Living Life as an Authentic Adult
It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.
~ e.e. cummings
Most people are unaware that they are conducting their lives more from a child’s frame of reference than in an adult mode. Although men and women mature physically and become more capable in their practical lives, rarely do they achieve emotional maturity. In my view, the primary barriers to maturity are unresolved childhood trauma, the defenses the child forms to ward off emotional pain and existential dread. The latter refers to a core anxiety related to growing up, facing the fact that time is passing, and giving value to life in spite of death’s inevitability.
There are six major aspects of the adult approach to life:
1. Rationality: Adults experience their emotions, but when it comes to their actions, they make rational decisions on the basis of self-interest and moral concerns. As Murray Bowen observed, adults “are able to distinguish between the feeling process and the intellectual process…and [have] the ability to choose between having one’s functioning guided by feelings or by thoughts.” They have a strong sense of identity and strive to live with integrity, according to their own principles and values.
2. Formulating and Implementing Goals: Adults formulate goals and take the appropriate actions to achieve them. In this respect, they establish their priorities in life. In contrast, people living within a child’s frame of reference often overreact emotionally to events that are insignificant in the overall scheme of their lives, and fail to respond to events that are important or crucial to their well-being. Because adults tend to pursue their goals and priorities honestly, their actions are more likely to correspond to their words.
3. Equality in Relationships: Adults seek equality in their relationships whereas those who operate from a child’s perspective often assume the role of either the parent or the child in relation to their loved ones. In Voice Therapy, I described how adult individuals interact in a close relationship: “People whose actions are based primarily on the adult mode relate to each other as independent individuals with considerable give and take in terms of reciprocal need gratification.” They have developed their capacity for both giving and accepting love and do not attempt to recreate a parent in their partner by forming an imagined connection or fantasy bond with them for safety and security.
4. Active versus Passive: Adults are proactive and self-assertive, rather than passive and dependent. They don’t feel victimized by life or complain or dump their problems onto other people; instead, they face their problems or challenges directly and work out solutions rather than depending on others for direction. They seek help only in relation to what they actually need, as in areas where they lack expertise, not in relation to unresolved emotional needs from the past.
5. Non-defensiveness and Openness: People who are emotionally mature do not have defensive or angry reactions to feedback; they do not offhandedly disagree with negative commentary. Instead they are open to exploring new ideas, welcome constructive criticism and, in this way, they expand their self-knowledge and self-awareness.
Adults seek self knowledge to know themselves and develop an accurate self-concept; they are aware of both the positive and negative aspects of their personalities and have a realistic perspective of themselves in relation to others. In their pursuit of self-knowledge, they are aware of unconscious motivation, open to the analyis of that dimension of mental life and attempt to integrate it to the best of their ability.
6. Personal Power: People do not have control over their thoughts and feelings; these arise unbidden in the course of everyday life. However, adults take full power over every part of their conscious existence. Indeed, they change any behavior or characteristic that they dislike in themselves, such as being overweight or abusing substances. In this sense, adults approach their lives from the standpoint of being responsible for their destiny.
The Child Mode
When people experience the world in the child mode, they feel powerless and at the mercy of others as well as overpowered by their own feeling reactions. In the actual world of the child, the child is helpless and totally dependent and is often the victim of negative circumstances that are beyond his/her control. Children feel, but they are generally unable to act or protest outwardly in their own defense.
I was impressed with the way one woman described a child’s perspective in a personal narrative:
Recently, someone reminded me about the unconscious desire to be a child, and it hit me. I never heard it that clearly. It’s ruining my life and making me unhappy. I’m 41, and I’m sick of it.
The life of a child is helpless, scary and powerless. Functioning in an adult world as a child creates a never-ending misery of inequality, fear and paranoia. As a child, anyone can control and overrun you. As an adult, of course, you own your life and destiny. But if you remain a child in your adult life, you look at the world around you as dominating, controlling and dangerous. That’s a miserable life.
I’ve lived my adult years searching for my parents; not the obvious ones I was born to, but their replacements. My subconscious desire to have parents in my adult life has caused me years of discontent.
The major deterrent to living an adult existence lies in the fear of growing up. This includes the fear of breaking imagined connections with parents, being alone, standing out as an individual, having a strong point of view, recognizing one’s value and confronting the inevitability of death, the ultimate separation from self. Like this woman, many people have a strong desire to hold on to fantasy bonds or imagined connections to parents and their symbolic substitutes that offer safety, yet at great cost to their personal development. To live like a child in an adult world is itself a defense against death anxiety.
In her story, the woman revealed how, in an attempt to preserve the illusory connection to her parents, she recreated her father in her husband and her mother in close women friends. She went on to describe why she held on to her identity of being “the bad child” for so many years.
To hang on to this old identity with all my might, for many years, was so compelling…why? All I can answer to this is remaining a child, although miserable, is farther away from the agony of aging and death. So the compelling draw is hard to let go of.
Of course, I still have my moments of childish reactions, but I’m learning to catch them, notice the almost physical feeling that comes on, and stop it before I engage. I will make mistakes, but I plan to forge forward as an adult, and search instead for equality. Nonetheless, this leaves me very alone. And the aloneness leaves me anxious, and sad…but it’s real. And life as an equal, although painful, is fuller. And I’m ready for the challenge.
In summary, living in the child mode is largely chaotic and dysfunctional, whereas living one’s life as a adult is generally more adaptive and successful. Retaining a child’s frame of reference has numerous disadvantages: for example, people who operate from this perspective often find it difficult to formulate their goals and priorities in life and tend to feel helpless and victimized. They blame others for the problems they encounter rather than taking responsibility for how people react to them. In reality, people largely determine the course of their lives and determine the way that others respond. Lastly, reacting to life in a childlike manner can be quite emotional but often lacks a depth of genuine feeling.
