ONE spring afternoon some sixteen years ago, a staff psychologist at a Nebraska mental hospital summoned me to his office for a follow-up consultation about the battery of psychological tests which I had taken as an incoming alcoholic patient. I dreaded the interview, as I did almost any discussion which focused on my personal shortcomings and problems.
But the psychologist was tactful and knew how to present an unpleasant truth in the most digestible form possible. He told me some things which helped me understand why I had been in trouble. Most important, he brought me to see that I suffered deeply from emotional immaturity. "You have a difficulty that is common to the majority of Americans," he said, scanning my file folder. "Emotional immaturity. Some people handle it differently than you did and therefore have less grief with it. But they have basically the same disturbance. In your case, emotional immaturity externalized as a severe drinking problem. This is not all to the bad, for it's at least an indication that you were trying to resolve your conflicts."
His method of explaining my problems took much of the sting out of the term "emotional immaturity"--a designation that I would have found frightening otherwise. I hated any suggestion that I was somehow less adequate or less mature than others. Ironically, much of my immature and absurd behavior had actually been produced by a frantic desire to prove that I was acceptable and equal to others. But ever since my discussion with this psychologist, I've never had much trouble accepting "emotional immaturity" as a basic problem which I must constantly recognize and overcome. Apparently many immature people are able to live with considerable comfort and even happiness. Alcoholics, however, are in the group of immature people whose problems cause endless misery for themselves and for others. Drinking problems and patterns may have a lot of diversity, but the one common characteristic of alcoholics, so say the experts, is emotional immaturity.
In groping for methods and ideas that would aid me in my own search for maturity, I've read books and articles dealing with the subject. The best source of help, of course, has been AA. After sixteen years of steady activity in AA as well as constant outside reading and study, I'm sure that I've made substantial progress. Yet I'm often reminded that the journey has only begun, that the goal of arriving at true maturity always lies somewhere out in the future.
Progress you can measure
Progress towards that goal, however, is possible and measurable. How do you know when you're arriving at a new level in the growth towards maturity? I would define such a realization as a deep conviction of personal freedom; the individual becomes conscious of being free from the limitations, uncertainty and anxiety that always resulted from his own uncontrollable emotions and impulses.
It is rather surprising that freedom should define maturity in my thinking today, for I sought complete freedom when I drank and often thought I had it. But this too was immaturity, for what I called freedom was not real freedom at all. It was only irresponsibility and the wish to avoid any obligation, unpleasantness or discomfort. Now I'm sure that the freedom of maturity is a state of mind and spirit more than anything else, and it is available to anybody who truly seeks it; the prisoner in his cell can find it, for it does not depend on outer conditions which usually characterize "freedom." Members of AA can find it more easily than most other people, because accepting and practicing the Twelve Steps and activity in the AA Fellowship naturally result in emotional growth.
I like some of the ideas in a paper called "A Look at Emotional Maturity," issued by a college in southern Michigan. The authors of the paper point out that many individuals who seek freedom of action in certain areas may actually be reacting as a result of fears which they never could quite face. As an example, they cite the case of great-grandfather back in the last century, who drove strangers off his land at gunpoint or solved the problem of bothersome neighbors by pulling up stakes and moving west. These actions, though daring and bold on the surface, may have been a form of running away; great-grandfather might not have been free where it really counted--in his own mind. In other words, he may have been the slave of his own emotional immaturity.
The authors of the paper regard maturity as effective or adequate adaptation to inner and outer stress and strain. The lack of sufficient maturity, they say, is most commonly revealed in stress situations by reactions which they term "fear," "flight" and "fight." The reactions of alcoholics certainly belong in these groupings.
As an illustration of an immature reaction which involves both "fear" and "flight," the authors cite the case of a store manager who arrived at work on a Monday morning to discover that his failure to adjust the refrigeration at Saturday's closing had caused the spoilage of frozen foods. His reaction? He simply relocked the store and fled, not to be found until late afternoon. Meanwhile an assistant arrived at work and solved the problem.
