Developing Emotional Maturity

Written by
Michael Wells

Developing Emotional Maturity

Written by
Michael Wells

Developing Emotional Maturity

Written by
Michael Wells
SERIES

This article is part of the series 

Developing Emotional Maturity

.

This series is under development and further articles will be added soon.

QUESTION
"What exactly is emotional maturity, and how do you develop it?"

Every emotion we feel has evolved for a reason, and it's an essential part of our survival programming. We need all of our emotions, or we simply wouldn't have survived.

But they must be felt, and used effectively, rather than suppressed as an unwanted thing.

Emotional Suppression v. Emotional Maturity

Men tend to suppress emotions because as we grow up, we want to be seen as mature, masculine men. Men that women deeply desire. Men that other men wish they could become. Men that lead, rather than follow.

In our view, one of the defining characteristics of a mature, masculine man is that he is very calm and self-confident even in highly emotional situations. He is stoic, and self-controlled at all times, even on the battlefield.

In fact he's so calm, that it appears that he has no emotions at all.

So we pursue that same emotionless outward aspect... but inwardly, our approach is simply to treat our emotions themselves as the enemy.

It's not hard to see why we've confused these two approaches, but...

Emotional maturity is a completely different thing than emotional suppression.
While suppression seeks to subvert our natural emotions and emotional responses, maturity seeks to process them quickly, effectively, and completely.

On the outside, the appearance is very similar- you might see a flicker of a facial expression, but it passes quickly.

On the inside, the experience is entirely different.

Take anger as an example... something happens, and you suddenly feel angry.

The emotionally mature guy will listen to that anger, "process" it, and understand what's behind it. He'll make a clear decision on what needs to happen next, and he'll begin taking action.

At this point, the emotion is already gone. He feels clear and motivated, and knows exactly what needs to happen.

The emotionally suppressed guy will feel that same anger, and tackle it, trying to wrestle it to the ground and force it to submit to his will. He won't listen to it, because all of his focus and energy is going into the effort of suppressing it.

If he succeeds, he'll look fairly emotionless on the outside, but those emotions haven't relaxed one bit. They're now an angry Rottweiler that he's muzzled and is struggling to hold back.

The world is a very different place for these two men.

What is an Emotionally Mature Man?

An emotionally mature man has a good connection with his emotions.
He's aware of every one of them, even small hints of them- and he trust them as important advisors in his evaluation of every situation, every person, and every decision.

Characteristics of Emotional Maturity

Try to identify someone in your life that you've met who is emotionally mature. Maybe you can think of a parent, grandparent, or a teacher.

In my view, an emotionally mature man is...

  • Present, because emotions are felt in the body, and he's paying attention them right now. It's not lost thinking about the future, or the past- he's always intimately aware of the now.
  • Intuitive. He's aware of things, such as whether a situation, or a person is good or bad for him- before he can rationally understand the reasons and explain why. He trusts his emotional mind's instincts the way that a rider trusts his horse's instincts.
  • Self-Aware. He know how he feels, why he feels that way, and what his options are.
  • Self-Controlled. He knows his emotions are his own, and not "caused by" others. He chooses his reactions appropriately.
  • Empathetic. Because he understands his own emotions well, he can more easily connect emotionally to others. He can better read and understand, and predict what others are feeling.

All of these qualities make him a better leader, husband, father, and man.

Developing Emotional Maturity

To develop emotional maturity, you'll want to understand how your mind works, and how the different parts interact with each other.

Once you have this understanding, the process itself is pretty easy.

Our Two Minds

In a practical sense, we have more than one mind running at the same time...

  1. The emotional mind, which is where we "feel." All emotions, from desire and fear through to love, jealousy and anticipation, occur here. From an evolutionary psychology standpoint this is comprised of our reptile and mammal brains.
  2. The rational mind, which is where we "think," solve problems, and plan the future. All thoughts occur here, and many of us identify with this part of our mind exclusively. We think of this part as "this is me... I am my thoughts." From an evolutionary standpoint, this is our human brain, or neo-cortex.

These two minds work together closely, but they are entirely separate - and embracing both minds is essential to us being psychologically healthy and mature.

The Jockey & the Horse

When looking at how these two minds should relate to and interact with each other, I like to use the example of a jockey riding a horse.

