Lately I’ve been observing people in a way that intrigues me. For years, I’ve been watching friends, clients, family members and anyone who comes across my path (including myself) and wondering if the behaviors I see in them represent a ‘stuckness’ or frozen-in-time aspect of their person. Specifically, I think many of us experienced one or more traumas early in life that caused us to remain locked into the emotional state of that chronological age. In other words, I think many of us have never grown up. We’re still using the emotional skill set of a five year old, or a twelve year old, or a nineteen year old—wherever we somehow allowed ourselves to get stuck. I’ll include myself in this category…in some ways I can still relate to various traumas from earlier times and see how they’re still affecting who I am and how I behave at this time.
In my thinking, probably most of us can relate to two specific times when we were traumatized: puberty and moving on from high school. These were two tough times for most of us. When we hit puberty, uncertainty was the rule. Am I good enough? Do I look like the rest of the gang? Do I blend in, or stick out? Then as we left school, either from graduation or dropping out, something else happened…for the first time for most of us, we were really on our own. No one was now taking care of us, paying our bills, making sure there was food on the table and clean socks in the drawer. Something inside many of us then decided to shut down, to regroup around that which was familiar, develop our coping skills that we never turned loose…we allowed ourselves to get stuck in one of these times. Perhaps we never got over our grief at having to learn to take care of ourselves, or our ‘not good enough’ of puberty.
Obviously, any age can be the age where one is traumatized and gets stuck…borderline personalities, for example, have often had the loss of a parent or special person at an early time, somewhere around three years of age. Can it be that part of that borderline personality is their inability to develop past that loss? Can it be that in some ways they’ve never gotten past the three year old’s needs that were unfulfilled?
Years ago a colleague told me she really didn’t want to be touched by another colleague; something about him just felt ‘wrong’ to her. I suggested to her that she see him as an adolescent; what I called ’50 (physical age), going on 13 (emotional age)’. Once she realized that his emotional age was stuck around 13 and he therefore behaved like an adolescent boy, and gave him some slack, she began to really both like him and appreciate his work. I recently observed a couple with a two year old child; as they were having marital difficulties, one and then the other had to become more responsible for the child in single parent mode. As one parent seemed to be stuck emotionally somewhere in the three year old range, and the other at around eight, who is a fit parent? Too many of us seem to be living with the baggage of the old personality challenge, unresolved.’
It’s an intriguing realization to observe others or more especially the self, and see if one can pinpoint roughly where their emotional clock stopped…to discern what the ratio of physical age to emotional age is. Often just framing the question allows one to see another, and the self, as ‘emotionally very young, physically much older’.
And again, I’m very aware I don’t have my baggage resolved either…I still seem to be stuck around that adolescence and its attendant ‘not good enough’ attitudes. But I believe stopping to think about what traumas we’ve each experienced, how they affected us at the time and how they’re still affecting us will allow us to decide if perhaps it’s time to ‘grow up’ emotionally and catch up to the physical age.
So what about it? Where are you, emotionally, and how does it match your chronological age? Is it time to make changes?