous and kind and loving and yet you not showing up that way. So why are you asking for something that you yourself refuse to offer? 

Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife An internal compass or a sense of integrity is not a defiant position either. So it doesn’t mean that you are unwilling to hear anybody else’s point of view or that you don’t care at all what anyone thinks. So it’s not about like I don’t care, I’m fine if you’re suffering. It’s not that. It’s that I’m not going to run my life by your approval.  But anybody who is wise and wants to do wisely is going to be open to valuable or wise input from others. If you want to make good choices you’re going to be looking to others that have gone before you that have wisdom to offer. 

But ultimately you don’t go along with whatever they say because you want to be a good girl or a good boy. You’re willing to really consider their view, consider it against your own sense of right and wrong, and then discern and make a choice out of that clarity. So it’s still about I’m choosing I’m taking responsibility but I’m also gathering wisdom and good input to know that I’m making a good choice. 

You know it would be dumb to never borrow wisdom from people that have gone before us, it’s Silly right. But that’s very different than a dependent position which is I’ll do whatever you say just love me, just think I’m a good person. Or I’m just going to not think for myself, I’ll just do whatever you think is right. And that’s a weak position. So you are you know it doesn’t matter what your spouse thinks, it does matter how you impact them. But you’re not changing it just for their approval you’re changing it because you want to have a positive impact on them, not a negative impact.