In another case studied, an executive would blow up on the job and fly into temper tantrums. For several days afterward he would sneak into his own office by a private entrance, seeing only his secretary. And in still another case of personal immaturity--one which might be termed the "fight" method of reacting--a machine shop foreman would throw things and shout obscenities at a workman who had made a mistake.
Of course these victims of immaturity--like alcoholics--usually lead troubled lives and, in actual practice, have far less freedom to control their affairs than do emotionally stable people. The immature person's way of life, the authors of the paper say, is the way of the slave and the automaton. It is the way of failure, disappointment, misery and strife.
What to do about it? The answer, of course, lies in the direction of self-improvement, of achieving personal growth and maturity. The paper does not outline a route or offer a method such as the Twelve Steps. It does, however, suggest several qualities of character which seem to be present in mature persons. The individual's job is to face himself as he really is (personal inventory) and to seek more of the good qualities in himself, thus becoming mature or "growing up."
Not surprisingly, one condition for growth seems to be the development of definite principles as well as purpose. The paper says, "Whatever one calls it, a balanced life calls for goals, beliefs, and baselines which act as a guide for the thought and action of an individual. He can think through the what and why before he moves to the how of his conduct." An AA member who truly follows the AA way of life is certainly in this group. Such a person responds to situations, he doesn't react to them. An insult does not throw him into rage, mistakes or threats do not cause him to lose control. He remains in charge of himself. "Why should I let this other person decide what my conduct should be?" replied a man when asked why he hadn't struck back at an insult.
A second characteristic of the mature person is flexibility, the ability to roll with the punch. This is not indifference or resignation; the authors insist that the individual must keep at his best. But he should have the capacity to yield gracefully and with no great sense of personal loss when the occasion calls for it. The mature man recognizes the need for change and for accommodating himself at times to the views and wishes of others. He does not waste his time and energy in a rigid defensive effort to have his own way all the time. Self-acceptance seems to be the third quality of mature personality. The grown-up person has learned to accept himself as he is and does not lose himself in vain fantasy or a futile yearning for perfection. He knows that he is a creature of mistakes and he lives with that reality.
At the same time, however, he perceives his own possibilities for improvement and growth. He may never become perfect, but if he continues to try, he will get better. That knowledge alone is enough to lift today's efforts and problems to a higher plane in his attitude toward them.
The last quality named is courage, indispensable in the freedom of maturity. Without courage, no person could face himself in the first place, or go through the enormous personal effort and heartache that usually accompany growth. It is courage that gives the individual his forward motion.
Power to solve your problems
It may seem an oversimplification to say that a person is mature when he has principles, possesses a certain flexibility, accepts himself, and knows a measure of courage. But it's certain that this person has great freedom of choice in his approach to life. He is no longer limited to a range of actions that include only fearing, fighting, or fleeing. He has the power to solve his problems in the best possible way rather than simply reacting to them in negative ways that always make the trouble worse. He can banish fear, he can push aside the temptation to fight or to "blow up," and in a tough situation he can put down the temptation to panic and run away (which is essentially the alcoholic's temptation to take the first drink).
Little was said about a spiritual way of life in the paper by the Hillsdale College authors, but I'm convinced that it is only through spiritual growth that a person becomes truly mature. It is the spiritual way that furnishes the guidance as well as the power (knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out). Through spiritual experience, an individual grows into the kind of person whom the world calls mature. This mature person is a remarkably free person. He is free to be himself as he never could be under bondage to emotional immaturity. He is the person who has the serenity to accept the things he cannot change, the courage to change the things he can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
1*The Hillsdale College Leadership Letter, Hillsdale, Michigan, October, 1964. Issued by the Leadership Workshop and edited by Laurence J. Taylor, Vice President for Leadership Development.
M. D. B.