Conventional wisdom says other people can't affect us unless we let them. I believe that might be a form of blaming the victim...of the Emotionally Immature Relationship System. Emotionally immature people are famous for getting under people's skins and causing them frustration and distress. By clicking on the link below, you'll access a recent blog I wrote abut this topic for my publisher's newsletter. Hope you enjoy it. (If you have an EIP or two in your life, you'll probably relate to the picture!)
I haven’t posted on this blog for a while, but it has been time well spent. Today is the launch of my new book, Recovering from Emotionally Immature Parents. I am very excited by what it has to offer. My lifelong mission has been to help people become conscious of the relational impact of being involved with emotionally immature people (EIPs). I want to help people get free of the unjustified self-doubt and guilt that control them for the EIP’s psychological benefit.
My last book, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, struck a nerve and spread through word of mouth. It became an Amazon bestseller and ended up being published in several languages, including Chinese, German, Polish, Spanish, and Russian. The phenomenon of emotional immaturity seems to know no borders. Apparently adult children in other cultures are dealing with these challenging relationships as well.
Along the way, readers took the time to let me know the book had helped them greatly. Often their comments were something along the lines of “You must’ve been in my home when I was growing up.” Although I offered some suggestions in that book for how to deal with emotionally immature (EI) parents, many readers wanted more specifics. While the book had given them a way to understand and talk about these EI relationships, readers wanted to know more about what to do.
In my just-released new book, you’ll see exactly how EI parents - and all EIPs - undermine your self-confidence, your trust in the legitimacy of your inner experiences, and the nature of your very self-concept. For the new book, my psychotherapy clients also shared new stories to illustrate how EIPs take over your emotions and make themselves the center of your concern.
In the new book, I focus on specific, practical advice as well as deeper insights into the more subtle and psychologically harmful dynamics in relationships with all EIPs, not just parents. With any EIP, you will at some point find yourself drawn into feeling guiltily responsible for their self-esteem and emotional stability.
Like the previous book, Recovering from Emotionally Immature Parents is not about blaming your parents but about rescuing your potential, your confidence, and your self-concept from emotional takeovers by others. You’ll learn about the roots of emotional coercion and how we give up mental freedom and emotional autonomy in our urgency to mollify EI parents’ emotional insecurities. The book ultimately shows you how to have the kind of relationship with your parents you always wanted; one in which you finally feel free to be yourself around them. The greatest proof of any self-actualization effort is that you stay connected with yourself no matter what someone else tries to make you into.
I hope you will find what you need from this new book. In an upcoming feature on this website, I will be answering a question from a reader every month in the Q&A section. I look forward to our exchange!
Understanding emotional immaturity in your parents is not for the purpose of blaming them. Blaming does have its benefits because it clarifies the reasons for your legitimate anger and hurt. However, blame serves you best when it highlights how your old relationship with your parents is affecting your adult life. With this information, you can see how their behavior toward you might have necessitated self-protective responses that are causing problems now.
Some of the ways we protected our hearts from emotionally distant parents can get in the way of satisfying adult relationships. Many adult children of emotionally immature parents learned to withdraw emotionally in ways that can undermine the relationships they need in their adult lives. Early emotional neglect and criticism from parents can make us feel chronically inadequate, guilty, and ashamed as adults. With emotionally distant parents, we grow up unsure about whether other people will want to connect with us.
Knowing how your past still affects you is a tremendous first step forward to creating better relationships. This is the inside job part of your healing; the willingness to self-reflect and to think about how your parents’ immaturity may have affected you. Viewing your parents from an emotional immaturity perspective helps you separate an emotionally lonely past from what is possible now. This inside job part stirs up the desire for the outside help you might need.
Emotionally-based psychotherapy is the outside help that helps us heal from the emotional injuries and loneliness from such a childhood. By being in a safe therapy relationship with an encouraging and empathic helper, we can finally realize what happened to us, and why we feel the way we do. The emotional connection with a therapist helps reverse the emotional isolation we experienced early in life. This is the outside help that is so essential to healing in a deeply experiential, emotional way.
Reaching out to other people for help deepens and accelerates inner change. Our inner strength increases when we receive validation and connection from others, making it safe to fully explore our feelings. Our inside job is to be curious and motivated to learn about ourselves. Then we can reach out to other people for emotional support to change our lives for the better. It is a paradox that the change originates inside ourselves, but we still need the healing connection with a trusted person to give that a safe place to happen.
To locate psychotherapists who specialize in providing supportive connection for deep emotional change, I recommend Accelerated Emotional Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP). You can visit their website (aedpinstitute.com) and look for therapists available in your area.
It is hard for a child to hold the interest of an emotionally immature parent. If you had this kind of parent, you may fear that there is not enough there in you to make others love you. This fear is a baseless distortion rooted in the many emotional disappointments that occur with emotionally immature parents.
