What is maturity and how do we know if we’ve reached it?
Maturity is one of those words that we like to slap onto a compliment, birthday card, or the end of an encouraging speech. It’s in the same ballpark as words like “integrity,” “character,” and “bravery.” These are words that we like to use, and that we definitely like or would want to be ascribed to our own lives. But when asked to define these words, many of us might have difficulty putting a clear, concise answer forward. We grow up with words like these as our ideals, and yet, the majority of us aren’t quite sure what the target is that we are actually aiming for.
According to Merriam-Webster, maturity is defined as the quality or state of being mature. Upon pushing a bit further, the word mature is defined in one of these four ways: having completed natural growth and development, having attained a final or desired state, having achieved a low but stable growth rate, or lastly, of relating to or being an older adult.
In a study on adolescent maturity published in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services journal, Dr. Sarah Johnson, Dr. Robert Blum, and Dr. Jay Geidd give us a bit more formal definition on maturity as it relates to adolescent growth. They write that “maturity is defined not as the end of physical development, but rather for the achievement of adult-like capacities and capabilities.”
But what exactly are these adult-like capacities and capabilities? And if we are to agree on these marks, how should one strive to achieve them? Is maturity a characteristic still worth pursuing?
Maturity is a process that incorporates every realm of who we are. Maturity can be seen in our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual development. Ideally, we would grow towards maturity slowly and consistently in all four of these areas. But that rarely happens. For many of us, we experience “growth spurts” in each area at different times, moments where because of biology or external circumstances, one area of our lives surges forward or takes a step backward in maturity. One of the great challenges of life is attempting to constantly keep all four areas of our beings moving forward towards maturity.
For the purpose of this article, I want to move past physical, mental, or spiritual maturity, focusing primarily on emotional maturity. I understand that in some ways, all four of these areas of our being are interconnected, so it is likely impossible to grow in emotional maturity while not incurring some positive marks in the mental or spiritual maturity categories. But for the sake of honing our focus, I will primarily look at what I have experienced to be a key element of growing in emotional maturity.
If you go to google and do a quick search on emotional maturity, you start to see link after link that gives you the 12 Signs of Emotional Maturity, the 9 Signs of Emotional Maturity, or if you are really ambitious, the 24 Signs of Emotional Maturity. One of the most popular articles on the topic of emotional maturity is from Medium writer Kris Gage in her article published last fall: 15 Signs of Emotional Maturity. Gage does a great job of researching and pulling quotes from many other current authors as she reminds readers that emotional maturity is ultimately taking personal responsibility for your life.
“Emotional maturity is the number one most important thing in relationships, the number one skillset we can work on to get great ones, and the number one most important thing to a happy and effective life.
Contrary to some misconceptions, emotional maturity is not about self-mastery or self-development. Mature people may pursue these, but they have nothing to do with emotional maturity. Someone can be very ambitious and hard-working, yet still lack any semblance of emotional maturity.
The most important thing is: taking responsibility.
Based on the articles above, people are strongly seeking to know the main “signs” that point towards or lead one to emotional maturity. As I discussed in my article Sage vs. Soldier — Becoming a Better Thinker, we live in an environment now where we are looking for the step-by-step instructions so that we can do first, then process later. Many of the lists above, the signs or steps to grow in emotional maturity are helpful and should be read, but for my purposes, I want to focus on just two areas that I believe point to and help clarify core ways we can all grow in emotional maturity — moderation + passion.
Over time, much of our lives, both socially and individually, follow a pendulum-like motion, swinging back and forth from one extreme to another. Roy H. Williams and Michael R. Drew say it this way in their research Pendulum
“Politics, manners, humor, sexuality, wealth, even our definitions of success are periodically renegotiated based on whatever new values society chooses to use as a lens to judge what is acceptable.”
As we grow up, we often find ourselves unknowingly swinging from one side of the pendulum to the other. People who once were rebellious tend to become more settled down. We who were once physically in shape move towards becoming lethargic and lacking activity. People who are far from God or religion move towards God. As we age, it is common to find ourselves pulled towards changing from one side of our beliefs to the other. We are encouraged to do this by friends, family, or the surrounding society. Many of us feel the pressure that our social standing as an “emotionally mature individual” is often dependent largely on if where we stand on an issue or viewpoint aligns with the societal standard of the day.
For me, my perception of emotional maturity has most recently been defined by first understanding that this pendulum-like motion is in process in areas of my life and purposefully stepping into this swing with one of two reactions: moderation or passion.
We have all heard the life-philosophy, “everything in moderation,” especially as it relates to healthy eating. While this motto is potentially helpful, it is nearly impossible to actually perform and keep in motion. The pull of society and our individual emotions and feelings make true moderation difficult to maintain. Yet, I believe that the struggle towards moderation in most areas of our lives is one of the greatest displays of growing emotional maturity.
Emotional maturity is realizing that not everything can be one-sided all the time. There has to be a middle ground, and often, we have to fight to not only get to that point but to keep ourselves at that point. The person who is emotionally mature is able to clearly see the middle-ground between the polemic sides of emotion, action, or even culture at large. Not only can he or she see these differing sides, but there is a sense of understanding and compassionate awareness of what both sides claim to uphold. The emotionally mature person is not blockaded into one style of thinking or unable to listen to what others have to say. The emotionally mature individual understands that battles are often not fought on the top of two opposing hills but in the valleys in the middle.
Moderation is less centered on compromise but rather on struggle. Moderation is the understanding that it will take time, energy, and purposed wrestling to accomplish a fully-rounded picture of maturity. Moderation shows that emotional maturity is not something that is grown overnight or through a 5-step process but is something to be gained through experience, learning, and submission.
Those who are truly emotionally mature understand this need for moderation and fight for it in as many areas of life as possible.
However, as we saw above, “everything in moderation,” is not a great motto to live by. People who are emotionally mature live by a similar but different rule that says everything in moderation, except for that which you are passionate about. Our passions are what help contribute to making us unique people. There are dreams or aspirations that stir and move my heart that do not do the same for others and vice versa. These different combinations of passion are beautiful and should be honed rather than consolidated in our efforts of moderation.
But this isn’t all that new to us. Most people would say that they are moderate about a lot of things and passionate about a few. The key to growing in emotional maturity is understanding how to be moderate and how to be passionate. Too often, our moderation stems from our apathy and our passions are a reflection of our unfiltered desires. However, an emotionally mature individual realizes that good moderation requires intentional effort, not apathy. He understands that our passions are maximized when we move past sheer desire and step into purposed, often-painful pursuit of that which is most important to us. In his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, author Mark Manson, describes that when we go about defining what we are passionate about, we shouldn’t ask, “what do we want to do?” Instead, we should ask, “what am I willing to suffer pain for?”
Therefore, we should not sacrifice all of our purposed passions on the altar of apathy-fueled moderation, nor should we sacrifice our intentional moderation on the pretense that we are passionate above everything.
One of the greatest benefits of a man or women who is emotionally mature is the capacity that comes from the clear and purposed pursuit of what he or she is passionate about. Practicing intentional moderation in many areas gives us more flexibility and freedom to expend our energies towards that which really matters, that passion which we are most uniquely positioned to impart on the world.
Emotional maturity is not a “level” that we suddenly reach when we turn 18 years old. There are emotionally mature 23-year-olds and emotionally immature 75-year-olds. It is not about age, but about how willing we are to struggle towards growing in a few key areas. There is more to emotional maturity than moderation vs. passion, but this practice is a crucial building-block as we continue towards the path of growing in maturity.