Why is “Adulting” so Hard?

I’ve been thinking about my patients of all ages who are having trouble becoming fully adult. What is surprising is how strongly their inner mind resists saying goodbye to parenting that never worked in the first place and embracing the genuine love and support that have been waiting for them in adult life. What is new for me is to look at this phenomenon from the point of view of evolution and to speculate about how we become ready to go on our own. (Photo by Tambako The Jaguar,  Flickr.com  CC BY-ND 2.0)

First, what do I mean by adult? It means becoming what I like to call a “free standing human,” that is, being ready to make one’s own decisions and to live with their consequences. In contrast, there are many people who function in some ways as adults, but who don’t experience full ownership of their lives and decisions. They don’t see themselves as ultimately responsibility for themselves. Seeking out support and advice are part of adult life, but being adult means owning one’s own decisions about which advice to accept. When things go wrong, these people tend to blame something outside themselves, their past, or parents, or current authorities. They see their lives as determined by outside factors. Another manifestation of the syndrome is depending on emotional substitutes for parental love and support. Sometimes the substitutes are people, but often they may may bear little resemblance to motherly love. They can include eating disorders, addiction to drugs or even compulsive self-harm. What all these substitutes have in common is that they are alternatives to full autonomy and distractions that get in the way of making the best of the opportunities we have in life.

Even though I don’t believe in sports metaphors, this one works just right to  highlight how adulthood should work: We are the batters in the game of baseball. The pitcher (life) throws a mixture of good and bad pitches. An excellent batter is one who is able to hit one pitch in three. What makes that batter superior is the ability to let the bad pitches go by and to swing at the good ones. Those who have trouble moving into adulthood are the ones who focus on the quality of the pitches and seem relatively unconcerned about how they swing.

Now, why mention lion cubs? Lion cubs stop nursing around 6-8 months, but remain dependent on their mother up to two to three years. What is interesting to me is to wonder what tells them it is time to let go of mother and go on their own? Without knowing about the specifics of their neurobiology, I am speculating that the lion cub has some way of knowing that he or she has had enough mothering and is ready for adulthood. Unlike lion cubs, humans with inadequate parental support are likely to survive physically, but perhaps they are still waiting for an inner signal that they have had the amount of support that was required. The fact that they don’t step into adulthood suggests that they are waiting for something outside themselves to change.

Of course they have a rationale for why they are not engaging fully in adult life, but it seems that they are waiting for someone or something to fill in what is missing. Sometimes they look to a lover who is expected to be both a companion and an ideal parent. Sometimes it is a therapist. Sometimes it is food or a drug or a behavior pattern. Sometimes my cubs simply avoid finding a job or engaging with the world. I have come to believe they are waiting for their parents finally to see the error of their ways and to reform. Of course this never happens.

In fact, substitutes for motherly love can never make up for what was once missing. The experience of being a completely dependent human cub and receiving 24/7 nurturing and attunement can’t be made up for later in life, no matter how devoted the companion, friend, therapist, substance or actual parent. The result is that our human cub never gets to experience the feeling of having “had enough motherly love.” So they wait.

What has made me take a fresh look at this phenomenon is the remarkable power of the drive to fill in the unmet needs of the past. The resistance shown to letting go of this preoccupation with outside conditions can be massive. Even when, through therapy or otherwise, these cubs become fully aware of the dysfunction of their ways, they may still not be able to make themselves take concrete steps into adulthood. Sometimes when they try, the level of stress is enough to produce physical illness. When they do act in adult ways, there can be a backlash of negative feeling or return to symptoms.

This resistance to adulting can be so strong that I have come to believe it may relate to our evolutionary history. What if humans, like lion cubs have a built-in sense of how much nurturing is enough? Not many lion cubs fail to receive the nurturing they need. If they don’t, they are not likely to survive. But humans require a longer and more complex experience of being taken care of and “raised.” So we are perhaps unique in having the experience of survival in spite of inadequate mothering. When our inner gauge of “good enough mothering” never registers full, then perhaps we remain under the influence of deep mammalian forces to keep us waiting for the job to be completed.

I used to think that reluctance to move into adulthood was driven by fear. I still think so, but maybe the fear is deeper than one might imagine. It could be the genuine danger of venturing out into a hostile world before being ready to survive. The waiting can go on for a lifetime, and sometimes does. It is an unhappy, unsatisfied, angry waiting. Why doesn’t someone see what my needs are? As a therapist I am sometimes in the position of being the one on whom those expectations fall. Then I am also a repeated disappointment and cause for anger, as my efforts to help just never lead to the feeling of having had enough mothering.

What is the answer?

