We all know it takes a long time to grow up—not only biologically, but psychologically. There's a saying among psychiatrists that it takes 50 years to overcome the first 20.
Here's the good news: unlike other species, we are not restrained by our instincts alone. We are able to learn from our parents, our experiences and our culture.
Here's the bad news: Nobody matures without effort. It doesn't happen naturally. It takes a lot of hard work.
But what does it mean to be "mature?" Good question. So, let's answer it.
I have identified five characteristics of maturity. If you work to possess them all, you will have a happier, deeper, and more productive life.
One: Taking Control
Of course, you had no choice what era you were born in, or where you were born, or who your parents are. But with each year of childhood you attain more and more capacity to chart your own course. Yes, society and fate play a role, but cultivating your ability and willingness to make your own decisions, expands your ability to influence how your life unfolds. The only way to achieve maturity is to take charge of your life. Nothing empowers you as much as exercising that control. Refusing to act, waiting to be rescued and seeing yourself as a victim are sure signs of immaturity.
Two: Taking Responsibility.
I mean this in two ways.
The first way is simply to acknowledge that you’re responsible for what you do. If you make a mistake, acknowledge it. Don't alibi and don't blame others. This is an easy thing to say, but we all know it's very hard to do. A mature person does it. A mature person takes responsibility.
Second, is the willingness to take on obligations and fulfill them. For example, I got married and took on obligations to my wife and children. I have ethical obligations to my patients and my profession, even on days that I might not feel like it. A mature person doesn't see obligations as burdens but as something he willingly accepts and sees through to fulfillment.
Three: Containing Emotions.
I would never suggest that you should ignore your emotions, but you have to learn to contain them. Immature people lash out at their boss or their coworker if something doesn't go their way, or argue with their spouse when they come home, or turn to alcohol or drugs because of a rough day.
I often tell my patients that maturity can be measured by how much anxiety they can tolerate without acting out inappropriately against themselves or others. Mature people express their emotions in the right place, at the right time, in the right way. We are emotional beings, but we should never let go of the steering wheel; that is, we need to learn how and when to contain our emotions.
Four: Having Perspective.
An immature teenager will regard a pimple as a catastrophic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, or will regard rejection by a girlfriend or boyfriend as the end of the world. Maturity comes from putting disappointments into perspective.
The reason we forgive a teenager's overreaction is because we understand it's probably the first time it's happened. But life's disappointments don't stop when you turn 21. Far from it. Disappointments of every variety, great and small, happen throughout life. The mature person learns from them and gets stronger each time he recovers. This kind of mature thinking is best expressed in the famous advice given to King Solomon: This too shall pass.
Perspective also means that when we are upset with someone dear to us, we have to put that negative experience in the context of the entire relationship. Immature people demonize a friend or a relative they are upset with, and forget or ignore all the love and good experiences they once had. Mature people see the whole picture—not only the good, and not only the bad.
Five: Achieving Deep Understanding.
This takes the concept of empathy to a higher level. Beyond tuning in to another's feelings, this is about comprehending the ways in which another's ideas and behaviors make sense to them. You don't have to agree with that person, but you need to be able to get inside their thinking. You need to understand why they believe what they believe.
A good way to do this is to repeat what a person has said back to them. "Is this what you meant?" If they say "yes it is," then you know, and they know, that you've reached a deeper understanding. This kind of understanding, by the way, is indispensable to achieving true intimacy. It explains why the mature person is able to have more intimate relationships than the immature person ever will.
Taking control. Taking responsibility. Containing your emotions. Having perspective. Achieving deep understanding—these are five characteristics of maturity.
Together they can lead you to a deeper and happier life.
I'm Dr. Stephen Marmer, Psychiatrist, UCLA School of Medicine, for Prager University.