These parents cannot delight in their children because they are so preoccupied with their own unmet needs. Children are their responsibility and their role, but not their heart’s desire. These parents typically react to their children with cynicism and indifference, or criticism and control, rather than joy and camaraderie. It is a losing battle to feel emotionally close to such a parent.
What you learn from your parents can affect your most intimate adult relationships. Deep down, you may feel unimportant to others because in childhood you didn’t feel like you had much to offer – at least not enough to fully engage your parents. Tragically, this may have caused you to gravitate toward adult relationships where emotional security was tenuous at best. This wouldn’t seem strange to you because the lack of commitment to you would feel normal. You might have concluded that relationships offer crumbs not banquets.
Are you terrified that you will be found boring if you’re just being yourself? If so, you will hustle for acceptance, trying hard to make yourself more valuable, admirable, and lovable in other people’s eyes. You may believe you will be overlooked unless you convincingly market yourself as something exceptional. How exhausting!
Do you feel you have to promote a certain image to make others believe you are worthwhile enough to matter to them? Yet when someone shows real interest in you, do you panic that closeness will reveal you as an imposter lacking in substance and real worth?
Just being a living, vibrant child should have been enough to make a healthy parent love and enjoy you. But immature parents are too fixated on their own issues to appreciate the individuality of their unique child. You had plenty within you to be loved, but your emotionally limited parent might have been blind to the inner richness of you.
Emotionally immature parents cannot delight in their child because they are not attuned to their own inner life. They have never found their own real individuality and so cannot perceive it in their child. Their inner life is scary and repressed, so there is no emotional center from which they can resonate with their child.
Fortunately, you can reverse these feelings of unlovability if you become conscious of them and where they came from. You can always start anew to become interested in and committed to yourself, and what you want to accomplish.
The first step is one of radical trust. As a human being, you came into this world brimming with what it takes to be loved. Just by the miracle of being alive, you are completely capable of eliciting other people’s interest and concern – as long as they have the maturity to value someone outside of themselves. At first you can accept your lovability as a matter of faith, but later you can consciously trust that of course you have enough in you to be loved and celebrated, even if you don’t feel that way at times. Once you connect to this truth about yourself, you will be attracted to emotionally mature people who see that in you too.
Our parents are the great gods of our childhood. What we believe about God usually comes from them. It is not just what they told us about religion, it is what they demonstrated about relationships with entities more powerful than ourselves. In other words, parents are often the prototype for our future relationship with God, and with our own inner spirituality.
So, are your feelings about God trusting or ambivalent?
In your childhood, were powerful grown-ups trusted to treat you fairly, or did they use their power selfishly? If they were emotionally immature, it is a safe bet that their own needs often overrode their ability to give you a secure emotional connection. Because emotionally immature parents have so many unmet security needs, any relationship will tend to be all about them. They are like emotionally arrested children who rarely consider that other people have feelings and needs too. Their existential security depends on their children looking up to them and obeying them no matter what.
Emotionally immature parents feel safest when they have all the control, enforced by guilt and shame. Their parent-child attachment is more about dominance and subjugation than affection, security, and guidance. The child of emotionally immature parents is there to serve the needs of the parent, not the other way around. It is clear to children that they are literally good or bad on the basis of how well they have pleased such a parent.
Emotionally immature parents are like the thin-skinned gods of rigid religions where bad behavior is punishable by loss, death, or banishment. With this sort of god – as with emotionally immature parents – you must avoid displeasing the all-powerful being who can strike you down with vengeance or abandonment you when you are weakest.
Fortunately, many sensitive, perceptive children who are self-aware and yearn for deep emotional connections sense the possibility of a very different sort of relationship with God. Rather than God behaving like a self-involved, narcissistic parent, these children sense the loving unconditional acceptance of a Being who adores them back, a Being who is within them and never rejecting or abandoning. They know a god who is intellectually and creatively complex, one whose attachment and intimacy is unshakable. Like a mature parent, this kind of God is not preoccupied with the judgment of goodness or sin, but stays close in emotional connection.
But when emotionally immature parents teach their children about God, they often describe a deity who is like them: rigid, simplistic in thinking, black-and-white in judgment, and passionate about catching you in a mistake. These parents portray a god who is unapproachable, distant, wrathful, emotionally neglectful, and expecting more from you than you can ever do. The more passive emotionally immature parent may simply give you the impression that God is like them: essentially good-natured and benign, but never stepping in to help you.
If emotionally immature parents were your original models for God and spirituality, it may feel like you can never be good enough to get God’s approval, or worse, that God can never get His fill of your sacrifices. It’s no wonder that many children of emotionally immature parents shudder at the thought of turning themselves over to such an unpredictable Higher Power.
