You already know the bad “S” word. But there is a much worse “S” word: stupid. When this really bad “S” word gets into people’s vocabulary, they are in real trouble. This really bad “S” word begins to dominate how people think of the world…and themselves. I do my best to rid my patients of this most atrocious curse word. I would much rather that they use the other “S” word. So how does this “really bad” “S” word get into someone’s vocabulary?
I found myself saying something to a patient the other day that was one of those “My mouth said that” statements (note a previous blogs on this phenomenon). In other words, I didn’t know it until I said it. The statement was this: “You want to be grown up. You don’t want to grow up.” This means that the individual wanted to be a person of (emotional) maturity, but he didn’t want to go through the growing pains of growing up; he wanted to be grown up. You can’t just “grow up” in a heartbeat. You need to go through the growing process, which is always painful. It is painful for people to go through the process of giving up an addiction, like alcohol, food, or gambling, but no one wants to give up these things; they want to have them given up. The difference is this: having given up is an idea; giving up is reality. I am not primarily interested in giving up addictions or bad habits in this paper. I am more interested in the whole process of growing, or growing up. More specifically, I am interested in the lack of emotional maturity. The lack of emotional maturity is the heart of the psychological problems that people have. As I see it, no one wants to grow up; they want to be grown up. Furthermore, no one is perfectly emotionally mature. We all have pockets of emotional immaturity. But what is “emotional maturity”?
Most of the people I see have some kind of immaturity. Instead of saying that they are “immature,” I prefer saying that haven’t grown up…in some way. People who haven’t grown up have failed to mature in the arenas of emotions, and ultimately in social engagement. We refer to such people as suffering from “emotional/social” immaturity. In a previous blog I discussed what I call the “4-8-12” phenomenon. Most of the kids who are brought to me have this phenomenon in their make-up. The 4-8-12 phenomenon is this: the kid is eight years old physically, but he is very bright, so he is 12 years old intellectually. In other words, he has the knowledge, vocabulary, and abstract reasoning of a12-year old. Unfortunately, he has the emotional development of a four-year old, and hence he has the social maturity of a four-year old.
I saw one of these kids yesterday. He is actually 14 physically and about 18 intellectually. He doesn’t do homework because it is “stupid.” When I hear “stupid,” which I call the “S word,” I usually am in front of a person who smarter (intellectually) the people around him. He probably feels smarter than the other kids in class and very possibly smarter than his teachers. I met with his mother and him together for a few minutes, and it was obvious to me that he was smarter than his mother. I have never met his father, but his mother reported that this young man’s father is very argumentative and challenging like his son. Thus, it is likely that his father may also have the 4-8-12 phenomenon going on in his life. Maybe the father is 40 physically and 60 intellectually. It also likely that the father’s emotional/social maturity is significantly below these numbers, maybe as low as age four (emotionally and socially). It is very difficult to be smarter than the people around you, something I told this young man in the presence of his mother. After his mother left the office, I invited Tom to play something. He suggested chess, a game he has evidently played once or twice. He remembered some but not all of the allowed moves of the various chess pieces. I helped him a bit at the beginning, but after a very few minutes, he was beating me in chess. Now I am far from a grand master of chess, in fact much less than that, but I have probably played several hundred games of chess over 60-odd years. But this kid beat me having only played once or twice. That suggests that he is very bright: he learned quickly, both from his mistakes and from mine.
Unfortunately for Tom, his emotional/social maturity is far below his 14 physically and 18 intellectually levels. I place his emotional age to be eight at best, but frankly some of what he says and does is more like what we would expect from a four-year old. So this young man is 4-14-18. Can you see how this constellation of emotional, physical, and intellectual development can be problematic? It must be difficult for Tom to be in a class with a teacher who doesn’t have the intelligence that he has but perhaps has more emotional/social maturity. In History class, for instance, he might understand the historical facts quickly, and then wonder, for instance, how America justified the invasion of Iraq, Afghanistan, Viet Nam, the Philippines, or Mexico. Discussion of the justification for these wars and invasions might be very stimulating to Tom. He might be more interested in the Why of these wars than of the What. So he might ask questions in class that don’t have much to do with what happened as they relate to why they happened. This might be genuine intellectual curiosity. But if Tom is forced to write a paper on what happened in any of these wars, might demur that assignment because it is obvious what happened, whereas it is far from obvious why it happened. So Tom might avoid doing this what assignment or forget it altogether. Or he might ask why questions in class that could be frustrating to the history teacher who thinks it is more important to know what than why.