Here is how recovery can take place. By taking small steps into adult behavior and attitudes, patients come to experience that being adult is safe. The inner child realizes that even if the therapist can’t fulfill the sense of need, he or she is still doing all that is possible to help. Very gradually an acceptance creeps in that it is too late, and that a full measure of motherly love is no longer possible. In addition, the cub has repeated experiences that adult life is not so bad, and in fact feels pretty good. The inner child comes eventually to know from experience that the fear of adulting is unfounded and learns to be comfortable as a free standing human.

On the other hand, there are factors that can stand in the way. One is the use of non-human substitutes like food and drugs. These can block new experiences of adult caring or the safety of adult life. This is why relinquishing substitutes can be a necessary condition for the maturation that has been waiting to happen.

Another important block is one mentioned many times in this blog in relation to attachment to the therapist. When the therapist is experienced as the one who should do the mothering, the therapist’s “refusal” to show a willingness to “do the job” can be experienced as a repetition of the apparent or real refusal on the part of the parent. The therapist becomes the withholding parent. This often results in a stalemate where the patient waits for the therapist to change and the therapist waits for the patient to change. Sometimes, when the therapist shows a bit of humanness or makes a serious gesture towards flexibility, that is what breaks the impasse. Until it is dealt with, the two will be in a tug-of-war that can go on indefinitely until someone gives up. That is a bad outcome.

The Important Role of Thoughts:

A regular part of the experience of cubs who are stuck waiting is that their mind produces a lavish stream of thoughts tying them to their unfinished past. They may obsess constantly about past failures. Sometimes they blame themselves. This is when, as children, they were not able to express dissatisfaction directly towards the parent. They learned to blame themselves instead. Sometimes they blame life or others, and spend endless energy trying to “reengineer the past.” These thoughts and the intense emotions accompanying them create a powerful distraction from facing the fear of moving into adulthood. Those who don’t blame themselves may find fault with the people and resources available to them as adults. Preoccupied with things they can’t change, they continue to wait for the inner signal that they have had enough mothering.

My Interest in Evolution:

Thinking and discussing with colleagues at SEPI, the Society for the Exploration of Psychotherapy Integration, I have been focused lately on how the field of psychotherapy is still struggling to integrate our growing knowledge of neurobiology. Biology has long since accepted a single “paradigm” or framework, based on the idea that living things have all evolved in ways that enhanced survival and procreation, in darwin’s words, “survival of the fittest.” This framework provides an intellectual backdrop for understanding the whys of all of biology. Importantly, biologists are aware that “why” questions, such as why chameleons are able to change color, are sometimes speculative, but our willingness to ask the questions leads to greater understanding and to further research and learning.

In contrast, psychology has been hampered by our inability to see into the 90% of mental activity that is not available to consciousness. Why questions were once purely speculative and each camp had its own set of beliefs. Freud speculated that the unconscious was driven by sexual and aggressive instincts. This was an elegant formulation, but not subject to experimental confirmation. Watson, the founder of behaviorism, felt that science had no business trying to understand even conscious thoughts, let alone unconscious ones. Later, the cognitive revolution brought conscious thoughts into the realm of science, but tended to avoid why questions, other than the belief that thoughts must be the result of learning. There is still far too much fighting over different belief systems.

In recent decades, neurobiology has made powerful strides and has brought scientific knowledge to areas that used to be speculative. We now understand where and how information is stored in the mind. Mental “data” including feelings, nonverbal patterns, language and ideas are all stored in “neural networks,” groups of nerve cells that tend to fire as a unit. We also understand that basic emotions like fear and caring emanate from our “mammalian brain,” in areas beneath the cortex. Furthermore, our emotional brain is broadly analogous to that of lower mammals and even birds and other animals. The result is that the unconscious mind is no longer so mysterious. We can begin to picture how the mind takes in perceptions and identifies whether they represent dangers to avoid or opportunities to pursue. Now we can begin to formulate how positive and negative emotions drive our thoughts and behavior, motivating us to approach those things that give positive feelings and avoid those that are associated with negative ones.

Today I am asking a why question with some hope of an answer eventually becoming available. Why do so many people have serious trouble accepting adult responsibility for themselves. For now, we can speculate that this powerful reluctance to move towards independence may derive from some innate mechanism in which the mind naturally associates grown-up behaviors with massive fear until such time as a perception of having “had enough mothering” triggers a readiness to reach out and join the adult world with all the fine choices and satisfactions it has to offer.

If my speculation is true, then what therapy accomplishes is to promote an unnatural, but desperately needed, resolution of the fear of adulting by helping human cubs take progressive emotional risks and gain positive experiences conveying inwardly the safety and freedom of adult life.

