The Difference Between Grown-Ups and "Adult-Children"
I’ve never understood why people look back so longingly on youth. Innocence and flawless skin have their merits, but adulthood is way more fun. We grown-ups have all the advantages that come with being physically coordinated and legally employable: We can drive, shop, hike, demand anesthesia, go to the zoo just because we damn well want to. Generally speaking, growing up is pretty great.
The problematic part is that some of us don’t quite finish the job. We may appear to be confident, competent adults, but at heart we’re actually angst-ridden, helpless kindergartners. A friend of mine calls these fragile souls adult-children.
If you think you might be an adult-child, I highly recommend treating yourself to a little therapy. (You can! You’re an adult!) That’s what helped me finally step into my grown-up shoes. Here are the best ways to do the same, based on the lessons I’ve learned; maybe they can help you grow up, too.
Trust your inner truth over anyone’s opinion.
When people ask me to sum up my most important advice, I all but bellow two words: “Trust yourself!” This seems so simple, but so very few people do it. We ignore our built- in sensor that says, This is true. That is not. Instead, like children, we live the way other people tell us to.
You may believe that you don’t have the good judgment to decide what’s right for you, but consider this: Even when you obey an external authority, you’re making the choice to do so. Choosing what and whom you believe is your inescapable responsibility, so own it. Examine everything you hear. Weigh it against your innate sense of truth. Then do what feels right, even if it goes against someone else’s grain. You weren’t allowed to do that as a kid. You are most definitely allowed to do it now.
Get comfortable with being wrong.
Paradoxically, trusting ourselves works best when we’re willing to acknowledge that we might be wrong. Children know they still have a lot to learn, so they don’t usually take it too personally when a grown-up corrects them. But as grown-ups ourselves, we tend to bristle when someone points out that we’re wrong or uninformed. Our minds are made up, our egos entrenched. Being confronted with our errors makes us prickly.
The antidote to this is seeking disconfirmation—that is, genuinely hoping to figure out where we’re getting things wrong. Seeking disconfirmation is the fastest way to learn, whether you want to master a new subject or understand another person. I like to say “Tell me where I’m wrong” whenever I state something I don’t absolutely know to be true (which is most of the time). Try it yourself. If you’re not wrong, people will be pleasantly disarmed. If you need correction, your ego may sting for a minute—but true grown-ups know this is a small price to pay for real learning, connection, and growth.
One of the most important skills children are supposed to learn from loving adults is self-soothing. By internalizing TLC from our caretakers and others, we develop an inner comforter, a gentle voice of kindness that quiets us whenever we’re stressed, for the rest of our lives. If we didn’t get this reassurance in childhood or were unable to absorb it, we don’t have that calming inner voice. Instead, when times are tough—and when aren’t they?—we fall apart or use unhealthy substitutes for peace of mind: junk food, alcohol, spending sprees, cow tipping, anything that distracts us from our feelings.
If you have persistent bad habits and chronic dark moods, chances are you never developed the high-functioning inner comforter of a mature adult. Don’t blame yourself (that’s the first thing an inner comforter would say). Seek out people, books, poems, movies, songs, AA meetings, and any other healthy source that calms you, and connect with them every day. When life gets hard, you may eventually hear compassionate words—grown-up words—bubbling up in your head rather than self-criticism and a hankering for vodka.
Stay in your own business.
Trying to live other people’s lives, shape their opinions, and direct their actions is a classic mode for folks who haven’t quite grown up. It quickly reduces us to feeling like powerless, pitiful children because (as every real grown-up realizes) trying to control anyone is a doomed enterprise. What you think about the world is your business. What others think about the world is not. People’s political or religious views, their taste in clothes, their decision to eat organic kale or blood sausage—all of these are ultimately beyond your control.
When we focus on ourselves, fixing what’s broken inside us and rejoicing in what isn’t, life becomes simpler, more relaxed and loving. We may even start to enjoy interacting with people whose choices or beliefs are different from ours. Staying in our own business allows us to love unconditionally—a crucial grown-up skill if ever there was one.
Respond, don’t react.
If someone offends you and you firmly object, that’s a response. If you burst into tears, fall into despair, or smack her across the face, that’s a reaction. Immature people tend to encounter emotional triggers, have intense emotional reactions, and never question their own behavior. Real grown-ups, by contrast, take responsibility (literally speaking, the ability to respond) for their attitudes and actions. They temper their reactions by drawing on their adult wisdom.
To begin responding instead of just reacting, find some privacy and then feel for what’s true, under all the drama of your emotions. At this point, your other grown-up skills will come in handy: trusting your gut, soothing your reactive self, and accepting that the only person you can change is you.
If you do these things, even sometimes, you’ll start to let go of the crying fits and temper tantrums. One day the confusion of being a little kid in a big world will be gone entirely. That’s the day you’ll stop having to look back in time to feel carefree and happy. That’s the day you’ll know you’re all grown-up.
Next time you’re feeling fussy, try this self-soothing breath exercise:
1. Place the tip of your tongue just behind your front teeth.
2. Exhale with a whoosh.
3. Close your mouth and inhale through your nose for a count of 4.
4. Hold your breath for a count of 7.
5. Exhale with a whoosh to a count of 8.
6. Repeat process three times. Baby, it’s going to be okay!
Martha Beck is the author of, most recently, Diana, Herself: An Allegory of Awakening.