Age is just a number

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What it means to grow up



Early in life, we are driven to explore the world around us because our brains are collecting information on what pleases and harms us, what feels good and bad, what is worth pursuing further and what is worth avoiding. One could say young children are always looking for new ways to accidentally kill themselves because the driving force behind them is an innocent curiosity. Early in life, we are driven to explore the world around us because our brains are collecting information on what pleases and harms us, what feels good and bad, what is worth pursuing further and what is worth avoiding. But eventually, the exploratory phase exhausts itself. And not because we run out of world to explore. Quite the opposite, actually. The exploratory phase wraps up because, as we become older, we begin to recognize that there’s too much world to explore. It’s too much to take in. You can’t touch and taste everything. You can’t meet all the people. You can’t see all the things. There’s too much potential experience and the sheer magnitude of our existence overwhelms us. Therefore, our brain begins to focus less on trying everything for ourselves and more on developing some rules to help us navigate the endless complexity of the world before us. We adopt most of these rules from our parents and teachers. But many of them we figure out for ourselves. For instance, after fucking around near enough open flames, you develop a little mental rule that all flames are dangerous, not just that one on the stove. And after seeing your mom get pissed enough times, you begin to figure out that stealing is always bad, not just when it’s ice cream. Therefore, our brain begins to focus less on trying everything for ourselves and more on developing some rules to help us navigate the endless complexity of the world before us. We adopt most of these rules from our parents and teachers. But many of them we figure out for ourselves. For instance, after fucking around near enough open flames, you develop a little mental rule that all flames are dangerous, not just that one on the stove. And after seeing your mom get pissed enough times, you begin to figure out that stealing is always bad, not just when it’s ice cream. So how do we grow up? We need to first consider what our values are first

What level are your values on?

The CEO who takes the blame for an employee’s fuck up. The teacher who sacrifices her vacation days to help tutor a struggling student. A friend who risks the friendship by telling you that your partying has gotten out of control. These are stories we all know and revere. We all know and revere these stories. And the reason we know and revere them is that they’re uncommon. Because we rarely, if ever, are able to do these things ourselves. Most of us, most of the time, are stuck at the level of bargaining, of asking ourselves, “Yeah, but what’s in it for me ?” or worse, at the level of childish pleasure, screaming, “GIMME THAT, I WANT IT!” The truth is, it’s hard to detect what level our values are on. This is because we tell ourselves all sorts of elaborate stories to justify what we want. A gambling addict will compulsively pursue the thrills of making and losing money, but in thier head, they are invented a convincing story about how they are going to win everything back and show everyone they are not a loser (adolescent bargaining) or that they are actually doing this for the good of thier family (adult virtue). This is bullshit, of course. They simply can’t help themslves. It’s clear, then, that we can’t trust our own interpretations of our actions. There’s a small mountain of psychological evidence to support this: we feel something first, then we justify it later with some story we tell ourselves. And that story is usually highly biased and vastly overestimates how noble and selfless we were. Therefore, we must learn to distrust our thoughts. We must become skeptical of the interpretations of our own actions. Instead, we must focus on the actions themselves. Thoughts can lie. Interpretations can be changed or forgotten. But actions are permanent. Therefore, the only way to get at your values — to truly understand what you value and what you do not — is to observe your actions. If you say you want to go back to school and get your degree, but it’s 12 years later and you’re on excuse number 57, then no, you don’t actually want to go back. What you want is to feel like you want to go back. And that is completely different. Chances are you’re good at adhering to higher-level values in some contexts and not others. There are people who are great friends but shitty parents. There are people who are great parents but shitty professionals. There are people who are just shitty people but holy fuck, are they productive. We all have our areas of maturity and immaturity. Most recurring emotional problems people experience are simply first- and second-level value systems that are being held onto despite the fact that they are failing. A mother who fights with her children constantly because they don’t call her with a certain regularity is holding onto a transactional approach to love — the idea that love can be quantified and measured. A friend who tells you white lies probably does so because they doesn’t want to threaten whatever they are getting from you. A co-worker who steals your work and calls it their own is indulging in a compulsive desire for pleasure (or, in this case, success).

