Achieving Emotional Maturity

A key factor in positive mental health is achieving emotional maturity. If a person is emotionally mature he or she exhibits certain characteristics which enable them to deal with people and situations that they find in life. I believe that there are 3 characteristics of emotional maturity. They are:1/ The ability to deal with feelings. 2/ The ability to take responsibility.3/The ability to face things.

1/ The Ability to Deal With Feelings – Dealing with feelings involves a number of skills. The necessary first step is to accurately recognize which feeling you are having. Many people who seek my services can’t recognize their feelings. For example, people with anger management problems are not able to recognize the feelings that underlie their anger. Often underneath anger there is fear, hurt and shame. Because angry people can’t recognize these feelings they revert to anger. Somewhat opposite to this, people suffering from depression can’t feel their positive anger, which could help them. Also people suffering from stress could cope better if they could recognize individual feelings rather than just be overwhelmed by stress.

After recognizing feelings the second phase of dealing with feelings is to understand them and work with them. For example, I was working with a man who was a child of alcoholic parents. He knew he was angry and hurt; however, he could not understand why. As we began to work with his feelings he understood that his hurt and anger came from not having his needs met. He also realized that he was continuing this pattern in his relationships. So achieving maturity for him consisted of learning to name his needs and to learn to ask for them with others.

2/ The Ability to Take Responsibility – This is a key component of emotional maturity. If a person cannot take responsibility for what happens in their life and continues to blame others for their problems, they cannot grow emotionally. It renders them powerless because they feel they have no part in what happens to them. I see this behaviour in people suffering from addiction and codependency. I often see these people blaming other people or things for what happens in their lives. Certainly, in most cases, their sense of being a victim has a truth. The truth is that they were powerless in their childhoods and many were victims of a number of situations that did hurt them. It often is difficult  for them to emotionally realize that they are now adults and that they are no longer in the same situation. When I work with these people I try to help them look at the reality of their lives. They often have anger management problems and victimize others. They also don’t see that they have real power in their lives and they are not victims. If they can slowly realize that they have real power and what happens in their life depends on them, they can then begin to take more responsibility for their lives.

3/ The Ability to Face Things – Life can be very hard and the things we must face can be very difficult for us. Emotionally mature people, nevertheless, are able to confront and deal with, as best they can, the things that life will send their way. On the other hand, people who lack emotional maturity are forever finding ways of avoiding making decisions and taking action in the face of these challenges. I remember a fellow who had been an alcoholic for 45 years saying, “Here I am at the age of 60 and I’ve now got to learn how to face things. Before, I just drank when something difficult came my way.” There are many ways we can run away from life, but as the saying goes, “You can run but you can’t hide.” Because the things we run from just pile up upon our lives and cause more and more havoc.

Because of this, the ability to face things consists of taking the steps to learn how we can best find creative ways to move towards our responsibilities. One man, a survivor of childhood abuse, found the smallest challenge overwhelming. He suffered from great stress and anxiety all the time because of this. We worked on this together and we found ways that he could take small steps at first in order to give himself the feeling that he wasn’t running away. When he was able to feel this, he was then able to take further steps. He also was able to share with others more about his stress and this also helped him face life.

Many of us, as children, were overwhelmed and helpless in the face of situations we could not affect or change. As a result we turned away from our feelings, often became stuck in the victim role and could not face life’s challenges. Growing up and learning how to be emotionally mature can therefore be a difficult task. Nevertheless, understanding what we feel, learning to take responsibility and facing the problems of life can gradually help us to emotionally realize we are adults. In this way we can finally attain emotional maturity.

Making Choices – An Essential Component of Mental Health

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 We are always making choices, big and small ones. We make them all day and throughout our lives. Choices are crucial to our happiness and well being; from choosing our friends, partner and occupation, to choosing what we want and how we will go about getting it in a particular situation. The people I meet with often have made bad choices. They have chosen an unsuitable partner or occupation. They have chosen a way of life that is governed by stress and anxiety. They have chosen ways of being and habits that can lead them to addiction, depression and difficult relationships with others. In most cases they think they are making positive choices, but they are not. These people have lost the ability to make wise choices. How is this ability lost?