Emotionally immature parents are like jealous gods, reacting with over-control whenever their child begins to individuate from them. Instead of being proud of their child’s emerging independence, these parents feel anxiety and anger when they are no longer the center of their child’s emotional attention.
As a result, many children of emotionally immature parents have an uneasy feeling about God and organized religion. It can seem that God – like the childhood parent – wants all your attention while giving little back. With emotionally immature parents, you might fear that your individuality is something to be given up, rather than something to be enhanced through spiritual development.
On the other hand, having emotionally immature parents may have spurred you to seek a much more fulfilling relationship with God or the Universe than you might have had otherwise. The frustrations of emotionally immature parents can push a person to look within for their spirituality rather than outside through authority figures. The good news is that once you separate your spirituality from the relationship with your parents, you are free to find what feeds your soul in a way that will sustain you for the rest of your life.
Is codependency a sign of emotional immaturity? No, codependency is just a coping style, and can be used by mature or immature people. Codependent behavior will look different depending on the emotional maturity level of the person using it. Codependency is when you take on the burden of fixing something in someone else's life that is their responsibility.
When we feel anxious about our lives, codependency allows us to feel more secure by distracting us from our own unsolved issues. We take responsibility for other people and try to carry them along, even if the weight of their problems is enormous. What we are really trying to do is get the person to stop acting in ways that trigger our own insecurities. Trying to achieve an increased sense of safety, we are sure things will get better once we fix other people’s character defects. But the burden of supporting them is exhausting.
Codependents can be found at different levels of emotional maturity. The key is how much of the codependency impairs a person’s ability to be creative, spontaneous, responsible, and reciprocal.
People who are low in emotional maturity feel they can’t live their own life apart from the person upon whom they are codependent. This kind of codependency is based on enmeshment, so that life has meaning only when trying to rescue or stay close to the other person. Emotionally immature codependents avoid reflecting on their own lives by focusing on other people’s problems. This approach is often found in people who have not yet developed their own sense of self or unique interests. Their approach to life is based on either avoiding or distorting reality. They react to stress emotionally with little objectivity, and rarely self-reflect on their actions.
Emotionally immature codependent people often show multiple problems in several areas of their life. They tend to have unstable work and relationship histories. They typically blame others rather than look at their own behavior. They are comfortable with enmeshment, and dislike the idea of honoring boundaries with anyone. They feel compelled to tell others what to do, yet reject most of the advice that might help them have more stable lives.
On the other hand, other codependents are quite emotionally mature. They cope with life by trying to view reality and themselves objectively. To this purpose they are self-reflective, and use empathy to understand other people. They have developed their individuality, and feel drained when taking care of the frustrating, emotionally immature people in their lives. These more mature codependents are often very capable in their adult life. They are able to form relationships and careers, and they can anticipate the future and plan for it responsibly. They have a workable life apart from the relationship that is codependent.
More emotionally mature codependents are often pulled into codependent relationships because others depend on their emotional maturity, complexity, sensitivity and perceptiveness. They are perceived as having the strength to carry other people's loads as well as their own. These expectations often make codependent people feel they should step in and take over when their emotionally immature family or friends are creating problems. They end up bearing most of the emotional weight in their codependent relationships, with little coming back to them in a reciprocal way.
Many of the more mature codependents start out in life in emotionally neglectful families with emotionally immature parents. As children, these people experienced family members as needing them to be a kind of mini-adult in order to make the family more stable. These children are parentified from an early age, and are often made to feel like it is up to them to fix things in the lives of more emotionally immature people.
These more mature codependents are capable of learning to step back, keep better boundaries, refuse burdens, and accept that the other person’s life is his or her responsibility. They can step away from inappropriate guilt, and let other people make the decision whether they are going to improve their lives. They are open to change and new ideas.
If you think you have codependent tendencies, you can decide to straighten out the life of the one person you can control – yourself. As you set better boundaries and step out from under the burden of taking responsibility for others, you will also develop a strong sense of clarity about your needs for self-protection. Instead of trying to change others, you will enjoy developing yourself – the one person who will really appreciate it when you step in to help.
One of the hardest things to understand about emotionally immature people is that they think differently from the more mature person. If you assume that your emotionally imamture parent follows the same mental rules of logic or consistency, you will be dumbfounded when they suddenly go off topic, change the subject, or flatly refuse to acknowledge the facts.
If you encounter such avoidances in a conversation – especially in an emotional conversation – you will feel confused and stopped in your tracks. It won’t make sense. When you try to pin them down, it will feel like squeezing water. It can’t be done.
If you value the truth and are able to think logically, even when upset, this avoidant type of conversation will be incomprehensible. That is because your mind probably developed to a point where you could think abstractly and keep a train of thought going in order to deal with an unpleasant reality.