The only way to get clear about our own values is by learning to observe our own actions and observing them dispassionately as if we were neutral bystanders:

  • Actions that consistently hurt yourself or others, that you find yourself excusing repeatedly and/or lying to hide, probably indicate you have a low-level compulsive pleasure/pain driven value. Lying is inherently selfish and designed to make way for our most selfish desires. If I lie to my wife about where I was last night, then it signifies, by definition, that I am acting selfishly and compulsively. Generally, the more lying, the more compulsive we probably are.
  • Actions that are premeditated with the desire to get a certain result out of someone or something, are bargaining/transactional values. There’s a difference between telling someone you’re interested in them because that’s what you think they want to hear, and simply telling someone you’re interested in them because you’re freely expressing yourself. The latter is honesty, the former is manipulation. And the line between the two is blurry for a lot of people.
  • Actions motivated by deeper ethical principles that you’re willing to suffer for because you believe they are right in all contexts, regardless of the specific outcome to yourself, are representative of higher-level adult values.

These are things you come to understand about yourself because you question not only your actions but your interpretations of your own actions. You must sit and think critically about yourself and about what you’ve chosen to care about, not through word, but through deed.

Ultimately, this is what it means to “know thyself” — to know your own values, to have a clear understanding of your actions and what motivates them, to understand what level of maturity you’re operating on. Any time you sit down with a therapist or coach or friend, this is the process that is happening. You are describing your actions and your interpretation of those actions. With the guided assistance of the therapist/coach/friend person, you then sit there and pick apart whether or not your interpretations of your actions actually make sense. Or are you just deluding yourself? Do your actions reflect what you think is important? If not, where is the disconnect? It’s this process of aligning your self-interpretation with your actions that gives you control over your life and your actions. It’s this alignment that allows you to feel a sense of meaning and fulfillment in your life. To become happy and healthy. It’s this alignment that allows you to grow up.

so how can you be an adult?

When you google “how to be an adult” most of the results that come back talk about preparing for job interviews, managing your finances, cleaning up after yourself, and not being a disrespectful asshole. These things are all great, and indeed, they are all things that adults are expected to do. But I would argue that they, by themselves, do not make you an adult. They simply prevent you from being a child, which is not the same thing as being an adult.That’s because most people who do these things do them because they are rule- and transaction-based. You prepare well for a job interview because you want to get a good job. You learn how to clean your house because it has direct consequences on your health and what people think of you. You manage your finances because if you don’t, you will be royally fucked one day down the road. Bargaining with rules and the social order allows us to be functioning human beings in the world. But ideally, after some time, we will begin to realize that the whole world cannot always be bargained with, nor should we subject every aspect of our life to a series of transactions. You don’t want to bargain with your father for love, or your friends for companionship, or your boss for respect. Why? Because feeling like you have to manipulate people into loving or respecting you feels shitty. It undermines the whole project. If you have to convince someone to love you, then they don’t love you. If you have to cajole someone into respecting you, then they don’t respect you. The most precious and important things in life cannot be bargained with. To try to do so destroys them. You cannot conspire for happiness. It is impossible. But often this is what people try to do, especially when they seek out self-help and other personal development advice — they are essentially saying, “Show me the rules of the game I have to play; and I’ll play it.” Not realizing that it’s the fact that they think there are rules to happiness that’s actually preventing them from being happy. While people who navigate the world through bargaining and rules can get far in the material world, they remain crippled and alone in their emotional world. This is because transactional values create toxic relationships — relationships that are built on manipulation.When you achieve adulthood, you realize that viewing some relationships and pursuits as transactions guts them of all joy and meaning. That living in a world where everything is bargained for enslaves you to other people’s thoughts and desires rather than freeing you to pursue your own. To stand on your own two feet, you must be willing to sometimes stand alone. Adulthood is the realization that sometimes an abstract principle is right and good for its own sake. The same way that the adolescent realizes there’s more to the world than the child’s pleasure or pain, the adult realizes that there’s more to the world than the adolescent’s constant bargaining for validation, approval, and satisfaction. The adult does what is right for the simple reason that it is right. End of discussion.

