Emotional Adulthood: The Key to Problem-Solving and Resiliency
My birthday is in April, but my wife, Sherry, and I celebrate my second birthday — what we call the Day of Life — each year on February 10th. This is the day that marks my victory over cancer, and 2018 made 20 years.
To celebrate my 20-year milestone, Sherry and I went to dinner at a restaurant called Opaque in Santa Monica. It’s located on Wilshire Blvd. and its entire staff is blind. After removing our watches and turning off our phones, Sherry placed her hand on the shoulder of our waiter, Michael, while I did the same to Sherry.
We were then led into a pitch-black, windowless room. In the first minute or so, I nearly had a panic attack because I couldn’t orient myself to my surroundings. I kept opening and closing my eyes to remind myself that my eyes were, in fact, open even though I could see nothing.
Opaque turned out to be an especially appropriate way to celebrate 20 years cancer-free, as an integral part of my long-term survival has been understanding how to relate to the problem of having cancer by practicing acceptance without trying to control the situation. I have had to learn what it means to trust in the greater process of life, without grasping for specific answers or wanting everything fixed immediately.
That night, once I was seated, I was able to accept my situation.
And at that point, an amazing thing happened. My other senses became heightened to help me navigate my way through the darkness. The food smelled more vibrant and tasted much richer. As I reached for things across the table, I could tell that even my sense of touch was sharper.
This is what it means to have an adult, problem-solving consciousness.
When something we rely on is suddenly gone, other senses sharpen and a new awareness develops to help guide us. But this can only happen if we’re able to exercise personal responsibility and accept our present circumstances.
The quality of our life experiences is heavily dependent on the quality of our relationships.
As a result of our experiences (mostly from early life), we adopt a state of mind that manifests as a way of being, that, in turn, determines how we interact with the world and others. This becomes a template for how we approach obstacles. Our cultural states of mind mimic the four stages of human physical development: infancy, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. Our cultural states of mind are symbiotic states of being — how we relate to or work with those around us. Sym means together, while biosis means life. Two lives that come together to relate to each other in some way that affects their existence is a symbiotic constellation.
Our states of mind don’t always coincide with the biological phase of life we’re in. That’s when we get into trouble and have difficulty solving our problems, or make them worse. While that isn’t necessarily a good thing, it’s important to know that the four basic cultural states of being are normative terms, which means none of them are bad or wrong.
However, becoming aware of how you’re approaching life’s problems can go a long way toward solving them if what you’re currently doing isn’t working.
One Way, My Way
In infancy, we exist in a mostly parasitic symbiosis with others where we tend to take far more than we give back—if we give back anything at all.
Life is all about us, our needs, and what makes us happy in the moment. Others are not a consideration because we operate entirely on the pleasure principle. We deal only with the things we like. The things we don’t like, we push away. A consciousness stuck in parasitic symbiosis hasn’t matured or become self-sufficient. It’s based mainly on feelings and hyper-emotionality. In the infant’s mind, a desire arises that triggers an emotion, but there is no real cognition happening. Whether or not the child gets what it wants determines its emotional state because it has no capacity to self-regulate.
It’s not necessary to throw tantrums over problems to be an adult caught in parasitic symbiosis with others. While that can be the typical reaction for many, this state can manifest itself in many different ways.
One of the classic characteristics is avoidance, not wanting to deal with the unpleasant parts of a situation. It’s like wanting a juicy piece of watermelon, but without the seeds. The situation isn’t exactly to our liking, so we push the whole thing away.
Many times, we’ll avoid the parts of a situation we don’t like by projecting them outward onto others through blaming and judgment, utterly oblivious to how we helped create our problem, just like an infant. While children will cry to get their way or motivate others to solve their problems for them, adults in parasitic symbiosis usually take a subtler approach. They often resort to various forms of control, either overt or covert.
The controlling personality needs things their way, and like an infant, usually doesn’t consider anyone else’s needs. Because we’re talking about a state of being through which we approach the whole of our life, the odds are quite good that a controlling boss is very likely a controlling spouse and parent. This attitude isn’t likely to help solve family problems or improve those relationships.
How we do one thing is how we do everything.
Our response is only a matter of degrees depending on the situation.
The manipulative personality uses a different kind of control. It can use physical threats, money, sexuality, feigned helplessness, co-dependence, and other mechanisms to take advantage of others and get what it wants.
I know a man who had been attending monthly gatherings of a social group for professionals for about five months.
