Are You an Emotional Adult?

 In America

How do we know when we are truly adults? Is it when we can afford to buy our first home? When we’ve reached a pivotal point in our career? When we’re married with kids (and maybe a couple of pets)? Maybe. Maybe not.

Society tends to instill in us the notion that external “things” define us and determine our status. So, we qualify as Adults when we can point to accomplishments, acquisitions, and stable personal relationships. But what about our inner world? How well do we handle disappointment, frustration, conflict, or other challenging emotions that crop up in work and family life?

How we handle our emotions is the true marker of being a fully functioning adult. The truth is we may have all the “evidence” to demonstrate adulthood and yet internally can carry emotional programming leftover from childhood without realizing it. I was married with two kids, living in a nice house and working at a good job. I carried out all of my responsibilities very efficiently and juggled many balls. From outward appearances, I was an “Adult”. Yet, if my husband let me down or disappointed me (in my belief), how quickly did I regress into the behavior of child: pouting, lashing out, losing it. I was acting like an emotional child, not an emotional adult.

As children, we depend on others to take care of us. We expect, or hope, that people around us give us what we want/need. But often we don’t receive what we want/need, maybe suffering emotional pain as a result; or we do get what we want, then continue to (unconsciously) seek happiness from others. All of these experiences create our belief systems about life and relationships. We carry these beliefs into adulthood in ways that can be productive or destructive; they are most obvious during marriage and even more so during divorce and when co-parenting.

When we attribute our feelings to someone else’s behavior and blame them for it, we are stuck in emotional childhood. My clients often complain how their exes “know how to push their buttons”.  I try to help them understand that as long as they believe they have buttons that can be pushed they will continue to experience emotional drama they believe is being caused by their ex. They have given their power to their ex to determine how they are going to feel: this is a hallmark of emotional childhood.

Instead I encourage them to take responsibility for all their feelings. Nothing he says or does can push a button if there’s no button to be pushed. Becoming an emotional adult means we don’t believe that we are powerless to control our anger, fear, anxiety because someone else has “caused” this reaction. We recognize that we have all the power we need to control our inner world and therefore can choose how to respond when someone else behaves “badly” (which is always subjective). It takes awareness, commitment and constant recalibration to transform from emotional childhood into emotional adulthood, but the effort is so worth it. The result is emotional freedom and an intense influx of self-confidence, self-worth and peace. 
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