An adolescent will say that she values honesty — because she has learned that saying so produces good results — but when confronted with the difficult conversations, she will tell white lies, exaggerate the truth, and fail to stand up for her own self-worth. An adolescent will say he loves you. But his conception of love is that he gets something in return (probably sex), that love is merely an emotional swap meet, where you each bring everything you have to offer and haggle with each other for the best deal. An adolescent says she is generous. But when she does favors and gives gifts, it’s always done conditionally, with the unspoken idea that she will receive something in return at some later date. An adult will be honest for the simple sake that honesty is more important than pleasure or pain. Honesty is more important than getting what you want or achieving a goal. Honesty is inherently good and valuable, in and of itself. An adult will love freely without expecting anything in return because an adult understands that that is the only thing that can make love real. An adult will give without expectation, without seeking anything in return, because to do so defeats the purpose of a gift in the first place. So the little kid steals the ice cream because it feels good, oblivious to the consequences. The older child stops himself from stealing it because he knows it will create worse consequences in the future. But his decision is ultimately part of a bargain with his future self: “I’ll forgo some pleasure now to prevent greater future pain.” But it’s only the adult who doesn’t steal for the simple principle that stealing is wrong. And to steal — even if they got away with it! — would make them feel worse about themselves.

If there were more adults in the world

sad fact is few ever make it to adulthood. And fewer manage to stay there. Why is that?

  1. When we are little kids, the way we learn to transcend the pleasure/pain values (“ice cream is good,” “hot stoves are bad”) is by pursuing those values and seeing how they fail us. We steal the ice cream, mom gets pissed and punishes us. Suddenly, “ice cream is good,” doesn’t seem as straightforward as it used to — there are all sorts of other factors to consider. I like ice cream. And I like mom. But taking the ice cream will upset mom. What do I do? Eventually, the child is forced to reckon with the fact that there are unintended consequences from pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain.
  2. This is essentially what good early parenting boils down to: implementing the correct consequences for a child’s pleasure/pain-driven behavior. Punish them for stealing ice cream. Reward them for sitting quietly in a restaurant. You are, quite literally, helping them to understand that life is far more complicated than simply pursuing one’s pleasure and avoiding one’s pain. Parents who fail to do this fail their children in an incredibly fundamental way because, as children grow up, they will experience the shocking realization that the world does not cater to their whims. This will be incredibly painful for them, far more painful than it would have been had they learned the lesson when they were younger. And as a result, by having to learn this lesson at an older age, they will be socially punished by their peers for not understanding it. Nobody wants to be friends with a selfish brat. Nobody wants to work with someone who doesn’t consider others’ feelings or appreciate rules. The un-taught child will be shunned and ridiculed for their behavior in the real world, resulting in even more pain and suffering.
  3. Parents can also fail their children in another way: they can abuse them. A young child who is abused also does not develop beyond their pain/pleasure-driven values because their punishment follows no logical pattern and doesn’t reinforce deeper, more thoughtful values. It’s just random and cruel. Stealing ice cream sometimes results in harsh pain. Other times it results in nothing. Therefore, no lesson is learned. No higher values are produced. And the child never learns to control her own behavior. This is why children who are abused and children who are neglected often end up with the same problems as adults: they remain stuck in their childhood value system.
  4. Even worse, if the abuse is extreme enough (or if the child is particularly sensitive) this constant pain can become baked into their psyche going forward. Their normal day-to-day existence will be a state of distrust and fear, and they will compulsively seek pleasure to assuage that underlying pain. This is where addiction and compulsion are born. Alcohol, sex, drugs, gambling, Instagram — as they grow older they will be compulsively sucked into these activities because it allows them to become distracted from themselves, to momentarily forget who they are and what they feel. More significantly, many abused children will subconsciously seek out further abuse in their adult relationships for the simple reason that abuse is the only thing that makes sense to them. It becomes an identity for them. They need it to feel
  5. People get stuck on the second adolescent stage of values for similar reasons, although the results are less severe. Some people are incredibly good at playing the bargaining game. They are charming and charismatic. They are naturally able to sense what other people want of them and they are adept at filling that role. Put bluntly: they’re too good at manipulating people to get what they want. And because their manipulation rarely fails them in any meaningful way, they come to believe that this is simply how the whole world operates. Everyone is like this. Everyone is manipulative and controlling. Love is bullshit. Trust is a sign of weakness.
  6. It requires good parents and teachers to not allow themselves to succumb to the adolescent’s bargains. It is their responsibility to point out to the adolescent that this sort of behavior is a never-ending treadmill, that you can only get so much from the world by bargaining with it, that the only things in life of real value and meaning are achieved without conditions, without transactions. The best way to do this is through example. The best way to teach an adolescent to trust is to trust them. The best way to teach an adolescent respect is to respect them. The best way to teach someone to love is by loving them.
  7. When parents and teachers fail to do this, it’s usually because they themselves are stuck at an adolescent level of value judgments. They, too, see the world in transactional terms. They, too, bargain love for sex, loyalty for affection, respect for obedience. In fact, they likely bargain with their kids for affection, love, or respect. They think it’s normal, so the kid grows up thinking it’s normal. And the shitty, shallow, transactional parent/child relationship is then replicated when the kid begins forming romantic relationships
  8. Some adolescents become stuck at the second stage for the same reason others are stuck at the first: abuse and trauma. Victims of bullying are a particularly notable example. A person who has been bullied in their younger years will move through the world with an assumed understanding that no one will ever like or respect them unconditionally, that all affection must be hard-won through a series of practiced conversation and canned actions. You must dress a certain way. You must speak a certain way. You must act a certain way. Or else.