The group had about 200 members, and he’d made some strong friendships during that time. While wandering through the crowd one evening, he ran straight into a woman he’d dated for less than a year. Nearly 18 months had passed since their amicable breakup. Apparently, she’d been part of the group for several years.
Surprised to see each other, they had a congenial 45-minute chat before going their separate ways. He thought nothing else of the interaction until he received a text from her later that night, asking to speak with him during the week. They decided to meet in a local park.
He had no idea what she wanted to discuss, as he had no desire to rekindle the relationship, and knew she felt the same way. Within minutes of meeting, she flew into a rage, accusing him of making her feel uncomfortable and trying to steal her friends.
It’s a good thing he was speechless because he couldn’t get a word in edgewise. At the height of her upset, she burst into tears, insisting that he give up the group and his newly budding friendships so that she wouldn’t feel threatened. As far as she was concerned, the group was her territory, her sandbox, and he couldn’t play in it. She was taking all her toys and going home.
Because she was making a huge scene and attracting attention from others in the park, he agreed to stop going to the group. He would have done anything to make her stop the hysterics, but then that was her idea all along.
Naturally, I wasn’t happy with how he allowed her to manipulate him, but controllers always need people who are willing to be controlled. In allowing others to control us, we aren’t helping them, we are enabling them.
Other manifestations of parasitic symbiosis and/or infant consciousness include insecure and needy personalities. These people want others to solve their problems for them, or tell them what to do.
A lot of people who regularly see psychics are like this. They want others to pick the seeds out of the watermelon so they can enjoy it. Unfortunately, this prevents them from having a whole experience and gaining the benefit of learning from it.
“Go Ahead. Make me.”
Adolescence and the teenage years are all about breaking out and finding our own identity. For good or ill, we accomplish much of this self-determination by finding out who we’re not, what we don’t like, and what we’re not about.
Most of these realizations come from the unhealthy practice of comparing ourselves to and competing with others in what I call competitive symbiosis. This creates a negative constellation of againstness, an aggressive or rebellious consciousness that can be as stubborn as it is selfish.
At the same time, the hormones of puberty are affecting our cognition skills to such a degree that our thoughts tend to be a bit chaotic and disorganized, sometimes generating dramatic emotional fluctuations. We’ve got desire and emotion tied to ungrounded cognition.
When it comes to problem-solving, those stuck in competitive symbiosis with others are clueless about compromise. They give a big middle finger to the problem. Whatever’s being asked of them, they’re just not going to do. They totally disregard the circumstances and flout authority. In their minds, they’re saying, “Make me. Go ahead and make me.” Does this remind you of a teenager?
Although it’s a slightly different approach, denial works the same way.
It’s a flat-out refusal to even acknowledge a problem or take part in finding the solution.
It’s a blinding inability to take any personal responsibility for the situation.
A good example of this is an ex-spouse who, though he doesn’t like the terms of his divorce agreement, makes no effort to compromise but instead simply refuses to comply with the terms. This is the level of consciousness that does the most to compound its existing problems because so much spite and self-righteous pride are involved.
As in the teen years, all that fiery, misdirected energy, coupled with unfocused awareness, lead us to make unwise decisions and create more problems for ourselves.
The old age problem-solving consciousness or commensal symbiosis mirrors an elderly person’s physiology quite well, though there are many young people with this kind of mindset.
Its key characteristic is passivity.
While it’s aware there is a problem, it can’t muster the energy to address it because it’s simply overwhelmed by the circumstances. There tends to be a significant amount of resignation and the belief that making an effort won’t matter anyway. It’s rooted in a false sense of powerlessness.
Though old-age consciousness knows a solution would likely improve the situation, there is little drive to find one because, like an elderly person, it enjoys its routine, the familiar.
As such, it will resist initiating change, even though it knows that change would be good. Change, however, would shake up life, so there’s just no engagement with the problem.
The procrastinator is the classic example of the commensal problem-solver. They keep kicking the can down the road and complaining about it, while everything stays the same.
This also includes the unmotivated and fatalistic personality who feels it has no real power to effect change in life, and so to avoid taking action and keep itself disempowered, it uses the idea that God will somehow take care of everything.
Worrying is also indicative of old age problem-solving consciousness. Fear paralyzes the person from moving forward in any way as they become entangled in all the “what ifs” of the situation. This level of consciousness obscures clarity and drains decision-making power.
In this case, the elderly person would be staring at the watermelon, seeds and all, and not know what to do with it or even how to feed himself.
Naturally, we all want to find solutions to our problems, but that requires dealing with them like adults and from an adult problem-solving consciousness or with mutualistic symbiosis.
