What Maturity Means
Growing old does not mean growing up
The word “maturity” has been on my mind a lot lately, perhaps because I’m approaching a new decade of life. I feel it’s one of those words that becomes a door when you take time to unravel what it means.
The definition for “mature” in Webster’s Dictionary is: “of or relating to a condition of full development.” Pretty vague and not very workable. What does “full development” even mean?
Revisiting the word
I’ve always assumed that maturity meant being able to take care of yourself. Its synonym would be independence. You know, you pay your bills, do your laundry, solve your own issues without needing to depend on mom or a significant other. You’re able to handle your emotions most of the time and own up to your mistakes.
Yet, something about this definition felt superficial. When I took a look at myself and others who had achieved this level of independence, I still felt like we were immature. Sometimes I felt this among people in their eighties. Children in adult bodies.
What was missing?
When I tried to think of a clean cut definition for maturity, I realized it’s not one of those words that you can chase into a corner. Instead, it was more like a field, encompassing many parts. Here are some that I feel are usually not taken up in one’s transition from childhood to adulthood.
First, being mature entails the capacity to take radical responsibility for one’s own life.
What do I mean by “radical responsibility?”
It means moving beyond the blame game and victimhood, recognizing that in all but extreme situations, you have a choice. (I know many people do not have the privilege of choice, but that is not the audience here). You have it in your hands to respond in a way that will ultimately meet your needs.
If you are unhappy in your relationship, at the end of the day, you have the choice to leave.
If you are unhappy about your job, at the end of the day, you have the choice to create another form of livelihood.
If you feel like life is working against you, you have the choice to operate in another way.
I know that can sound harsh, but it really is the most empowering thing. When you siphon off the conditions of your situation to someone else or another external factor, you give away your power. When you do that, the only way for your situation to change is for that other thing to change- which is unlikely.
In contrast, when you see yourself as the agent of your situation, you have the power in your hands to change it. You don’t need to wait for that person or set of conditions to act differently; you can change your situation starting now.
Second, a big part of being mature is being able to stay off the drama triangle. This is an elaboration on the first part. Coined by a psychologist named Dr. Stephen Karpman, the drama triangle is the source of most conflicts in our life, rotating around three roles: the victim, the perpetrator, and the rescuer.
All three roles are forms of victim consciousness. Usually, when we feel hurt, we either see ourselves as the victim, attack back as the perpetrator, or attempt to pull someone out of their crisis as the rescuer (relieving our pain which comes from seeing the other in pain). In our relationships, we usually switch between these roles, which perpetuates conflict and sucks energy away from constructive growth.
Instead, we can transmute these roles into something more empowering and mature. The victim transforms into the creator, someone who resourcefully solves their problem. The perpetrator transforms into the challenger, someone who asks questions, instead of threatens or demands, and makes expectations clear as a way to build the bridge of understanding. The rescuer transforms into the coach with clear boundaries, someone who gives compassionate space for the other to figure it out themselves, instead of solving the problem for someone (which steals their life lesson) or taking the blame.
Third, maturity entails knowing how to reparent yourself. We all have wounds from our childhood, places where our parents, no matter how well intentioned, left gaps in our development. Often, we look for other people to fill these gaps or heal these wounds, which just leads to disappointment. No one can heal these wounds except for yourself. Part of maturing is connecting with your inner child and providing what she/he/they needs, instead of outsourcing that role. Many times, this involves upholding boundaries, taking a break, and asking for help.
Fourth, maturity includes understanding the mechanism of projection. What we judge in others is usually a mirror of what we haven’t accepted in ourselves. For example, if your partner takes a day off, while you decide to work on a Saturday, you may feel like your partner is lazy and letting you do all the work. Instead of blaming them, look into yourself first and see if you have this built-in stigma for taking a break. Use these triggers as clues to learn about yourself, then reintegrate those unaccepted parts. It also works the other way around. When you feel like you are on the receiving end of someone else’s projection, you save energy by not taking it personally.
Fifth, maturity entails the capacity to be self aware and act on that awareness to grow as a human being. It means studying and observing yourself, taking responsibility for your weaknesses and trying your best to do better. Then, forgiving yourself if you couldn’t, and trying again.
What maturity entails
As you can see, maturity is not a description to be given easily. It is not an accumulation of years or even life experiences. It is a long process of intentional inner work that often requires painful honesty. It is a process of deep observation, understanding what you need and taking responsibility to meet those needs. It is a process of softening more than toughening up.
And no, it’s not an act
It’s easy to pretend by playing what maturity looks like. With a furrowed brow, we can adopt the pretense of being mature by always being busy, always having the answers, and always having it together. We can stop being playful and expressive in our authentic ways in the attempt to be mature. Yet, being childlike and mature are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they often go together. The handful of mature people I know are connected with their innocence, with their simple purity of being, which arises as a natural consequence of doing this inner work.
So those are some broad strokes painting maturity for me. Do I believe this is the exhaustive definition? No. But I do believe this forms a workable guidepost that leads to a more empowered life. Then there is the more advanced form of maturity, also known as “enlightenment,” but that is another can of worms. I won’t get ahead of myself.