When I was in kindergarten, stepping through my piano teacher’s front door felt like entering another universe. I was excited to learn a new language and show off my developing skills to others. Eight years later, I dreaded my weekly lesson. I had stopped practicing, and every week I was struck by temporary amnesia. I believed I could just show up and sight-read my way through increasingly difficult pieces. My progress stalled, and I quit before high school.
Working on being a more mature human, especially in your family, is a lot like playing an instrument. If you’re only calling your parents once a month, or making a single “duty visit” home for the holidays, you may find yourself clunking and wincing your way through relationships.
Many people come to therapy wanting to force maturity upon themselves or others. But I have never met anyone who could make themselves calmer and less reactive by sheer willpower, any more than I could make myself a great pianist by my deep desire to not embarrass myself in front of my teacher.
We can’t sight-read our way through important relationships if we want them to be calmer, more mature, and frankly more interesting. A life led by principle, instead of fear or worry, is often the sum of a great deal of time spent observing, evaluating, and interrupting your anxious functioning. Aka, you gotta practice.
Observing – Curiosity is often the starting point for change. But we usually go into our families, our workplace, or the Internet ready to blame, attack, or avoid. The willingness to observe how you and others function in response to anxiety engages a different part of your brain (one that promotes objectivity and problem solving) than the lizard brain that will attack or avoid.
Evaluating – Once you’ve noticed how your immaturity gets the best of you, it can be useful to ask yourself, “Who do I actually want to be?” Without guiding principles for mature, alternative functioning, it’s almost impossible to override your autopilot. Especially in your family.
Interrupting – You must be willing to not do what would normally to manage anxiety. So if you rely on blame, gossip, superficial conversation, or other strategies to survive challenging relationships, you have test out what it would look like to pause these behaviors and strengthen your own capacity to live out your principles. To think and act for yourself.
Most people want to skip straight to the interrupting. They want to come to therapy a few times and waltz into Thanksgiving, or a wedding, or a board meeting like a shiny new person. But being in the room with a coach or therapist does not make one more mature. Half an hour every week with my piano teacher certainly didn’t make me a great musician.
The hard truth is that it takes years of observing, evaluating, and interrupting to be a more mature human. We can’t sight-read or strong-arm ourselves into being anything different. We’re too hard-wired by evolution and our families to do what we always do. But a lifetime of being curious about yourself, and being curious about who you might become, can help you inch towards maturity.
I’d like to think that I’m better at working on myself than I was at practicing the piano. Yet many days I will show up to an anxious group of humans having done little to no thinking about the person I want to be in those relationships. But when I do manage to gain a millimeter or two of objectivity or calmness, it reinforces the idea that the slow, hard work of being a self is absolutely worth it.
It this sounds appealing to you, feel free to look through my newsletter archive for more thoughts about learning to calm down and grow up. You can also preorder my book, Everything Isn’t Terrible, which walks you through the process of observing, evaluating, and interrupting anxious behaviors in your family, at your work, and in the broader world.
Happy Labor Day! Cheers to the hard work of growing up.