As told to Anna Maxted.
How many of us, as small children, were snarlingly told by a parent or teacher to act our age, not our shoe size? Never mind that quite often our age was our shoe size. And how many of us – as smart, successful responsible adults in impressive careers — have been told by a frustrated partner, “My God, it’s like dealing with a twelve-year-old!” – or indeed, “Grow up!”
Let me say that the two are linked – we’re talking cause and effect here.
Of which more soon. But first, why would anyone hurl such an accusation? Usually, they’re prompted by their beloved showing a hurtful lack of emotional awareness or empathy. They leave the room when their child or partner is crying, ignore them, or snap at them to control themselves. And yes, their partner is spot-on – they are behaving like a twelve-year-old.
Why? Because a remarkable percentage of adults have, emotionally at least, never matured. They are emotional babies. Lacking emotional awareness means that they struggle to recognise what they’re feeling or why, and are often at a loss to understand what others are feeling. So they also lack empathy – the capacity to intuit the feelings of others and respond supportively.
But why is that – so often for so many – so hard to do? Why would you walk out? Or snap, “Get a grip.” (So hurtful and unkind… and… here’s a clue…. a familiar phrase from many a childhood.) Some people behave this way because they don’t know what to do. Often, they can’t bear to see that emotion because of their own experience growing up.
A lot of adults have an emotional age of an adolescent or young teenager because in childhood their emotional maturing process was stunted by the adults around them who expected their needs to be met – instead of meeting that child’s needs.
Reminder – a parent’s task is to ‘hold’ the child emotionally. That means to help the young person regulate their moods by showing that – say – anger, sadness, anxiety, and disappointment, are all valid emotions that we must learn to deal with and not subdue or numb. Part of that ‘holding’ means not joining them in the emotion, but allowing them to express what they feel – without shaming or blaming them.
So imagine. A small child falls over, cuts their knee, and cries. The parent gives them a hug, and says, “Poor you. That does look very sore. Ouch. Let’s wash it, and put on a plaster.” The child is soothed. The pain feels more manageable because the parent is calm and “containing” the fear and the child feels safe and loved – even though it is an “ouch.”
But if the parent were to shake them and shout, “Shut up, cry-baby – look where you’re going!” – well, of course, the child’s distress would be magnified. They’d learn that they were wrong, stupid, and pathetic to express their pain. And soon enough – wanting to please their parent, as every child does – they would stop expressing how they really felt.
As their pain was never soothed, they’d find ways to distract from it and numb it – so perhaps they’d focus on achieving and pleasing others, or maybe they’d get into trouble at school. Maybe as they got older, they’d exercise a lot and starve themselves, or maybe they’d start to drink heavily.
The shame of it is that too many of us had parents who were emotionally illiterate or dysfunctional and didn’t respond in a nurturing, warm, and appropriate way – which children need at every stage (be they three, eight, fifteen, 18, or 22).
Fast forward twenty years. The child is now, at least outwardly, an adult. But because they didn’t have empathy, they don’t know how to give it. Having successfully trained themselves to block or ignore their pain, they’re unable to connect to their own feelings. They often intellectualise and rationalise feelings. (“You’re tired. I don’t want to discuss it. Let’s change the subject.”) They can’t respond emotionally to an emotion. If they can’t find a rational response, they walk away. It’s a defence mechanism.
Of course, most of these adults are capable of showcasing empathy sometimes – in a meeting, for instance, whereas CEO know the corporate courtesies and the penalties of breaching them. But their emotional immaturity often bursts out in unguarded, high-stress moments – often at home (though at work too).
What’s particularly poignant is that many emotionally immature adults genuinely do care. They love and want to connect with their kids and spouse. They don’t quite know-how. Often, they’ll show emotion – remorse, or gratitude – via money and power, so an expensive gift for Mother’s Day, after not speaking to their wife for four days in a row.
If we were trying to determine our own level of empathy we might ask ourselves how often, if someone close to us is upset, anxious, or fearful, do we focus on problem-solving and finding a solution? “What the hell are you talking about? Just call so and so.”
The intention is good. It seems empathetic to the would-be problem-solver – after all, you’re trying to fix the issue. But it’s not empathy. It’s not what the other person needs.
Essentially, when you say ‘it’s fine’ or ‘just do this’ you’re trying to get them to repress their emotion, trying to get rid of it, or squash it down, get them to stop expressing it.
The solution? It’s surprisingly simple. To be empathic, listen. Stop talking. Listen. Then maybe you can ask, ‘do you want us to think about what we could do?’ Listen so that the other person feels heard, doesn’t feel alone, feels understood. They feel connected to you.
Emotions are scary. Often we don’t know what to do in response to them. But emotions don’t require a solution. Emotions require you to be with that person. To sit with them. Just as your parents should have done with you.