December 18, 2020

Dear Drama Observers,

“So, where do you work?” I asked a new client as he sat down in my office after having just walked in from the waiting room. “I work at (name of company), also known as Adult Kindercare.”

Another client, a longtime plant foreman, once told me, “When I retire soon, I plan to open a daycare center… just to remind me of work.”

I could go on and on with such stories.

As I’ve mentioned before, I traveled for over 10 years presenting continuing education seminars for mental health professionals. The first one I developed and presented was entitled “Helping Adult Clients Grow Up” which was inspired, in part, by client statements like the ones above. People have asked me over the years if I see children in my practice. I usually respond in my smart aleck way, “I do see children, but they have 50-year-old bodies.”

Below are the basic premises of the seminar along with some elaboration.

People grow up without fully growing up. Some parts get stuck in developmental cul-de-sacs.

As we travel the road from childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood, none of us arrives with all aspects of our personalities fully developed. We enter adulthood as mixtures of maturities and immaturities, strengths and weaknesses, positives and negatives. We all become young adults who are chronologically older than our developmental ages.

These old immaturities become evident in new relationships.

It’s most common to start adulthood convinced we’re more mature than we actually are. We think we’ve got it all together but, in reality, our loose ends drag the ground unawares like toilet paper stuck to a shoe after leaving a public restroom.

And we stay largely oblivious to such blind spots until someone close to us points them out. I tell people sometimes, “If you want to know where your shortcomings are, get married.” Or get a roommate. Close relationships are like relational full-length mirrors in we catch glimpses of ourselves, warts and all.

The most natural reaction to the exposure is a cover-up.

But then, none of us likes looking in relational mirrors and catching gap-glimpses–that is, those gaps between our self-perceived and actual levels of maturity. Such awareness is disconcerting, so the first thing we’re most prone to do is to pretend they don’t exist… or discredit the one pointing them out.

We become like one of those football players who tweaks his ankle on a play but doesn’t want the coach to take him out of the game. So, he tries to walk like he doesn’t have a limp. He’s desperate to keep using his strengths, so he keeps his weakness concealed.

Discomfort increases when the cover-up is maintained.

But the cover-up strategy has a limited life expectancy and the longer it’s employed, the more uncomfortable it becomes. That football player’s ankle sprain only gets worse the more he runs on it, as does his playing ability.

Be warned, I’m getting ready to shift metaphors like tectonic plates in an earthquake.

Remember how cars used to have those spare tires that were smaller than the others so they didn’t take up as much space in the trunk? They came with instructions to not drive on them more than 50 miles. The small tire’s purpose was to get you to the tire store, not to take a family vacation to the Grand Canyon. Driving long distances on that small spare might damage your vehicle, so don’t do that.

If we use short-term defenses (which can serve good purposes) as long-term ways to live, doing so might inflict damage on the process of normal personality development. It keeps us stuck and hurts us to do so. And usually hurts others as well.

Increased discomfort may lead people to seek help.

Nothing creates an incentive to seek assistance like pain. It’s at this point that people make appointments to see someone like me. They walk in saying some version of the following: “Help.”

They never come in saying, “I’ve become aware of the gap between my chronological and developmental ages, and I could use your assistance in closing that gap.” No, they present with complaints about how life isn’t working so well. In effect, they’ve driven thousands of miles on a 50-mile-spare and doing so has severely thrown off their alignment. They come in distressed about why it’s so hard to keep their car from running off the road.

The helper helps them get stuck parts out of the cul-de-sacs and growing once again.

So, I see it as my job to find out which aspects of personality matured just fine and which ones didn’t. A person might say what he thinks, for example, but have little discernment about when to keep his mouth shut. His “expression” muscle grew to full strength but his “discretion” muscle remained atrophied. The resulting lack of balance has hurt his relationships, and he’s perplexed about why others always seem to keep him at a distance.

I tell people sometimes that I’m sort of a “personality physical therapist” who identifies and strengthens the atrophied aspects of personality. If I can help this guy strengthen his discretion muscle while continuing to use his expression muscle, the system will have more balance and his relationships will likely work better. That’s why I called the seminar, “Helping Adult Clients Grow Up.”

And when we close the gaps between our chronological and developmental ages, that pleases us. As William Butler Yeats once observed:

Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure

Nor this thing nor that.

It is simply growth.

We are happy when we are growing.

Till next week.

P.S. The next two Friday’s are Christmas and New Year’s. I probably should’ve said, “Till next year.”