As adults, they will move through the world assuming all human relationships are a never-ending tit-for-tat trade agreement. That intimacy is no more than a feigned sense of knowing one another for each person’s mutual benefit. Again, this is because, in the transactional world of high schools, this person was mistreated and abused for doing those transactions poorly. They didn’t dress the right way. They weren’t a “cool” kid. They got bad grades or had a learning disability or were scrawny and awkward. As a result, they are psychologically punished for decades, as they live the rest of their life in constant fear of ever fucking up a transactional relationship ever again. And instead of recognizing that the problem is the transactional approach to the world itself, they assume the problem is that it took them so long to do the transactions appropriately.

So how can you grow up?

You don’t just become an adult when you turn 18. It takes lots of trial and error and hard reminders from life and expired relationships. Although we grow up and acquire tools, responsibilities, and jobs, deep inside we are children who snap back often. We pout, whine, and complain. It takes years to become aware of those behaviors and to stop pulling from who we used to be or how we were treated so the first step in becoming an adult is to fail. Chances are, if you’re reading this, and you’re still stuck organizing your life around pleasure/pain values, or transactional/rule-based values, you probably don’t need me to explain why they cause problems — your life is in one way or another is already in a fucking mess.

But just in case you do, here you go:

  • Pleasure/pain values fail for the simple reason that pleasure and pain are bad long-term predictors of health, growth and happiness. OK, yeah, touching a hot stove sucks and you shouldn’t do that anymore. But what about lying to a friend? Or waking up early for work? Or, like, not doing heroin. Those are just a few of the millions of examples where pursuing pleasure/pain values will lead you astray.
  • Transactional/rule-based values rob you of the trust, intimacy, and love necessary to remain an emotionally healthy and happy human being. This is because, when you view all relationships and actions as a means to an end, you will suspect an ulterior motive in everything that happens and everything anyone ever does to you.

