Psychological Maturity

Tal Ben-Shahar


A friend recently asked me to define psychological maturity. After some reflection I said that it’s the ability to willingly shift perspectives in time and in space, the capacity to appropriately choose between engagement in the here and now and awareness of the big picture. While this definition does not fully capture the nature of psychological maturity, it does pinpoint an important aspect of it.

The here and now, present perspective, pertains mostly to our emotions; the big picture, long-term perspective, is associated with our rationality. Rationality is about having an integrated view of temporal and spatial reality. When deciding on the appropriate action, a rational person considers the impact of his behavior beyond his immediate surrounding (spatial dimension); when making decisions he looks beyond the present and integrates lessons from the past and projections of the future (temporal dimension). For the rational person, the "there and then" informs, and merges with, the here and now.

The here and now and the big picture perspectives are appropriate at different times. For example, when I make love I want to be fully present in the present: I want to experience every motion, emotion, and sensation without thinking about my bills or the war in the Middle East. When I listen to music, I want to be able to surrender to the beauty, to my emotions, and to relish every stanza and note.

At other times I might want to take a step back and evaluate the situation from afar. For example, when another driver cuts me off and I feel enraged, I should not apply my uncensored vocabulary to the driver’s mother and initiate a fight or cause an accident. Rather than reacting to my emotions it would be more appropriate to look at the situation as a whole and understand that nothing good will come out of an angry reaction. As Aristotle says, "Anyone can become angry. That is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way—this is not easy." When we feel anger we can become slaves to our passions and react emotionally, or we can choose to take a more expansive view and exercise restraint.

It is more difficult to take a step back and evaluate a situation rationally than to surrender to the present and react to our (positive or negative) emotions. For example, many adults, and many more teenagers, are not mature enough to consider the long term consequences of unprotected sex when in the throes of passion. I have heard of a few people who committed a crime of passion—who proposed marriage while making love to a person they knew was wrong for them.

More severe crimes of passion occur when a person experiences, in the words of Daniel Goleman, an emotional arrest. For example, a person who had just been insulted, unable to see anything beyond the here and now, attacks his offender without thinking. While he might regret his action later—possibly for the rest of his life—at the time of the attack no other alternative seemed possible. Men who abuse their wives often regret their action after they cool down, but while committing the crime they see no other course of action. We all get angry at times, but some act on their immediate feelings, and others are mature enough to take a deep breath and a step back.

We have to find the right balance between immersion in the present and taking a step back to reflect, between surrendering to the here and now and rising above the immediate situation. While a life of mere whim and emotion cannot fully satisfy a human being, neither can a life of constant evaluation and repressed emotions. While I agree with Socrates who said that "the unexamined life is not worth living," a trap of over analysis—one that I fall into often—is that we live the examination more than we live life.

We automatically shift perspectives between the rational and the emotional. The distinguishing characteristic of a mature person, however, is his control over the process—his ability to willingly (as opposed to unwillingly, i.e. reactively) zoom in to the immediate experience and zoom out and focus on the big picture. We all react emotionally to a situation, but the mature person quickly recognizes his reactions and evaluates whether it is appropriate to the situation or not. Similarly, it’s part of human nature to think and analyze, but the mature person knows when analysis is unnecessary and detracts rather than enhances the quality of his life.

Another element of psychological maturity, pointed out to me by the Philosopher Mihnea Moldoveanu, is the capacity for transpersonal shift in perspective. Babies are unable to see the world through others’ eyes; a mature adult can put himself in another person’s situation. There are, of course, degrees of maturity. Some adults are only capable of seeing the world through the eyes of those closest to them, such as their families, while others can transcend time and space in the interpersonal realm—to understand those from other ideological camps, who hold different opinions, and who come from different cultures and eras. While the mature adult does not necessarily have to agree with all those whose perspective he gains, he can still see the world from their vantage point and is better equipped to communicate with them through a common language.

The highest level of psychological maturity comes in the form of detachment; not detachment in the sense of not caring, but in the sense of being unbias in judging one’s own and other people’s ideas and beliefs. When we are able to take a step back and observe our ideas and beliefs, we can see that our life and the lives of others would be better off if we identify the right path, not if we prove ourselves right. We assume a genuine openness to ideas, a genuine desire, as Moldoveanu would say, to put truth above being correct. We no longer see those with different opinions as threatening, but as fellow apprentices to the truth. Rather than defensive, we become open toward conflicting views and generous toward those who disagree with us.

Taking the broad perspective does not make us relativists. We do not need to assume a postmodernist or nihilistic approach where anything goes, where all ideas are equally valid (and hence equally meaningless). We can still believe and argue that a certain idea is right and another is wrong, the difference being that when we evaluate other points of view we do it from a less bias perspective that perceives conflicting views as potentially helpful rather than necessarily threatening. When we take a step back we open ourselves up to a genuine dialogue about our ideas and beliefs: We evaluate them philosophically (guided by reason) rather than psychologically (guided by emotion).

