How to Become an Emotional Grown-Up
A new book gives concrete tips for young adults who want to succeed without hurting their mental health.
BY SEAN MCGOVERN | JUNE 14, 2019
As a college student, I’ve become accustomed to living in a community where success often comes at a high price. From perpetual studying and work-related stress, to larger insecurities surrounding our self-worth and direction, it seems there is no end to the unresolved distress that’s considered “normal” for young people.
This problem might just fly under the radar—if it weren’t for the rising numbers of young adults who are feeling overwhelmed. Clinical psychologist Lara Fielding notes this trend in her new book, Mastering Adulthood: Go Beyond Adulting to Become an Emotional Grown-Up. She understands what we are struggling with, and she takes on the mission of providing us tools to accept our feelings, learn how to work with them, and ultimately grow into healthy and autonomous adults.
Fielding’s book gives an introductory framework for understanding ourselves as emotional and mental beings. We are all creatures of habit, she writes—meaning, we adopt certain ways of responding to our environment, not always consciously. Habits can serve to minimize discomfort in familiar contexts, by (for example) relieving stress or helping us navigate social situations. So, we might watch TV, party, or drink in response to a difficult day of work or school. But, as we grow up to enter new roles and environments, these habits become less helpful and even detrimental to our personal progress.
Fielding separates people into two types—“castle-dwellers” and “village-dwellers”—based on their typical emotional regulation habits. The former tend to isolate themselves as self-protection, by hiding any vulnerability from others, while the latter are driven to constantly stay connected to others and intensely experience their emotions.
Over-relying on the extreme forms of either of these strategies, she argues, is dangerous to our self-awareness and healthy decision making. “Castle” types may have a harder time sensing their emotions, needs, and desires, leading to habits such as destructive self-criticism, the inability to ask for help, and the tendency to be controlling of others. Meanwhile, heightened sensitivity in the “village” types can lead them to have difficulty tolerating stressful situations and regulating their emotions in relationships.
As Fielding can attest from her clinical practice, rising adults can improve their well-being with time and patience. Her book provides several journaling exercises and reflection practices throughout to impart practical skills for self-awareness—one of the keys to being a healthy adult.
For example, she recommends that, when we are distressed by a situation in our lives, we do a quick writing task in which we delineate:
What really happened, or the reality of the situation—i.e., what we saw, heard, etc.
The thoughts that this provoked in us, or our interpretation of events
The emotions we immediately felt
The bodily sensations we felt
What action we immediately took in response
This deceptively simple exercise can help us clarify why we respond to events in our lives the way we do and give us the building blocks to start changing our responses.
Mastering Adulthood offers a wealth of other tips for short-term coping during emotionally trying times, as well as long-term exercises for building resilience. These range from such practices as focused breathing, allowing ourselves to sit with our discomfort rather than pushing it away, to compassionately reframing our impulsive self-judgments.
The book moves from the personal to the interpersonal, asking how we can apply this newfound self-mastery to our interactions with others. Fielding provides some simple tips for deciding when we should prioritize our own desires and need for comfort, and when we should forgo them to prioritize our relationships. First and foremost, she suggests that we clarify our needs for ourselves, articulate them concretely to those we care about, and express authentic gratitude—a very useful practice in building solid relationships.
Mastering Adulthood: Go Beyond Adulting to Become an Emotional Grown-Up (New Harbinger Publications, 2019, 224 pages)
It may seem that Fielding is pointing out the obvious in identifying problem behaviors and how to resolve them. But this is actually a positive: As Fielding well comprehends, our most ingrained habits and tendencies are sometimes the hardest to observe and work with. Even for fully grown adults, it sometimes takes reminding that how we respond to the world can be heavily influenced by many factors, both physical (like diet, sleep quality, and activity levels) and environmental (whom we’re interacting with and the setting we’re in).
After offering these tools for self-awareness, Fielding demonstrates how we can balance our self-discipline with our self-compassion (kind attention and non-judgment toward ourselves) to commit to our personal values. Paradoxically, it seems that our ability to move forward in life depends more on our willingness to accept uncomfortable truths than our willfulnessto power ahead on auto-pilot, denying facts, our limitations, and our emotional realities.
For Fielding, transitioning to adulthood fundamentally involves humility: We cannot deny our emotions, nor can we trust all of our thoughts. The journey from autopilot to self-mastery involves recognizing where we’re at in earnest and taking small steps towards our goals, even if that means short-term discomfort. Whether we aim to get through college, move ahead in a profession, or manage our relationships, these are skills that we can carry and improve throughout the rest of our lives.