This mindset is based on accepting the wholeness of the experience and working together with all the people and circumstances involved to find a solution. It’s about taking the seeds with the watermelon and knowing it’s not possible to have one without the other.
When we deal with the seeds of the situation, the gift it brings, or the lesson we learn, is all the sweeter because we have taken the time to work through everything instead of running away from it, just staring at it, or insisting that the circumstances change to be exactly what we want.
In mutualistic symbiosis, there is the desire to create change, fueled by emotion and guided by a clarified cognition, which shows us how to approach the situation. It takes all the variables in the situation and integrates them into a whole experience. It then provides the peace of mind that ensures us every aspect of the problem will work to our benefit, even if we cannot see how that might be in the present moment.
In any problem situation, the most empowering choice is always to accept what is.
That doesn’t mean approving of what is happening or blaming anyone involved. It simply means allowing the situation to be. That is the first spiritual law, acceptance of what is, not forever, but right now. It’s surrendering to the moment, not resignation.
Poet John Keats described this highly coherent mind/body state as negative capability, the ability to be okay with things not being okay. I call it clarity — the peace you create and exist within.
In other words, you are in the eye of the storm where all is still and quiet while the storm whirls around you. It’s within this mental space, free of the noise and clutter, that you can see your life clearly for the first time, understand why it is the way it is, and take conscious action to change things.
I discuss this process in my book, The Clarity Cleanse: 12 Steps to Finding Renewed Energy, Spiritual Fulfillment, and Emotional Healing. From this higher state of consciousness, we can access our imaginations and, like artists, find more creative, efficient ways to deal with obstacles.
If we cannot master acceptance of every situation in our lives, we will not mature consciously at the same rate at which we will grow physically. Our bodies and minds will be at two different places along the growth scale, creating incongruity and more problems in our lives. If we think of a human growth chart as having an X and Y axis, our forward life progress is represented by the horizontal X axis and is directly proportional to our spiritual evolution, which is represented by the vertical Y axis.
So it will serve you to be less wrapped up in the temporary physical details of a problem, and more attuned to the deeper meaning it has for you. What can you learn from it, and how will you choose to respond to it? This is how we develop higher consciousness.
Making Mountains from Molehills
In the right frame of mind, we can consciously choose how to handle even the most volatile situations because we have learned how to reflect and act in response.
When we react unconsciously, we only add to and potentially escalate or complicate the situation.
A friend recently told me that he and his wife were invited to another friend’s home for a barbeque. After having some of the host’s potato salad, my friend got violently ill, and had to be rushed to the emergency room where he was administered an IV with some medication. As it turns out, his wife ate the same amount of the same potato salad at the same time and wasn’t affected at all. My friend was stunned.
The interesting thing about microbes is that they need the right terrain inside a person’s body to take hold and make them sick.
In the same way, when every little thing upsets us, we develop a weak psycho-spiritual terrain, a condition that allows problems to take hold and throw us into reactionary mode. We’ve got a low buffering capacity for problem tolerance.
We all know people who have a very short fuse and are always making mountains out of molehills, as they say, and others who are much slower to anger and less likely to be afflicted by anxiety. They have different psycho-spiritual terrains and buffering capacities.
I later found out from my friend’s wife that he had depleted much of his physical buffering capacity by working long hours for months on a special high-pressure work project. Nothing suppresses immunity like stress. He altered his terrain, and that’s why he got sick.
Low tolerance for problems generates long-term chronic stress which is a major factor in many disease processes.
Learning How to Learn
Growing up isn’t easy, and becoming a spiritual adult is an inside job.
It could be said that working through each problem, depending on the seriousness of the issue, bears some resemblance to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief that begin with denial and move through anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance.
The sooner we can get to acceptance during the difficult times of life, the quicker we’ll find better solutions and the more progress we’ll make because we’re learning how to learn from our problems.
That’s the essence of life. It’s why we’re here, and we have all the tools we need to do just that.
Listening to your choice of words when dealing with a problem can be a good way to determine where you are on this emotional development scale.
Checking in with what you’re feeling can provide equally important information. Do you feel furious, frustrated, resistant, helpless, hopeless, or something else?
This kind of self-awareness can support you in making better choices when dealing with problems, and it can ultimately provide you with a greater resiliency throughout life. Personal success isn’t dependent on how hard the wind blows during the storms of life, but whether or not you’ve learned how to bend with the breeze.
That’s what it means to be an emotional grown-up.