17 Comments

  • This article sheds more light on what therapy accomplishes for a client. Connecting Neurobiology and evolution makes sense, mostly because of how strong certain attachment feelings come up in psychotherapy and when the process ends. Speaking as a client who has been out of therapy now for some months, and still longing for my therapist, I can feel the strength and depth of these feelings. Unattaching has been the most difficult obstacle for me to endure, almost worse than the flashbacks I experienced due to a variety of childhood abuse. And I’ve experienced many health issues and surgeries, and can reflect that I’d rather have major surgery than experience the attachment feelings and longings…The feelings are very real, and feel like a need that is so great. Therapy had a botched ending, and I suppose that didn’t help. But it is what it is,and I am hoping these feelings fade into the background sooner rather than later.

  • This article touches me on many levels….Last July I had to move and leave my therapist of 3 years. I was in the middle of my work healing from childhood sexual abuse by a priest and my brother and his friends. In addition, my mother is a narcissist to the full degree. Through therapy I learned the degree from which I suffered and how I was continuing to suffer in relationships etc… because of it all. I became extremely attached to my therapist and though she helped me interview therapists in my new location and finally choose a “step-mother replacement” as I called it, it was very difficult to let her go. She worked with me – in communication with my new therapist- for an additional 3-4 months by phone and video chat and I even made a trip a month to see her. In this time, she showed more and more humanness and expressed her own grieving over the loss of me and our work together. That is what I believe was the turning point for me. I needed to know I mattered to her. I needed to know I and our work was “special” to her and that I wasn’t just another client. I believe that her willingness to lower the boundaries and show herself more was what allowed this cub feel secure to let go and move on from her and make new, healthy connections. I believe she helped complete the “mothering” I needed and sought.

  • Thank you all, for your comments. Your participation is invaluable for me and for all our readers. This post is relevant to many people including not only those who have been overtly abused but also those affected by inadequate parenting that was less obvious or even camouflaged by ostensible caring. Jeffery

  • Hi Jeffery,
    What a fascinating topic, and very interesting thinking of it from the perspective of evolution. You wrote “Very gradually an acceptance creeps in that it is too late, and that a full measure of motherly love is no longer possible.” There is also a great deal of grief that happens on the way to acceptance – grief when realizing what was lost in one’s childhood (sufficient/appropriate mothering) and that, as you said, substitutes for motherly love can never make up for what was once missing. Alice Miller, in her books, even calls it “the never-ending work of morning”, and though I don’t necessarily agree with everything she wrote about childhood (or that mourning should be “never-ending”), in my experience grief does lead to acceptance and a more mature stance in life. Especially when witnessed by a compassionate therapist or friend, this type of morning also leads to self-compassion and self-acceptance, and to an inner strength that’s necessary for freely navigating adulthood.

    How do you see the role of grief/morning in the context of the process you described in the article? It seems to me that through grief and acceptance and making the unconscious conscious, the focus shifts from wanting mothering from an external source to getting this from oneself (“I now want to mother and nurture myself, and will do so consistently), leading to the inner gauge of “good enough mothering” to register full because now we ourselves are supplying the missing love from childhood. Perhaps learning to mother ourselves is also part of our evolutionary path and once achieved it gives us a sense that we will survive and can take risks in life because we will always be there for ourselves if we get bruised (i.e., it’s not as ‘dangerous’ as it seemed).

    But then of course being able to let go of resistance and to grieve is a massive task in itself; it requires the right conditions to access those deeply buried repressed feelings that you talked about in other articles/books, and it’s best done in the safety of psychotherapy, which most people will not consider.

    Very interesting topic and article. Thanks!

    Linda

    • Dear Linda, You raise good questions. The first thing I think of is the image of a mother elephant whose baby has died. She nudges the body with her trunk and lingers for hours, then finally turns sadly and goes on to join the herd. To go deeper into human experience, the key to self-mothering is having an internalized positive mother-child experience. Technically one name for this is “basic trust.” I believe it is also the thing that is activated in mindfulness meditation. My guess is that it is established in the first year or two of life, which means that many people have something like this simply from the most basic care taking experience. On the other hand, abuse can render this inner sense of being lovable unavailable. In that case, it is as if it needs to be internalized from the therapist. This, in my experience, is a long, slow process of coming to trust and rely on another person. It seems that gradually being cared for by another makes it possible to care for oneself. I am not sure if this is internalization for the first time, or acquiring the ability to re-access something that has always been there. What that means in practice, is that if you are having trouble with self-love and self-care, the place to look is towards those sources of love and caring outside oneself. If that looks like a “catch 22” it is. We need to have inner confidence to take in outer love, and outer love is what we need to feel inner courage. In the end, it isn’t impossible, it just may have to go by small steps at first. So make sure your caregivers are trustworthy and then work to overcome your resistance to trusting and relying on them. In the end, the subjective experience of fulness of care from outside does seem to be what triggers a sense of being strong enough inside to face the grief of letting go of childhood and the uncertainty of adult life.