It is important to point out, once again, that it’s not just the ability to transcend time and space that is important, but the ability to shift along a continuum of perspectives—depending on the specific situation, the mature adult can take the perspective of his family, the neighborhood, his country, or the world. Some people can identify with others who are far from them in a rational manner, in the abstract, but cannot connect emotionally with those close to them. At the extreme of this phenomenon are those who cherish mankind and loathe man, proclaiming universal love while hurting those closest to them. These people are incapable of shifting perspectives, and therefore are anything but mature; they are like the person who can only think about the big picture, the future, without ever enjoying the here and now, the present.

The common thread to all shifts in perspective—whether an interpersonal shift or a shift between rationality and emotions—is our ability to be conscious of consciousness. Most of us, most of the time, look from the inside out—we are aware of our immediate surrounding, that which takes place around us and outside us. While functioning at this level is necessary for dealing effectively with the world, it is, at times, beneficial to evaluate ourselves—our behaviors, attitudes, and emotions—from the outside in. When doing so, we assume a more objective perspective: rather than reacting to a situation from the inside, subjectively, we take a step back and evaluate the subject (our own consciousness, beliefs, and ideas) from the outside, objectively.

In a sense, we treat ourselves as we treat others: we consider our consciousness as an object, as we consider the consciousness of others. Is my behavior moral? Are my attitudes rational? Are my emotions appropriate? This additional vantage point provides us a richer, more complete perspective on ourselves—one that is conducive to change and growth. While we can never go outside of ourselves entirely—even our evaluations of consciousness come from our consciousness—we can still gain higher levels of awareness and self knowledge: Rather than reacting and being slaves to our subjective constitution, we gain control and choose the course of action we deem most rational, moral, and appropriate.

So what does a psychologically mature person look like? Or rather, what does it feel like, from within, to be psychologically mature? This person knows when to act and when to reflect, when to let his hair lose and when to distance himself from a situation, when to reason, and when to simply feel. This person is light. He does not carry the burden of having to prove himself constantly and does not feel attached to his beliefs and ideas. Looking for the truth is more important to him than looking good. He is the interdependent self that I talk about in my theory of self-esteem, the person who simply and genuinely exists.

Over the years our ability to willingly shift perspectives develops to a greater or lesser extent, and we mature. But how can we expedite the maturing process and cultivate this ability? Learning to willingly shift perspectives is a skill, and like any other skill the only way to hone it is through practice: Practice in surrendering to the here and now, practice in projecting ourselves in time and space. A mental exercise that I found useful for cultivating the ability to shift perspectives is to simply ask myself how I would feel about a certain situation in the future. If, for example, I feel disproportionally upset following a small mistake I made at work, I ask how I would feel about this error ten years hence. Taking the long term perspective can help me respond in a more rational, proportional way. At the same time, I don’t want to forgo the present experience for the long term perspective and thereby trivialize potentially meaningful and gratifying experiences. The challenge is to find the appropriate level of engagement for each given context.

If we invest conscious effort and keep on reminding ourselves about the importance of shifting perspectives, we gain more and more control over our lives. For example, over time, we learn to take a step back and become aware when an emotional reaction is inappropriate. And then we learn to let go of control, to flow with our emotions to the right degree and at the right time.

Another way of cultivating the ability to shift perspectives is through guided visualization. The more we practice imagining ourselves from different perspectives, the more it becomes a habit, and the more we are able to do it at will. We can, in our minds eye, take a step back and see us and others for what we really are—fellow apprentices to the truth. We can imagine ourselves across time, and then see what the truly important things in life are. We become mature by practicing maturity.

While some twenty year olds are mature, having cultivated their ability to shift perspective, and others in their seventies are not, there is, on the whole, a correlation between age and maturity. Time is an uncompromising teacher. We often hear old people saying that they have only recently learned how to live life. Unlike young people who often allow little episodes to aggravate and consume them, older people are able to project themselves above the situation, look beyond the immediate time and place, and, in the words of Irvin Yalom, "trivialize the trivial." At the same time, they can also immerse themselves in the here and now and derive immense pleasure from a walk in the park, or an afternoon with their grandchildren.

Young people should learn from their elders, especially from those who seem to be happy. The problem is that in the information age the nature of education has changed and, especially in our culture, the word "elder" is no longer associated with the word "wisdom." Because technological knowledge becomes obsolete before the ink dries—or the spellchecker has run its course—the order of nature has been reversed and the young are teaching the old. Generalizing from "technological knowledge" to "all knowledge" many young people, believing that they have all the answers, do not respect the wisdom of the old or appreciate the value of life experience. Part of being young is being arrogant, but because of the fast and unprecedented rate of progress in our world today the phenomenon has never before been so extreme.

It is important that we, young and old, realize that some knowledge is timeless—human nature is relatively stable and does not evolve at the pace of the revolution brought about by the microprocessor. We can, therefore, learn from the experience of those who have been around longer. One of the many gifts of old age, of experience, is perspective. Young people should ask their elders what they have learned from life, from their mistakes and their triumphs. And while there are, often, no shortcuts, and some lessons must be learned through personal experience, we can still acquire important knowledge from those with perspective that can make our journey more enjoyable—for ourselves, and for that driver who had just cut us off.