Before you can move on and learn from these flawed value systems, you must experience the pain of them failing. That means not denying that they are failing. That means not avoiding the pain of that failure. That means facing that failure head on and admitting what is plain to see: that you fucked up, and there’s gotta be a better way. You need to learn how you are childish and challenge a passive-dependent orientation. Among the more straightforward, easily identifiable childish behaviors are sulking, whining, complaining, manipulat­ing to get sympathy, continually seeking direction, acting in a disorganized, incompetent and irresponsible manner, procrastinating, habitual lateness, driving recklessly, carelessness and slovenliness, and neglecting one’s health. In addition, it is important to challenge feelings of inferiority, submissiveness and a passive-dependent orientation in relation to authority figures, friends, and loved ones. By holding on to parental substitutes and continuing to depend excessively on others by acquiescing to their wants, needs, and points of view, it is evident that you will remain a child. It is also important to recognize when you are being defiant or rebellious in your responses and strive to take a more rational adult position. Submission and defiance are equally childish; both are outer directed and tend to elicit pa­rental responses of either approval or disapproval. Once we have indenitfied how we are childlish take power over your life. Anything under conscious control can be changed deliberately. People can consciously change negative character traits, destructive habit patterns, and addictions. Only thoughts and feelings are automatic; they can only be understood and changed indirectly through insight into unconscious phenomena. One method is to look for discrepancies between your actions and your stated goals; these contradictions are often caused by unconscious or partly conscious “critical inner voices.” By bringing these voices into conscious awareness and recognizing how they are influencing your behavior, you can change behaviors that are dictated by the internal negative thought process and gain insight into areas of your life where you have difficulty maintaining an adult perspective. The “critical inner voice” is made up of a system of negative thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes toward oneself and others that predispose varying degrees of alienation. The voice can be harsh, punishing and demeaning, or seemingly positive, self-protective and indulgent. It strongly influences the acting out of self-defeating microsuicidal behaviors that adversely affect one’s life. The voice represents the internalization of parents’ rejecting, negative attitudes or actual hostility toward the child, as well as their maladaptive point of view about life. A person can learn to identify their self-attacks, recognize their source, estimate their effect on behavior, and counter them by taking constructive action. After you take power of your own life observe your emotions, but govern your actions by rationality. Your choice of actions should further your best interests and goals and fit your moral considerations. People are capable of acting rationally in spite of strong feeling reactions. This works most efficiently when they observe and regulate their emotional responses and identify the primal elements in their reactions. Primal feelings are typically intense and dramatic, and there is an urgency to express them. These powerful feelings represent a reliving of emotions you suffered in childhood. Being aware of primal components in your feelings helps diminish their intensity and defuses melodrama and overreactions. Taking time to reflect on your emotions and considering the consequences of your actions fosters a rational approach to problem-solving. Once you learn how to govern by rationality don’t blame others for your failures or rejections. You create your own world. Refrain from blaming other people or circumstances for your mistakes, failures or rejections. People are largely unaware of the degree that they are responsible for the situations that they face in life. For example, we recreate the world of our childhood through our selection of partners, in the way we actually distort them, and finally in the way we provoke them. Recognize that perceiving others as responsible for your problems is immature and maladaptive. In actuality, you create your own circumstances, so you can be active in changing them. Furthermore, when things go wrong, it serves no purpose to attack or punish yourself as well. With the right attitude, you can simply learn from negative experiences and handle things differently.