Tom might forget to do his what assignment, or refuse to do it. He might even put up some kind of fuss in class, talk to some other kid in class, or look at his cell phone. Any of these things could get him in trouble. He might do the same thing at home, refusing or forgetting to do his homework assignment. Furthermore, he might be irritable, disagreeable, or otherwise difficult because the history/homework is somewhere in the back of his mind and he is fighting off the feelings he has about the what assignment. Likely, Tom doesn’t even know why he is irritable. He just doesn’t like something. He might say that History class is stupid, or he might say that school is stupid; he might even feel that he is stupid because he can’t seem to do an assignment in History class. None of this, however, does he say. He just acts like a four-year old having some kind of tantrum or resistance or avoidance the way four-year old kids naturally do when they have to do something they don’t want to do.
So what does it mean to be emotionally immature, and what is emotional maturity? Emotional maturity is this:
Knowing how you feel
Expressing how you feel
Communicating how you feel
Governing your expressions of how you feel
o Knowing how other people feel
o Giving them liberty to express their feelings
o Valuing other people’s feelings…even though you don’t agree with them
The first order of business is to know how you feel. Emotionally immature people rush right into expressing some kind of feeling without knowing how they feel. What happens with 4-8-12 kids, as well as many emotionally immature adults, is that they jump right into some kind of emotional outburst. The 4-8-12 kid (or adult) doesn’t really know how they feel. Rather, they just rush right into some kind of emotional expression, usually anger, although sometimes silence, withdrawal, anxiety, or depression. So knowing how you feel is the beginning. This means knowing the four basic feelings:
The love feelings: joy and sorrow
The defense feelings: fear and anger
When you know how you feel, you will notice one of these feelings. It is easy to know and appreciate joy. It is much harder to know sorrow. Most people rush right through the sorrow and end up with one or both of the defense feelings of fear and anger. But if you know that you love something and know that you have lost it, you will know that you are simply sad about the loss. You have a “love problem”: you feel something (sad) singularly because you loved something and lost it. This is where most people get lost. They don’t know that they have loved something and they don’t know that they have felt sad when they lost this something. They just know that they are anxious or angry, usually angry. Emotional awareness starts with knowing what you love and knowing when you have lost something you love.
Note that there is a difference between expressing your feeling and communicating your feeling. Communicating “feelings” is extremely difficult and something that most people fail to do successfully. The problem with communicating feelings is that feelings aren’t words, and they are not thoughts. There are what we call a “third force” of human existence. When I “feel” something, there is always an emotional component, but there is also a physical component. When I feel something, I “feel” it in my chest, or my head, or maybe even my hands. Think of a time you felt “something” in your chest, hands, or head but you couldn’t put your finger on what this feeling was. This was a “feeling”: partly emotional and partly physical. But feelings also have cognitive components, and there is the problem with communicating feelings. We all try to put our feelings into cognitive words, and it rarely works. I just can’t find the right words to communicate my feelings because the words aren’t quite right. So I say things like, “I have this odd feeling but I can’t put it into words.” This “odd feeling” may be very important or just a passing fancy. So when I try to put my feelings into words, it is a struggle. This struggle is what makes human relationships so difficult. If I could magically put my feelings into words that the other person really understood, I wouldn’t be writing this blog. However, putting feelings into words is exceedingly difficult. Unfortunately, most people think it is easy, like, “I feel it, I say it, and you should understand what I feel.” Rarely, almost never. Communicating feelings is difficult and always will be. Keeps me in business.
And it keeps poets, musicians, and all artists in business. These are the guys and gals who really know feelings and don’t try to put these feelings into cogent words. Poets have “poetic license” when they write, and they work diligently on communicating feelings with words. They are the best with the possible exception of musicians who put feelings to words and music. Better yet might be the sculptors and painters who put feelings in clay and canvas. You want to learn how to communicate feelings into words, read poetry. You want to learn how to communicate feelings even better, take a pottery class or learn to play the Irish tin whistle. Or take a karate class, which puts feelings into physical action. Karate, poetry, and music lessons have helped me learn about communicating feelings without words.