When we first come into the world we are quite clear about what we want and don’t want. We are fully connected to our needs and wants and can express these quite easily. In other words we are born with the ability to make choices because there is clarity within us about choosing the people and things around us. However, over time this natural capacity becomes infiltrated by other people’s needs and wants. As Alice Miller, the noted psychiatrist and author, puts it, we become ‘prisoners of love’. As infants we are dependent on our parents for our needs. A basic need is to love and be loved. However, love is rarely unconditional, even at this stage of life. We are given messages by our parents that certain things we do or express are acceptable or not acceptable to them. These messages can be subtle or overt. Over the years researchers have visually recorded interactions between mothers and babies. One thing that is seen is the way mothers can control the emotional expressions of their babies (however this varies according to the emotional health and awareness of the individual mother). For example, if the baby shows anger and the mother disapproves, her face and body language will convey this. Right away the child is being told what to feel and what not to feel. The infant realizes that the price for showing the forbidden emotion or behaviour is withdrawal of love and that is too much to bear. What eventually results is that the new person will cut themselves off from what is inside them that is forbidden. Over time they become fragmented beings who have become separated from essential parts of their selves. Because of this lack of integration, our ability to know what we want or what is good for us becomes compromised. Furthermore, as we develop, the society around us tells us what we should choose and not choose, and so we become further divorced from our own selves’ ability to think and choose for ourselves. It is no wonder then that my clinical practice is filled with people who have made bad choices that have cost them dearly.

As the person and I look over the course of their life we generally see childhood environments where it was impossible for them to gain a proper sense of self that could ensure the ability to choose. For instance, if they are children of alcoholic parents, they find themselves surrounded by people who are very restrictive about feelings and thoughts. They often learn that people are unable to possess their own beings and can become codependent as a result. Furthermore, if people suffered childhood abuse they were dramatically given the message that they were bad. Therefore they learned to distrust themselves and, as a result, cannot make good choices. For these reasons, much of the therapy I practice consists of helping a person understand how he or she became separated from themselves. We look at family history to reconstruct part of the story. We also try to help the person reconnect with their true feelings and thoughts. Because, even though we may lose a sense of these, they are still there somewhere within us. The difficulty and time of the process will depend on how deeply the person has buried themselves. They may be buried under years of self denial in the form of addiction, depression, negative jobs or relationships and often great stress and anxiety.

It can, and often is, hard work to reclaim yourself and reconnect to what you truly want or don’t want in life. Nevertheless, there is no more rewarding work. Because, when choices are informed by true connection to the self they are good choices and life enhancing ones.

  Achieving Emotional Maturity

person-human-male-man.jpg

A key factor in positive mental health is achieving emotional maturity. If a person is emotionally mature he or she exhibits certain characteristics which enable them to deal with people and situations that they find in life. In my work as a Toronto therapist I see that there are 3 characteristics of emotional maturity. They are: 1/ The ability to deal with feelings. 2/ The ability to take responsibility. 3/ The ability to face things. 

1/ The Ability to Deal With Feelings – Dealing with feelings involves a number of skills. The necessary first step is to accurately recognize which feeling you are having. Many people who seek my services can’t recognize their feelings. For example, people with anger management problems are not able to recognize the feelings that underlie their anger. Often underneath anger there is fear, hurt and shame. Because angry people can’t recognize these feelings they revert to anger. Somewhat opposite to this, people suffering from depression can’t feel their anger, which could help them. Also people suffering from stress could cope better if they could recognize individual feelings rather than just be overwhelmed by stress.

After recognizing feelings the second phase of dealing with feelings is to understand them and work with them. For example, I was working with a man who was a child of alcoholic parents. He knew he was angry and hurt; however, he could not understand why. As we began to work with his feelings he saw why – he realized his hurt and anger came from not having his needs met. He also realized that he was continuing this pattern in his relationships. So the working phase for him consisted of learning to name his needs and to learn to ask for them with others.

2/ The Ability to Take Responsibility – This is a key component of emotional maturity. If a person cannot take responsibility for what happens in their life and continues to blame others for their problems, they cannot grow emotionally. It renders them powerless because they feel they have no part in what happens to them. I see this behaviour in people suffering from addiction and codependency. I often see these people blaming other people or things for what happens in their lives. Certainly, in most cases, their sense of being a victim has a truth. The truth is that they were powerless in their childhoods and many were victims of childhood abuse. It is very hard for them to realize that they are now adults and that they are no longer in the same situation. When I work with these people I try to help them look at the reality of their lives. They often have anger management problems and victimize others. They also don’t see that they have real power in their lives and they are not victims. If they can slowly realize that they have real power and what happens in their life depends on them, they can then begin to take more responsibility for their lives.