I like my analogies, and this is perhaps my favorite analogy ever. It's very powerful, so take the time to understand it, and how it relates to you.

  • The jockey represents your rational mind. It can think, plan, organize, solve problems, imagine the future. It sees the big picture, such as "which way is north?" and "where is the nearest town with an inn?"
  • The horse is your emotional mind. It operates much directly on sensation, emotion, perception and instinct. Its attention is on what's happening right now, and it's very aware of its immediate surroundings. Anything it hears, or smells, or sees, is instantly noticed and responded to.

If you imagine a jockey without a horse, or a horse without a jockey, you can see they each of them are very limited. The jockey is slow, and doesn't detect danger as quickly as the horse does. The horse is fast and powerful, but it doesn't know where to go for food or shelter, or what direction will take it to a better place.

Each have strengths and weaknesses, and we're very fortunate as humans to have both.

How Our Minds Interact

There are many different ways that the jockey and the horse can relate to each other...

The jockey can ignore the horse, and just pretend it's not there. Or the jockey can suppress the horse, and use the bit, spurs, and whip to forcefully control the horse.

This is what emotional suppression looks like.

This suppression can work to a point, but when the horse is overwhelmed, it will just as likely revolt, throw the jockey off, and bolt into the forest.

This is what an emotional breakdown looks like.

If the jockey is riding an untrained horse, or not holding the reins, and facing the wrong way - than the horse runs the show. The horse will stop every time it see tasty grass or cool water. It will panic whenever it hears a twig crack. It will never get anywhere useful.

This is what an immature child mind looks like.

If the jockey gets off the horse and shoots him dead...

This is a psychopath.

Or, the jockey and the horse can learn to work together.

The jockey and the horse can develop a strong understanding and trust relationship.

The jockey directs the horse and protects it, but does not abuse or suppress it. The jockey trusts the horse's instincts as his own. The horse respects the jockey, and trusts that he will not be led into danger unnecessarily.
Together, they are stronger, faster, smarter, and more capable than either can be alone.

This is emotional maturity, and this is how you want your brain to work.

Responding to Your Emotions

We've talked a lot about emotional suppression, and you understand now how it happens, and why it hurts you.

Let's dive into the specifics of how an emotionally mature mind reacts differently to those same emotions, and what you should do.

How Emotions Work

Emotions are very simple. They represent your emotional mind's perception of your world, and any threats or opportunities that it perceives.

When it perceives an immediate threat or an opportunity, it sounds an alarm...

  • "OMG take your hand off that stove now, it's way too hot" - we feel pain.
  • "What's that smell??! Pizza?! YOU NEED THAT." - we feel craving.
  • "Wow that's an amazing person, you should be their friend. Tread lightly, this is a valuable opportunity and you want this to go well" - we feel nervous, or excited.

Reflect, and you'll find hundreds of examples in your life, just from today. Our emotions are our first line of perception of the world around us, and most of the time, we react to minor things without even becoming rationally aware of the situation.

We simply feel and respond, subconsciously.

It's how we navigate our world, and stay alive.

Immediate Emotions v. Retrospective Emotions

Your emotional brain is a very simple computer, with a range of different emotions, each of which was designed to push you towards certain opportunities, and away from certain threats.

I classify all emotions as being either "immediate" or "retrospective," and within these are a total of four broad categories.

The two categories of Immediate emotions include;

  1. Cravings. "I want that, that sounds good for me." These are things we desire deeply, either right now or in the future. Emotions here include hunger, thirst, food cravings, sleepiness, sexual lust, loneliness, etc,
  2. Aversions. "I don't want that, that sounds bad for me." These are things we seek to avoid. Emotions here include fear, boredom, anger, anxiety, disgust, contempt, etc.

The two categories of Retrospective emotions include;

  1. Rewards. "That was fantastic. Do that again next time." After something good happens, our brain rewards us. This is its way of reinforcing good behavior, and encouraging us to do more of that behavior later. Emotions here include joy, satisfaction, bliss, fullness, peace and relaxation, etc.
  2. Punishments. "That was horrible, never do that again." After something bad happens, our brain "punishes" us to let us know we should avoid that next time. Emotions here include regret, sorrow, grief, heartbreak, rejection, etc.

Notice that Immediate emotions happen before a choice is made, and an action is taken. They draw your attention to the situation, and the fact that a choice needs to be made - like eat that pizza, run away from that bear, or say hi to that cute girl.