Be more accepting of your mistakes, because if you believe that you dare not fail, then you cannot act. People who are paralyzed by insisting on perfection end up berating themselves and others for their failures. Don’t be defensive. Seek out feedback, particularly criticism, and respond accordingly. It is valuable to seek objective criticism. Honestly-stated critical percep­tions of you are actually gifts that can contribute to your self-knowledge and understanding. You are fortunate to find out the truth about yourself, even if it is negative. In a relationship, refrain from reacting to feedback by attacking your partner, crying or falling apart, punishing with the silent treatment or “stonewalling.” These are childish responses that effectively silence the other person and gradually lead to a shutting down of lines of communication within couples. Instead, look for the truth in any information you hear that is negative, even though your knee-jerk reaction may understandably be one of anger or embarrassment. Carefully consider or explore feedback rather than reject it summarily, then decide which aspects of the feedback you agree or disagree with, and respond from an adult perspective. Then learn how to skin in the game. People operating on a childish pleasure/pain values derive their self-esteem from how much pleasure or pain they feel. Therefore, when they feel good, they feel good about themselves, and when they feel bad, they feel bad about themselves. So when a person at this level fucks up big-time, their first explanation is likely going to be, “I’m a piece of shit. I’m a horrible person. What was I thinking?”This is harmful. This likely makes the problem worse. The problem is not you. The problem is what you’re choosing to value, how you’re choosing to see the world and the way in which it operates. There’s nothing wrong with pleasure. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with pain either. It’s the reason each occurs that makes them right or wrong. Recognizing this truth is what gently shoves your value-system into a more mature bargaining/transactional level. You didn’t fuck up because you caused pain. You fucked up because you caused pain for bad reasons. The reason a drunk driver hitting another car is so unethical is not because people got hurt — it’s because the drunk driver is far more culpable than the other person — i.e., the transaction was unfair. A lot of people try to “fix” those who suffer from compulsive actions and are stuck in the pleasure/pain value system by bringing them straight up to adulthood. They want to teach alcoholics the virtue of honesty. They want to convince violent abusers of the importance of generosity and patience. But you can’t do that. You can’t skip stages. That’s like skipping algebra and going straight to calculus. You can’t go from a child to an adult without being an adolescent in between. People stuck at compulsion need to first learn to think of things in transactional terms. We move beyond our childish values when we realize that we have skin in the game — that there are repercussions for our actions beyond our immediate self. This is why research has found that the most effective ways to break any bad habit is to — you guessed it — to bargain for it. Try this: write your best friend a check for $3,000 and tell him if you ever smoke another cigarette, he can go cash it. It’s shocking how effective this is. Create consequences for yourself. Create accountability.But most important of all be willing to die for something. Getting a solid footing on transactional/bargaining values will make you a functioning human being. But it won’t make you a mature adult. You’ll still suffer from transactional, toxic relationships and crises of meaning in your day-to-day life.

The key difference between an adolescent and an adult is that the adolescent is scared to do anything unless they feel confident that they’ll get something in return for it:

  • They don’t want to risk quitting their job unless they know they’ll be happier somewhere else.
  • They don’t want to tell someone they have feelings for them unless they can guarantee a satisfying relationship will occur.
  • They don’t want to risk sharing their ideas unless they know they will win the approval of others.

To an adolescent, the way they feel about themselves is determined by how well they’re able to bargain with the world. And if they fail to bargain with the world, then they will blame themselves. For this reason, the adolescent is scared to death of rejection or failure. To them, to fail or be rejected is a sort of death because everything they want from the world — all meaning, all purpose — will be denied them.

It’s this willingness to die that leads to adulthood. Adulthood occurs when one realizes that the only way to conquer suffering is to become unmoved by suffering. Adulthood occurs when one realizes that it’s better to suffer for the right reasons than to feel pleasure for the wrong reasons. Adulthood occurs when one realizes that it’s better to love and lose than to never love at all.

  • An adult looks at that career change and says, “I’d rather be dead than a zombie who sleepwalks through a life not his own.” And he quits.
  • An adult looks at that person they have fallen for and says, “I’d rather be dead than to hide my heart from the world.” And she speaks.
  • An adult looks at their ideas and says, “I’d rather be dead than to suppress my own talent and potential.” And then she acts.

An adult accepts that there are some ways of living life that are worse than not living at all. And because they recognize this, they are able to act boldly in the face of their own shame or fears.

Questions

1. what does it mean to grow up?
2. how mature are you?
3. what makes someone immature?
4. what stops people from growing up?
5. why is growing up actually harder than how most people suspect?
6. why do only few people ever make it to adulthood?
7. what was the moment in life when you started to feel guilt for first time for something you didn’t feel ashamed of?