What does it mean to be an adult (psychologically mature)?
From the point of view of Transactional Analysis (usually abbreviated to TA) there are two answers to this question. The first answer to this is the qualities which people have in their relationships to others and the world. There are three of these qualities: awareness, spontaneity and intimacy. These form a kind of psychological health checklist. I have done a post about this recently and so won’t say anymore about this first answer to the question.
The second answer that T A gives to the question of what it means to be psychologically mature is about functioning in the present. When we are being an adult (in TA terms) we are dealing with the here and now. This means having a way of processing the past.
The past for TA is divided into two bits. The first bit is how we were as children – the thoughts, feelings and intuitions that we came up with for ourselves – including all the ways we managed our thougts and feelings to those around us. The second bit is all the stuff that we absorbed from others: all the codes of etiquette and behaviour that we just kind of absorb as we go along. We can start behaving as we did in the past at any time – we kind of go onto automatic pilot rather than dealing with the here and now. This could be throwing a temper tantrum when we can’t have what we want or doing the laundry the same way my mother did (do you separate whites and colours?)
We have a vast store of the past that we carry around with us. Some people seem to mostly use the past as a series of programs that they call on in order to live. Some people seem to have an aphorism for every situation, others find that new situations are scary because they don’t have a program to call on. If a person has a rich and diverse range of programs to call on then they may be able to draw on the past almost completely. They will rarely need to be in the here and now. They will also learn little and be stuck when the world or their relationships change (which they tend to do). Those who live from the past tend to have lives that become more narrow over time.
To behave as an adult means having a way of bringing the past into touch with the here and now. If we are able to access it then our past is a rich resource. We usually do this not by dealing with ‘our past’ as one big thing but as one little thing at a time. For instance, when we get married we may discover there are different ways of doing the dishes. Both people did it in their own way in the past. Now they can either maintain these separate ways (one person does the dishes, of they do different parts of the job, or they alternate doing the dishes) or they need to find a way to bring their past ways of doing it into contact with the here and now reality (which involves the other person). They need a way of talking about things like: what makes sense, what is efficient, personal likes and dislikes and perhaps other things to. Preferences about little things like this can be surprisingly strong. This is a small example but it can apply to more significant things to: how money is spent, how conflict is resolved, how children should behave (the list is just about endless).
It may not be from another person being different to us that we learn about our past. It may happen on our own. We may find that something we keep doing has a bad outcome for us. Perhaps (like me) this is not knowing and feeling comfortable with the social niceties. Or a particular habit of eating or exercising leads us to being less healthy than we would like. The way we behaved in the past and the stuff we just absorbed along the way doesn’t work as well for us as we would like.
Here is a simple process for up-dating the past that I hope is simple and general enough for most things. (If you find in this process that you are surprised by the strength of the feelings that come up then don’t push yourself because you feel that you should. If you get surprised then stop and consider getting support either from friends or by paying someone.)
1. What is it that I don’t like, or want to improve?
2. What is getting in the way?
3. What are my feelings? If there are bad feelings: what do I need to do so that I have good feelings?
4. What are my thoughts? Do I need to learn something because I just simply don’t know how to do what I want to do? Do I have thoughts that are getting in the way? Perhaps critical thoughts or judgements about myself? (These judgements are usually unrealistic. If you feel that they are both realistic and justified talk them over with someone that you trust.)
5. How can I deal with what is getting in the way?
6. What I will do. This could be a simple initiative (I’ll learn a polite way to answer the phone) or an extensive study plan to learn how to handle a whole new dimension of my experience (eg to learn oil painting).
I realise this is a huge topic. I’d like to hear your experiences of when you have realised the need to update your past – and how you have done it. Please let me know in the comments section at the end of this post.
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