Retrospective emotions happen after an event has already occurred, and there is no longer anything that can be done. They also draw your attention to the memory of a past situation, to reinforce a lesson that your brain thinks you need to learn. If there are still actions you can take- like expressing attraction, or confronting someone, than you should look at this as an immediate emotion.

This distinction is important, because we approach immediate and retrospective emotions a bit differently.

How to Respond to Immediate Emotions

The essential thing to understand about immediate emotions is that you will only feel them as long as your emotional brain feels that something needs to be done.
Once appropriate action is taken, the immediate emotion will disappear. And that's our goal here.

Read that again, a few times, it's the most important understanding you will walk away with about emotions.

Immediate emotions work like a dashboard indicator light in your car. As long as the sensors think there is a problem, that light will stay lit. The moment that problem is resolved, the alert turns off.

Understanding this is the first key to resolving stress. If you're feeling emotions, ignoring them or suppressing them won't make them go away, only resolving the problem will.

Responding to Immediate Emotions

  1. Accept and acknowledge the emotion, with no judgement. Treat it like a separate thing... "I feel X." That emotion is not attacking you, it's simply your emotional brain trying to draw your attention to something.
  2. Investigate the emotion, honestly. Why am I feeling this? Is there something that needs to be done here? Would doing that thing actually improve my world, or not?
  3. Examine your options. Here's where your rational brain gets involved usefully- not in judging or suppressing the emotion, but in investigating the possibilities, and in weighing them and how they'll impact your future.
  4. Make a decision. Pick an option, and commit. Amazingly, this will usually solve 90% of your emotional distress. Once your rational mind has made a decision, your emotional mind will mostly relax.
  5. Follow through on that decision, taking action as needed. All emotions demand acknowledgement, investigation, and a decision. In many cases they also demand action- but not always. Say for example

You will know you've succeeded if the emotion disappears soon after.

If it does not, you have not understood the problem, or have not resolved it - dive back in at STEP 1.

Making Decisions v. Taking Action

All emotions demand acknowledgement, investigation, and a decision. In many cases they also demand action- but not always.

This is why understanding the dynamic between the horse and the rider is essential. Right now, unless you've spent some real time developing your emotional maturity, your "horse" is untrained. You don't want it making all the decisions for you, as they won't always be in your best interests.

Let's look at an example-

I see a photo of pizza, and I am suddenly craving pizza.

  1. Accept & acknowledge. Wow, that's a pretty intense craving for pizza. I must be feeling hungry.
  2. Investigate the emotion. Why am I craving something that's not How's my nutrition today?
  3. Examine your options. You have many options - I choose not to eat pizza today, but I will plan that for my cheat day. OR, ok I deserve a special treat today, but one big slice only. OR, sure, tonight's pizza night. But tomorrow, salads. OR, I'm hungry, but I pizza is not the best choice right now- I'm going to make some rice & chicken for dinner.
  4. Make a decision. I choose not to eat pizza today. But I will plan that for my cheat day. OR, ok I deserve a special treat today, but one big slice only. OR, sure, tonight's pizza night. But tomorrow, salads.
  5. Follow through. This might mean taking an action, or it might mean doing nothing at all, depending on the situation.

Choosing to Do Nothing

In some situations it's entirely possible that the best decision is to do nothing- however this is not quite the same as emotional suppression, because you've fully acknowledged and investigated the emotion, and made a decision. In this situation you'll generally find that the emotion will diminish, but may not disappear.

You'll still be craving pizza, just less intensely.

I find the best way to deal with this kind of situation is in one of three ways-

  1. Substitute. Take an alternative action, such as to eat something that's healthier. Particularly in the case of cravings, I can usually substitute something different that is a better choice for my future.
  2. Minimize. Allow myself that craving, but minimally. One slice of pizza. One square of chocolate. One spoon of ice cream. Often, the craving is satisfied. Aversions work similarly, in that I can take small doses of the thing that scares me. Smile at a stranger, rather than try to start a conversation. Over time this type of practice benefits you and you become both emotionally and psychologically stronger.
  3. Delay. Allow myself that craving, but later. For food, cheat days are great. Video games- a limited window each day, a few times a week. Push it back, your emotional mind knows it will get to satisfy that craving, just "not yet."