3/ The Ability to Face Things – Life can be very hard and the things we must face can be very difficult for us. Emotional mature people, nevertheless, are able to confront and deal with, as best they can, the things that life will send their way. On the other hand, people who lack emotional maturity are forever finding ways of avoiding making decisions and taking action in the face of these challenges. I remember a fellow who had been an alcoholic for 45 years saying, “Here I am at the age of 60 and I’ve now got to learn how to face things. Before, I just drank when something difficult came my way.” There are many ways we can run away from life, but as the saying goes, “You can run but you can’t hide.” Because the things we run from just pile up upon our lives and cause more and more havoc. 

Because of this, the ability to face things consists of taking the steps to learn how we can best find creative ways to move towards our responsibilities. One man, a survivor of childhood abuse, found the smallest challenge overwhelming. He suffered from great stress and anxiety all the time because of this. We worked on this together and we found ways that he could take small steps at first in order to give himself the feeling that he wasn’t running away. When he was able to feel this, he was then able to take further steps. He also was able to share with others more about his stress and this also helped him face life.

Many of us, as children, were overwhelmed and helpless in the face of situations we could not affect or change. As a result we turned away from our feelings, often became stuck in the victim role and could not face life’s challenges. Growing up and learning how to be emotionally mature can therefore be a 

difficult task. Nevertheless, understanding what we feel, learning to take responsibility and facing the problems of life can gradually help us to emotionally realize we are adults. In this way we can finally attain emotional maturity. 

We Heal From The Inside Out

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We live in a society that constantly dangles new ‘things’ in front of us: phones, computers, clothes, furniture etc, etc. etc. . We have to have the latest and best. In this type of environment it is very difficult to be satisfied. Of course our economy depends on dissatisfaction. We must constantly be dissatisfied with ourselves, our lives – what we have, what we do, who we’re with, where we live, etc, etc, etc – or else the economy will grind to a halt. In my work as a therapist I am constantly encountering people who are desperately seeking someone or something that will finally make them happy. To my mind this is very much like the alcoholic who needs the next drink to prop them up. Like all addictions it is based on a feeling of emptiness inside.

The truth of the matter is that we are not empty inside when we are seeking an outside release; we are in pain. The outside props are medications. In order to heal, we need to heal from the inside out. When I work with people I try to convey this idea to them. Mostly they resist. I don’t blame them. Who wants to believe that they are filled with pain and who wants to face it? Recently a man who was suffering from depression and addiction said to me, “If I look at the pain inside of me, I will become even more depressed.” I explained to him, as I do to others, that his medicating his pain does not get rid of it. It only makes it worse since the alcohol and depression combine to cause more pain through his hurting himself and those around him.

I realize that facing our pain is difficult since it hurts and it is not a quick fix; but it allows us to have the opportunity to confront it and release it. I go on to explain that it is like the process of grief; those who can grieve have a better chance of letting go of their pain than those who will not grieve. However, going within is not just about feeling pain, it can also be about seeing what is good within you. I see this with people who are dealing with self esteem issues.

I recall a woman, a child of alcoholic parents, who felt that she was worthless. Within her alcoholic family she was taught that she didn’t matter. As a result, her life was filled with self recrimination and stress. When we looked at her life, she indeed felt the pain of her childhood. But she also saw inside her a person of value with many positive traits. In this way she gained a sense of inner strength and substance. I have had similar experiences with people who engage in codependent relationships with others. They often have very little sense of identity and try to establish a sense of self through merging with people outside themselves. This often causes them great pain and stress. By going inside themselves they can begin to gain a sense of substance and self worth.

Another positive aspect of looking inside ourselves is that it can help us gain a sense of stability. When we depend on the outside for stability we find that there is very little permanence and that we have very little real control. People who have suffered from childhood abuse find that the outside world causes them great stress and anxiety. As a result of their childhood they see the outside as a threat. When they look inside themselves they can begin to find a constant source of identity and stability. As a result they can establish a source of safety that is constant and controllable.