Accepting the premise that living in the adult mode is obviously preferable, why is it that so many people function as children emotionally and stubbornly refuse to grow up? This question will be answered and the psychodynamics of the situation elaborated in part two of this blog.Tags: adult, child to adult development, childish, empowerment, living as an adult, personal growth, personal identity, self-awareness
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.
Sir, I respectfully disagree.
First, your preconditions for adulthood are much too high. Most people do not operate from the frame of reference you put forward, it would be highly “alien” and irrelevant in their current world. Most people have a “child” mindset as you describe, and since everyone around them is understandable and understood, why change?
Second, this would require those few who did want to grow up to spend most of their lives in therapy. For the vast majority of people, this is simply impossible. We are living in a time where job security is nonexistent, health insurance scarce, and people struggling to hold on to their homes.
And lastly, your state that most people don’t grow up because they’re afraid to do so. This makes the least sense of all. Our culture is full of daredevils, thrillseekers, people willing to hang from hooks, walk across fire, and experiment with every drug invented. I firmly believe the only reason people haven’t “grown up” is that they simply do not know how. I’ve sat in therapy sessions, 12-Step meetings, church services. Because I want to grow up, but all I can do is what I know how to do. There has to be someway besides therapy, because requiring everyone to attend therapy in order to grow up isn’t fair to anyone–including therapists.
On a last point,most of the mind operates at the subconscious/unconscious level, and people cannot change themselves as easily as you suggest, otherwise they’d have done it already and wouldn’t need to read your books.
There is truth in this to this extent , if we cannot reach any altered state of consciousness or even a state of true consciousness then the point is mute , we renain in stuckness !
I believe there is an order in our ability to realign with our true nature ( about as authentic as it gets and also as we evolve past our limitations albeit self imposed ( even though this can be difficult to accept at first view ) Waking to consciousness is an amazing awareness and entering late has its value in experience and therefore more tools from our box or I love my back pack of resonance and evolving clarity ! )Grateful for all the veils that lift and bring us all into fruition in the fullness of our time to see what was once hidden from view about oursekves abd be there to mirror and reflect this forward for others we have compassion ( love in action ) for . Expansion of self awareness is , awake , aware , alive and always arriving …
I have loved being connected to your well spring of brilliance which keeps on informing me further and my grateful heart responds in kind , Share and you will receive ….give and that is your reward …. Thank you for all you have added to all our lives over the years if giving conscious , informative goodness and never ending evolving wisdom ! What a blessing in my life have you all been !Thank you Dr Firestone , Tamsan , Lisa,Joyce and
and Jina …..
Firstly I think you are conflating what is popular with what is ideal. Just cos nobody is operating at the adult level does not mean it is irrelevant. Furthermore, the author has offered reasons to prove that operating on the adult level is superior due to the greater sense of control and satisfaction that operating on the adult level can bring. Also, there are other ways of growing up apart from therapy, conscious awareness of the problematic thought process and awareness of alternative modes of thinking is one way of possibly improving without the need of therapy.
Also I think the definition of fear has to be clarified and expanded, psychological fears is distinct from physical fears etc. One person can be a total daredevil physically, but be very afraid of emotional expression due to phobias etc.
Lastly I agree that it is indeed difficult to change your mind and difficult to recognize the deeply entrenched thought patterns and filters that we have without someone pointing them out to you(: that’s why we all read books.
I believe what he means is that you have to have a healthy balance of both being intelligent and being goofy and having fun living.
I have to respectfully disagree. The right hemisphere of the brain which controls the left side of the body is random, emotional, and relies on feelings and intuition to get by in life. The left hemisphere of the brain which controls the right side of the body is logical, methodical and relies on facts and figures basically math using known truths to navigate through life. It is unhealthy and unnatural to say that you have to remain an adult when the right hemisphere of your brain is emotional. it would make sense to learn to live with your emotions.
Its ok to have fun. Just know when to be an adult.
“you own your life and destiny”
You do? That’s funny, because in my adult life there are bosses, family members, significant others, and governments of all sorts limiting my choices, telling me what to do, and generally making up the rules that I have to follow. It’s no different from being a child except there is more responsibility and no one thinks I’m cute any more. Adulthood sucks. I don’t WANT to be responsible for my own happiness because I will do a terrible job, a sentiment that has so far been borne out by reality. Adulthood is nothing but work, demands, depression, and disappointment. Is it any wonder people don’t want to do it?
I think Jon’s comment has a lot of truth. The “more responsibility and no one thinks I’m cute any more” is especially hard to come to terms with.
In my case, by all indications, I was “adulting” for the last 10+ years. I got good grades in high school, got a scholarship to college and took full advantage of the social/academic/career opportunities, explored genuine/vulnerable relationships and friendships a bit, lived in multiple (nice) places around the world, got competitive/demanding jobs in engineering and law, took the risk to start my own business, and by the end was making 350-400k working wherever I wanted in the US, for not more than 40 hours a week. I realize those are all superficial things, but is probably in the top ~1% of what most people achieve (at least at my age of ~30).
But you know what? None of it matters. Sure, I’m glad I overcame some challenges, learned about how the world works (kind of wished I just maintained my fantasy/illusion about it, though), and pushed myself. I wanted to do those things to see what was out there and understand. But now I’m back in my childhood bedroom, not working (have enough that I don’t need to), and almost living like a child in some respects (I mean, I am fully independent and merely live alongside my parent, but I wake/sleep/do activities whenever I feel like it like a kid does).
There’s nothing noble about acting like an adult. And no one is doing it for nobility, but only for their personal gain (which could include self-development by challenging themselves, or just the plain necessity to not go hungry and be on the street). We get one, limited life. Do what makes you happiest, and if that’s living in a fantasy, so be it.