Rates of human physical development have accelerated in recent years, but many of us are maturing much later than we used to on other important dimensions, such as “getting it” with respect to what life is all about.
A composite of various dictionary accounts defines maturity as having completed the natural growth and development process and possessing the attributes and qualities of adulthood. This description seems straightforward enough, but because growth and development in human beings occurs along so many dimensions — physical, mental, emotional, and psychological — becoming a mature adult is really a fairly sophisticated and variable process. Just because a person has attained maturity on one dimension doesn’t automatically mean they have fully blossomed. Researchers tell us that for reasons not yet fully known, rates of human physical development (e.g., average age of puberty onset) have accelerated in recent years. But there’s also some evidence that many of us are maturing much later than we used to on other important dimensions. During my years of active practice as a therapist, I encountered more than my fair share of clients who were just finally “getting it” with respect to what life is all about — and how to deal with its demands in a healthy, functional manner in what used to be considered later midlife. (Some examples of this are featured in my books Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?) and The Judas Syndrome [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?).) So, when we talk about functioning as a conscientious, responsible adult (i.e., reaching “character maturity”), one would have to wonder: could 50 be the new 30?
The folks I’ve worked with whose character development was significantly arrested generally fell into two categories: those who never acquired the skills or learned the lessons they needed to grow into mature adults (i.e., those who simply didn’t yet know any better) and those who had actually known better for some time but for various reasons, usually related to personality predispositions, habitually resisted taking the better course. Those in the second category often solidified some pretty bad habits along the way that further impeded their ability to reach full maturity. Each of these kinds of individuals presents in a very different manner in therapy and poses different challenges. I’ve written about the latter group often (see, for example: “Disturbed Characters: Can They Ever Really Change?”), so I thought I’d say a few things about the former.
Not too long ago, I worked with a gentleman who had never really grown up. His character was underdeveloped on several fronts. Many would likely have regarded him as a pain to work with or live with. He’d come from a very large family in which he primarily had to fend for himself in many ways. He simply fell under the parents’ discipline and guidance radar, so to speak. It was remarkable to me how insightful he was about the nature of his difficulties. He could recite by heart and with perfect understanding just about every “tactic” I describe in In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?). I was struck by how casually and matter-of-factly he enumerated his dysfunctional behaviors, from lying often and in various ways to always having excuses for and blaming others for personal failures. He knew he’d been manipulative and irresponsible for most of his life. But he’d now come to the point that he was hungry for some guidance.
It became clear early on how extraordinarily my client’s dysfunction in life had been “enabled” in so many ways by so many people and circumstances. He was unreliable on just about every job he’d held, but company policies made it really hard to readily dismiss him. He also had a string of failed relationships, but his charm and fairly good looks always seemed to secure him a new relationship with ease. In large measure, he never “got it” with respect to what the demands of responsible living are all about because he didn’t have to. All of his maladaptive behaviors seemed to be working for him. Only recently had things begun going south, so he was finally finding some reasons to question his usual ways. But even though he had a hunch he would need to do many things quite differently, he had no idea how he would ever do so (having done things in certain ways a long time) or how he would even start. Still, he had some extra motivation to try, because in addition to the fact that many things hadn’t been going well, he’d met someone who, for the first time in his life, he cared about in a deeper, more meaningful way, and she wasn’t ready to take their relationship to the next level unless he demonstrated a commitment to grow up. It was a pleasant surprise to me to find him both willing to subject himself to the authoritative direction he needed and appreciative of the guidance he was afforded to do that very thing.
We have to be neurobiologically “ready” for the stages of maturation to proceed smoothly. We have to be receptive to acquiring the skills necessary to respond adaptively to various environmental influences. When all the factors are optimal, one would expect folks to enter their thirties as fairly mature adults. But that is increasingly not the case. It would take much more than one article to enumerate all the sociocultural factors that so often arrest the maturation process and “enable” character dysfunction in our times. Complacency and tolerance are certainly a big part of the picture. But there are numerous other factors as well. In the end, however, it always comes down to the issue of “cost.” Basically, folks grow up when the costs of remaining developmentally “arrested” (or, more specifically, character-challenged) get too high and the potential benefits of “getting with the program” become more clear, attractive, and tangible. When someone thinks they’re already “winning” in the game of life, they have little reason to change their game. But when they find themselves losing and come to believe it might be in their better interest to think about and do things differently, they’re more amenable to learning. It’s in that learning that growth occurs. It’s a growth that’s often both slow and more than a bit painful, which is why reinforcement for the effort a person puts forth is so essential.
In one respect, it seems a shame that it’s taking some of us so long to grow up. The overall costs to society of character dysfunction are significant. But we’re all living much longer these days. Some even say that 80 is the new 60. So even someone who’s only “gotten it” in their 50’s most likely still has ample time and opportunity to make a meaningful contribution. Perhaps they can even share their wisdom with those coming after them and help make 30 the next 50.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by