However, an emotionally immature person is dominated by emotion and anxiety, even in their style of thought.
Logic and staying on point will fly out the window as soon as they feel threatened, especially by perceived criticism or efforts at emotional intimacy. Like a child, they will change the subject, walk out, start blaming, or effectively end the conversation with a useless platitude. They simply don’t have the complexity of character to deal directly with anything that emotionally challenges them.
Watch how this happens, and you will be amazed at how their honesty and clear thinking seems to fall apart if you bring up something they find unpleasant. Once they go into avoidance or blaming, you can bet the conversation is essentially over for the time being. The best thing to do when you see this happening is to note their mental regression, chalk it up to their childlike anxiety, and plan to revisit the topic another time under calmer circumstances.
It’s a strange world inside the emotionally immature parent, one that you yourself probably cannot imagine living in. What motivates the immature parent is fear and control. This is because they live life from the perspective of an unattached child who has never figured out how to have deep relationships with anyone. They are anxiety-ridden no matter how confident they seem, and will do whatever it takes to come out on top of any interaction. Forget about operating in good faith – they just want to keep safe by putting their walls up. The quieter, more passive ones are not so controlling, but if you look at their behavior you will see that they are careful about how close you can get to them in any interaction. They won’t open up to real connection any more than the more controlling ones do.
By diagnosing and understanding the traits of their immaturity, you can tease out what is your part and what are their own issues. This is hugely important because the immature parent is all about blaming others in order to keep their own self-esteem intact. If you misread them as mature and think their behaviors are well founded, you will end up feeling terrible about yourself. It’s much better to understand whom you are dealing with.
Diagnosing your parent’s level of maturity has nothing to do with your love or feelings for them. The purpose of diagnosis is to have things make a little more sense. As you get your head around this diagnosis of emotional immaturity, it will ultimately add to your peace of mind. Instead of thinking they could give you the kind of love and validation that you want if only they would try, you can evaluate what they do have to offer. You can shift from believing that they could if they wanted to, and start realizing that they won’t because they can’t. Accurate diagnosis enables you to enjoy what you have with them without expecting them to be more like you.
In writing the Supreme Court majority opinion on the constitutional right of same-sex marriage, Justice Kennedy defended love and commitment as crucial liberties. His opinion is based on the belief that emotions matter, reminding us that our rights and liberties exist as means to a happier life. It says that the Constitution protects our right to live a lawful life that feels right from the inside out.
As a psychologist, this reminder of the right to pursue positive emotions is exciting, because it tells us that the pursuit of emotional fulfillment is protected at the very foundations of our early government. It also validates the truth that emotional harm can be as grievous a legal injury as physical or economic harm.
Justice Kennedy cites emotional harm in his argument against the denial of same-sex marriage rights. He acknowledges the hurt that results from laws and customs that make people feel bad about themselves, and he rejects prohibitions that would "disparage their choices and diminish their personhood." The mission of psychotherapy is often the same, to help people recover from inhumane past treatment that shamed or subjugated them into self-doubt and impaired self-esteem.
In the Obergefell-v-Hodges opinion, Justice Kennedy uses terms of emotional injury such as "demean," "disrespect" and "pain and humiliation." He reminds us that the Constitution protects our right to be protected from emotionally hurtful treatment. The court decision asserts that social exclusion harms people, and that a person's full liberty, in the sense that the Constitution means it, cannot occur without a protected climate of acceptance and dignity. In the following passage, Justice Kennedy explicitly describes the emotional deprivation that occurs in the absence of equal marriage rights:
"Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other."
This Court's majority opinion defends our liberty to fulfill our deepest emotional needs. It reminds us not only of our legal rights, but our emotional rights. It says that people are not legally equal or able to enjoy full liberty if seeking happiness in full emotional commitment means that they will be shamed or excluded.
The opinion recognizes that this right to fulfill our deepest emotional bonds is crucial to protect for everyone. With this decision, we are all reminded that certain undeniable emotional needs are the core of a happy life, and must be protected as much as any other liberty. We can all celebrate our freedom to live in emotional authenticity this Fourth of July.
Part of our brain keeps an eye out for things we want to find. Back in prehistoric times, we may have kept a lookout for berries on a bush or rabbit tracks in the snow. Nowadays we may notice a certain type of car on the road, just like the one we are thinking about buying. It's an automatic instinct: want it and see more of it. Truth is like that. We know it when it zings us. If you're looking for bits of truth, they will stand out to you like finding coins on the beach. Truth has an instantly recognizable value that sets it apart from anything around it. In this blog, I want to share with you those fascinating flashes of truth that I come across in my daily life as a writer and psychotherapist. I hope you will enjoy what I find, and that we can share an ongoing enjoyment of psychological and spiritual discovery through this twice-monthly blog.