Beginning from our childhood we are given the message that our sense of self esteem is gained from the outside of ourselves – our possessions and how we can prove to others that we are worthy people. However, the truth is that we cannot really grow if we only rely on the outside. In order to truly heal and gain a sense of strong identity we need to heal from the inside out.

Mental Fitness

Stones in Basket

Therapy Is about developing mental fitness rather than focusing on mental illness. Over the years I have become aware that one of the biggest problems I face as a therapist is the negative attitude of people towards emotional and psychological health. Compare it to the attitude towards physical health. The attitude towards physical health often has a positive, preventative proactive element to it. People look at physical health, to a large extent, in terms of cause and affect. Because of  this many people exercise, practice healthy nutrition, avoid unhealthy practices like smoking and generally read and research aspects of physical health. Of course, not everyone is dedicated in this manner, but even those who aren’t are often aware that a healthy lifestyle exists if they choose certain options.

In contrast, the perception of mental health is quite different. Its negative focus is about failure and shame. If you suffer from depression you are considered weak, unfit and self indulgent. If you have PTSD or other problems that originate from childhood abuse you are told that you are ‘unwilling to let go of the past’. Similarly, if you experience addiction you are said to have ‘no will power’ and are ‘self destructive’. The result of this negative perception of mental health is that people are not inclined to look at their emotional problems in terms of self improvement as they would if they were physical problems. Instead they view these problems in terms of weakness and shame. Consequently they often avoid dealing with their emotional and psychological difficulties.

By the time many people arrive at my office, their lives have reached a point of crisis. They tell me that they have avoided these problems for years. They arrive, both ashamed for coming to see me, and desperate. I explain to them that they are not mentally ill or a weak, rather they are untrained in mental health as are most of us. They need to learn to acquire mental fitness in order to deal with their problems. I explain that the concept of mental fitness consists of 3 parts: 1/ Self reflection 2/ Awareness of feelings 3/ Regulation of Feelings. Each of these needs to be understood and practiced as one would any skill. I will explain them.

Self Reflection – Self reflection is the ability to understand who one is. I believe that the majority of people have limited self knowledge. In large part this is because they are often defined by their early environment and their family. For example, a client came to me with depression, self esteem and addiction issues. When we talked about his identity he said, “I am a big hole, there’s nothing inside.” His early life, as a child of an alcoholic father and a codependent mother, had a very powerful affect on his lack of sense of self. Because the family was so focused on the alcoholic father there was very little attention paid to him. As a result he never acquired a sense of self or any tools of self reflection. Our work together helped him understand his background and to start thinking of how he had lost himself and to begin looking at who he is.

Awareness of Feelings – A very important resource for mental fitness is awareness of feelings. Often people who feel lost, emotionally injured, stressed and anxious about their lives come to me feeling that they ‘have lost it’ and are mentally ill. I point out to them that they need to develop the skill of emotional awareness. When I say this, they often admit that, for the most part, they are unaware of their feelings. For example, a codependent client told me that she ‘just goes around feeling angry’ at her husband. When I asked her to identify other feelings she was unable to do this.. Anger was her ‘go to’ feeling. However, when we examined her feelings in greater detail she became aware of her sadness, loss, shame and lack of self esteem underneath the anger. This awareness  helped her to focus more on herself and what she needed, rather than just being angry and stuck.

Regulation of Feelings – Certainly knowing one’s feelings is a necessary step in mental fitness. However, in order to exert a healthy control of  these feelings we need to learn how to regulate them. This requires the ability to moderate one’s feelings, rather than react to them. How do we do this?  It is my belief that we have to learn to ‘stand back’ from our feelings by gradually becoming an observer of  them. We do this by learning a mindfulness or meditative practice that can give us some distance from our feelings. Through this we can focus on how they make us react in our bodies, emotions and thoughts. By doing this we can slow down our emotional  process, create neural connections and pathways that give us a stronger base to regulate our feelings in a positive manner.

All of these skills: self reflection, awareness of feelings and regulation of feelings concern the development of mental fitness. They are not about mental illness, they are emotional and psychological skills that most of us are not taught as children. Too often we are taught as children to react, hide feelings, feel shame and generally look at emotional illness in terms of weakness. If we can shift this perspective to correspond to the way we deal with a physical illness that needs to be positively attended to, then we, as a society, can move forward.

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