Did You Grow Up Too Fast? The Myth of Premature Maturity
The little girl with no needs. The little boy who takes care of mom. Premature maturity, is in fact, no escape from having needs or needing to be taken care of. It is not an escape from being a child, and it is in fact, not often maturity at all. Premature maturity is something else more painful: it is our childish attempt to buy (negotiate) a sense of security in a world of confusion, chaos, pain, death, illness, and feelings of loneliness and abandon. If we are just mature enough, maybe someone will care, will love us, will help us. Or if we are just strong enough, maybe the family can stay together, mom can get better, dad will love us, we’ll find our place in life.
Clients often come to me indirectly because, for one reason or another – death, illness, addiction in the family, neglect, abuse, or other acute or sustained trauma, however major or minor – their childhoods weren’t really childhoods, and now as adults they are fighting every day against the unrecognizable shadow of the child who has remained stuck in them, unable to move or express himself fully, and still feeling guilty and ashamed about the very aspects that make them as adults, well, childish. These are nice people, they want to succeed, they want to be good parents, they want to be kind and do meaningful work in the world, but they self-sabotage in spite of their efforts, and they often find themselves turning in painful circles.
It is said that nothing is forgotten, and I do believe this is true. Years ago, I discovered the work of Alice Miller, a Swiss psychologist who eloquently treated this very point in her seminal works, including The Body Never Lies, The Truth Will Set You Free, and The Drama of the Gifted Child. Miller eloquently demonstrated that just because we decide (or are forced) to be “mini-adults” as children does not mean we cut our “childishness” out of ourselves like an unwanted part, a piece of trash, or some sort of disease. Being a child necessarily means being weak, vulnerable, and needy, and it also means being curious, non-judgmental, non-“accomplishing”, fully present in the now, unconcerned about the future, money, and economic growth, and impressing the world. But to the extent that we believed as children that our “childish” aspects were unwelcome in our world (or, that only “adult” aspects were valued), that is the extent to which we disowned those “childish” parts of ourselves and tried, unsuccessfully, to escape or destroy them. Though we may have believed we succeeded in the short term, escaping and destroying are never positive long-term solutions.
And if this false negotiation “gets us through” our childhood, it certainly becomes a big albatross around our neck as adults. Not having needs, not feeling the right to be vulnerable, compulsively needing to take care of other adults, not being able to enjoy the moment, not being able to stop worrying about money or impressing others, not being able to drop our judgments and see clearly – all of these things kill the joy of being, and they certainly don’t offer to negotiate us anything very positive in our adult lives. Worse, if we have children, these “qualities” we once considered “mature and strong points” become the very qualities that will pressure our own children into repeating the painful cycle of repression (self-denial).
I have never met a client who wants to repeat this cycle for his children, nor who wants to keep living it for himself. But it’s a hard cycle to break. To break it means that we must face our shadow – the aspects of ourselves that were once so undesirable or unsustainable in our early lives – and become like children again: that is, to be needy and vulnerable, to awaken our curiosity, to learn to be fully present in the now, to learn to drop our judgments, to be trusting about the future, and more concerned about finding joy than about making an impression. We must learn to love – or at minimum respect – the parts of ourselves we have hated and despised for so long. We must, as Miller points out, learn to admit the reality of who we are – including the “childish” aspects that have always been present within us, and will continue to be present within us until we die. And while we seem to admit without shame that the elderly often become once again like children –both who are needy and dependent upon others to stay alive, we seem to want to consider ourselves able, mature, and in a perpetual state of perfection. It’s not realistic, it’s not human, and it’s not honest.
Miller asks that we face the truth of our childhoods, of our humanity, of the unmet needs of our vulnerable “childish” selves, so that we can break the chains of our false “maturity.” She asks us to break the cycle of passing down this horrible and destructive heritage to our children. She asks us to decide that “enough is enough” in terms of the guilt and shame we carry for having normal human needs. When we stop “negotiating” ourselves through denial of our own truth, we can finally be free to be human, to find joy in imperfection, and to walk the path of true self love, love for others, and belonging – just as we are. Will everything fall apart? Will we fail? Will others hate or reject us as a result? My own story testifies the contrary. My clients’ stories do as well. In fact, everything I have lived until now has revealed an opposing rule – that “success,” meaning, and belonging begin at the moment of truth.
For more information, see www.alice-miller.com