After expressing feelings, and doing the hard work of communicating feelings, the job of emotional maturity is not done. Once you know your feelings, express your feelings, and get better (never perfect) at communicating your feelings, you need to learn to govern the expression of your feelings. I just spent a weekend with several family members. During these various visits I keep most of my feelings to myself. Why would I do that? Because it would not be possible to express my feelings when someone else was expressing theirs. Furthermore, the expression of my feelings would have been hurtful, or even harmful to these people whom I love. I was often sad because I so wanted to say how I felt, but I knew that I could not do that successfully because these family members would have misunderstood my feelings or concluded that I didn’t care for them. So my “containing” my feelings meant just that: I knew what I felt; I could have expressed it; but I concluded that I couldn’t adequately communicate my feelings; so I kept them to myself. Then I felt sad…because I couldn’t/shouldn’t express my feelings. And then I got over feeling sad. And now I can just love these family members.
Finally, if I contain my feelings (after knowing, expressing, and communicating them on earlier occasions), I can then move into social maturity, where I learn how to actually relate to other people. Psychological growth and emotional growth is not all about me. It is ultimately about other people. When I truly care about other people, I am socially mature. But this is another topic for another time.
1. The 4-8-12 Child, hopefully published this year, or you can read my blog
2. The Positive Power of Sadness, published this month (Praeger Press) written by Deb and me.
3. Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goldman
Much has been written about self-esteem including thousands of professional journal articles and hundreds of books. When we are discussing self-esteem, we are looking at low self-esteem, namely where one does value oneself or feels inadequate in some way, or perhaps many ways. I remember doing a project in graduate school on self-esteem looking at various aspects of it including cultural differences. I remain interested in the cultural and subcultural aspects of self-esteem particularly as it is seen in America’s subcultures. Simplistically stated, there appear to be problems with low self-esteem in the Latino, Native American, and the African-American communities. Interestingly, there does not seem to be such a difficulty in the Asian subculture and communities. Caucasians seem to fall somewhere in between these two poles with some White people liking themselves and many disliking themselves.
My psychotherapy practice is largely limited to men and children. The children I see are usually brought to me, and sometimes mandated to come to see me, because of some sort of “behavioral” problem. Perhaps they are too easily or too often angered; they may tend to throw things or hit people; they may be mean to other people; they may tend to disregard property; they may resist some or all of schoolwork; they may be regularly dishonest. Interestingly, many of these so-called behaviorally challenging children seem to have good self-esteem: they like themselves. They are often happy with themselves, and enjoy life a good bit of the time. They may laugh a lot, joke a lot, and play a lot. So this phenomenon of a very challenging child who seems to like him/herself is a challenge for any therapist and certainly for parents and teachers. The problem as I see it is that many children with high self-esteem do not have good social-esteem.
What is social-esteem? It is akin to self-esteem, in which I value myself. Social esteem is valuing other people. A truly developed person has developed many areas of life, namely development in academic pursuits, vocational pursuits, relationships, and care of property. In other words a developed person cares for him/herself in conjunction with caring for other things, particularly people. Many people, for instance, properly value property so that it can be protected, used, and possibly given away. Other people value their vocations and work as evidence of a valuing of society in general and making life better. Many more people value relationships and focus their attention on what is going on between oneself and other people. We could examine all of these different kinds of “esteem,” but my focus in this article is to focus on the social-esteem aspect, and in particular, the difficulty many kids (and many adults) have valuing other people.
Note that I said valuing other people. Valuing other peole is not the same as liking people, loving peole, seeking their approval, or finding ways to relate to them. Social-esteem is seeing another person as a creation of God and hence valuable in him/herself, something to be treasured and admired in some way. Importantly, valuing other people is good for the person doing the valuing. Ultimately, valuing other people should not be an effort. It might be effortful to like someone or love them, but valuing others should come naturally.