How to Respond to Retrospective Emotions

When you feel strong emotions about the past, often you can no longer take any useful actions about those things.

However, it's important to check this first- "am I able to do anything about this now?" Even when the incident has passed, you may still be able to confront people, revisit a decision that was made, set boundaries, or a done other things.

If there are actions that you can take, than the emotion you're feeling is an immediate emotion, and you should approach it that way.

Responding to Retrospective Emotions

  1. Accept and acknowledge the emotion, with no judgement. Treat it like a separate thing... "I feel X." That emotion is not attacking you, it's simply your emotional brain trying to draw your attention to something.
  2. Investigate the emotion, honestly. Why am I feeling this? What was it about this experience that still triggers so much emotion for me?
  3. Identify the lesson. What is it that my brain is trying to teach me about this experience?
  4. Learn that lesson. Seek to understand the details of that new understanding, and how you would respond if you found yourself in that same situation again.
  5. Apply that new understanding in the future. That experience was significant for you. Allow it to change you, and grow you. Embrace that new understanding and apply it the next time you're able to. See how things change for you.

You will know you've succeeded if the emotion disappears soon after.

YES, amazingly, this is even true for past events. You can have emotions "trapped" even from childhood events, and discover that there are key things you did not understand about that experience. The moment you find that lesson and "get it", that emotion will disappear, and all of the negativity and stress with it.

It's an amazing experience. If you have not yet had the emotion disappear, you have not yet understood the lesson - keep digging.

Identifying the Lesson

What if I cannot find the lesson, and the emotion persists?

First, ask if there is something you can still do now about this situation. Honestly sharing your feelings with someone about a past event. Setting boundaries. Confronting someone. If those options exist, then this is an immediate emotion and you need to take that approach.

However even for past emotions, I find that sometimes the lesson is not obvious.

This is an incredible opportunity because it means that there is something in your mind, about yourself, that you do not yet fully understand.

The most useful tools I've found for identifying the lesson in a past experience are;

  • Journaling. It's a deep form of reflection that enables you to see your thoughts and emotions more objectively than simple "in your own head" reflection allows.
  • Coaching, or therapy work. Similar to journaling, except another person is involved, guiding you toward finding the answers you need.

In particular, one of the most valuable questions I've found that helps me identify "hidden lessons" is this one-

If I were in this situation again right now, and I could do anything, what would I want to do differently?

Often I instantly know the answer, and it completely changes my understanding of what my emotions were screaming about.

Try it.

Final Thoughts

Emotions should work like a heartbeat. they should rise quickly, but controlled, and they should fade quickly.

Life will be very difficult if your heart is "all on" running at full pace continuously, beating too fast and constantly overloaded.

But if you stop your heart cold and prevent it from beating, then you're dead.

Emotions follow the same logic... let them rise, respond to them straightaway, and they will fall just as quickly..

Your Horse, and Your Jockey

Ultimately, you're seeking to create the well-trained horse & expert jockey dynamic.

This is your ultimate goal for emotional maturity- but remember that this experience will be unique to you.

No two horses are the same, and no two jockeys are the same either. Your exact flavor of emotional maturity, and how your minds interact with each other, will probably be subtly different from someone else's, because it's yours.

Embrace that. Train them well, and they will serve you well.

SERIES

This article is part of the series 

Developing Emotional Maturity

.

This series is under development and further articles will be added soon.

First published on 
. Last updated on 
December 6, 2020

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      Addendum

      • Feeling hungry? Your brain thinks thinks your blood sugar is low, and you need food- or that there is an immediate opportunity for some great calories in that chocolate bar. Go get it.
      • Feeling angry? Your brain thinks that you are being threatened in some way, perhaps by an abusive boss.
      • Feeling tired? Your brain thinks that you need rest.

      Taking action

      Do, defer, delegate, delete.

      Future-focused emotions

      From the emotional mind's standpoint, I see immediate emotions as encompassing both the present moment, and future situations.

      These

      It's interesting to note that your emotions react not only to the events around us, but to our own thoughts. Why is this? Why

      can we feel anxiety about the future, even when we're only imagining it? How is it that we can "fall in love" with someone who doesn't even know our name? Our mind and our imagination are very powerful and they have a huge influence on our emotional state.

      This is because it's our rational mind ( the "jockey" ) that has the ability to predict the future.