It is not possible to have too high a self-esteem. You can’t like yourself too much because true self-esteem naturally generates social-esteem. What happens is this: as I grow in self-esteem I consequently grow in self-awareness. If I grow in self-awareness, I will simultaneously see what is good about me and what is not so good about me. I will see what I am good at and what I am not good at. So as I grow to admire what I am good at, my self-esteem grows. And at the same time I grow in humility as I see that others are good at something that I am not good at. Humility and self-esteem are natural partners in life. So if self-esteem grows, so does humility, which is based on my awareness that I am not good at some things that other people are good at. For instance, I am not good at music, art, colors, beauty; and I am only marginally good at various physical things like athletics and carpentry. Luckily, my income is not based on my athletic skill or ability in the trades, much less on my artistic (in)ability. My self-esteem, however, is not based on plumbing and basketball, much less on my artistic skill, so I can see others who are skilled in these endeavors when I am not able to perform adequately.
Social-esteem is based on self-esteem, as well as the humility that self-esteem can engender. The Apostle Paul said that one needs to have pride in oneself (Gal. 6, 4) but also watch to avoid feeling conceited (Gal. 5.26). Psychoanalyst Karen Horney said that the true origin of envy is gratitude. In other words, she said that if I truly envy the other person for his/her ability or success, I value that achievement and that other person. And if I value that other person, I will gracefully appreciate that other person with gratitude for that person’s ability or success. I will not envy that other person thinking that I should have what he or she has because what that person has is not the same as what I have.
So how does social-esteem develop, or fail to develop? Social-esteem is based on self-esteem and self-enhancement. In other words, I need to see myself as valuable by being and doing something valuable. Real self-esteem is based on achievement and success. And success in based on trial and error, namely many trials and many errors. What we see in much of society today, and with many of the children I see, is self-esteem that is built on parental approval. Oddly, many of these very challenging kids have been loved…and loved…and loved. But they haven’t been limited; they haven’t been encouraged; they haven’t been challenged. They have been loved to a fault. And love is not enough. Indeed, love is probably the basis for self-esteem: if I am loved, I will naturally feel that I am valuable. That is the start of it, and many people do not get started in this way. But for many others, they get loved and loved and loved, but they don’t get the encouragement, limitation, and challenge to develop further self-esteem based on trials and errors.
I try to help kids build their self-esteem, usually with measures of love, limitation, encouragement, and challenge. This is difficult, if not almost impossible, in a one-hour time period. I often wish I could take the kid outside and help him learn to throw a ball, paint a picture, watch a bird fly, or write a story because it is only in doing these things that kids feel great. I use the term “great” in place of good, or even successful, because greatness is not built on better than. In that same Pauline passage I quoted above, the Apostle says to avoid thinking of yourself as better than others, just great. Too much self-esteem is built on better than someone. Desiderata says it well: “Do not compare yourself with others for always there will be persons greater and lesser persons than you.”
What can be done, especially by parents, for kids without good social-esteem? An important question, but I don’t have much of a good answer because social-esteem is based on truly valuing oneself and then naturally valuing others equally. Social-esteem comes primarily from being social, namely being in the company of others kids, some of whom are better than you, some worse than you at some skill, and all of whom are working together. This is what I think is the best ingredient of group activities, whether athletic, artistic, or communal, where kids have to cooperate with teammates to succeed. Social-esteem can also be developed in any group activity where kids cooperate with one another, challenge one another, and improve in some skill or some activity.
Social-esteem is the cure for narcissism, which simply stated, is the undue care about oneself over other people. It is natural for infants and toddlers to be “narcissistic,” namely concerned about their own welfare and success. Childhood should ideally be a time when kids are given the opportunity for cooperation and competition during which they learn that they are good at some things while other kids are good at other things. Adolescence should be a time when kids (now teenagers) try out their new found skills of self-esteem and social-esteem. Adulthood should be a time when we spend more and more time concerned about others’ development based on the value of our own success and failures.
A final word of suggestion and caution: it is not helpful to tell a kid (or anyone) that he or she “doesn’t care about anybody but him/herself.” This is just a criticism, and while largely true, it is not helpful to say or to hear. Rather, a child who, indeed, seems to care primarily about him/herself needs first to build self-esteem, first by trial and error, and subsequently by developing social-esteem. This is no easy project, but it is a way of seeing the “problem” with seemingly selfish kids find a way to have both self-esteem and social-esteem.