      • Dear Jeffery, thanks for the comment. I agree that the key to self-mothering is having an internalized positive mother-child experience. I didn’t have this with my mother but internalized it from my therapist. I doubt that I would have been who I am today without the experience I had in long-term therapy. I too wonder if the internalization that happens in therapy is a first-time experience, or it’s acquiring the ability to re-access something that has always been there. It is indeed a bit of a “catch 22” – looking to sources of love and caring outside oneself when developing a sense of self-love and self-care – but it seems that that’s how our psyche works. So true that we build the strength to face the grief of letting go of childhood through the subjective experience of feeling supported by someone who genuinely cares.

  • For me it hasn’t only been small steps but more like in waves of being confident and that security you talk about has been tremendously important. When I feel secure within my sense of self even when I do make mistakes. Guarding my heart against those mistakes so they don’t cause me to beat my self up with a stick or hate myself for not being a good enough person but to differentiate that my being is not dependent on what I do or haven’t done right. I’ve come to realise that my actions are momentarily and fleeting. Seasonal. Things move one. I move on. What stands out for me about your blog is being secure. It’s a confidence in self that is secure in and of itself. A security that has moved from another, my therapist perhaps, into myself. And this confidence has come part and parcel of knowing I have had the support of my therapist and friends. The security he offered for me to be broken and be ok with myself in being broken as he is also not rejecting me. This knowing has been on a very deep emotional level. Regardless of what others say and especially my negative voices, I’ve moved almost in a rebellious way against my old self. It feels very skew at first. Unnatural and misaligned to what I’m familiar with.

    For me these spurts of confidence started, like you say, with small steps. Also allowing myself the grace to make mistakes, helps. But I find that this has been in waves. I’ve not made a clear break from say wanting that nurturing I never got as a child. It’s been mourning the loss of never having had justice but it’s come in moments of letting go. In moments of struggling to let go. Relinquishing and then standing tall in waves. Through it all as I get closer to being adult, I’ve also felt an emerging desire to actually be adult and become more grown-up. I want to move on and let go of the past, which is not a pernicious or airy fairy hope. It’s a deep and realistic desire to turn. It comes with an envisioning of myself as an adult. I see myself do and be who I can be. And then actually who I am but never realised. In small things where I’ve stepped out to try and handle situations and conflicts and to my surprise have overcome obstacles. But also where I failed, I didn’t feel my world fall apart. My sense of self didn’t crumble. It’s not been tackling the big things but the smaller things that worked for me. And I think I only need to try my best. Nothing less and nothing more. Trying is all I need to do and that it’s ok to fail or even worse to “be a failure”. Looking at what the worse case scenario is and facing it. My walls and sense of self will not tumble in as a result of my being a failure. I no longer need. That need for what I never had. I am also, like everyone else, allowed to be, my being. I have and own my being.

    • Dear Nina, Thank you for sharing your story. This is such a lovely and real description. Looking at how teenagers separate, it is clear that there is sometimes an element of rebellion and even aggression in saying good bye when part of the self still wants to hang on. It feels like rebelling against authorities, but it is really rebelling against a part of the self. I hope everyone reads your account. Bravo! Jeffery

  • I saw this article five minutes after the session with my therapist. It is exactly what I’ve been experiencing these past weeks. He and I have a long, complicated history. Progress is evident but very, very slow due to severe trust issues and massive familial damage. He said that we learn to trust in the first year of life; which I never developed, just the opposite. I was number six of eleven and was probably tossed into a corner to feed myself. I’ve struggled desperately with attachment to him, wanting him so much closer and at the same time pushing him away trying to creating distance any way I can, ‘knowing’ therapy is not real, he is faking it and pretending to care. Thankfully, I have come to accept he can never be my mother or father. That wish was BIG. He has adjusted the boundaries and access because he knows the deprivations and deficits were severe. The maternal transference has been fierce at times. This last episode was the worst. I went through emotional torture for several weeks from the confusion that he is exactly like her and I’ve been played this entire time. Well, I had the good sense to re-listen to an important session. During a meditation later that day, a feeling of real love and care filled inside me. I literally had a physical sensation of peace and contentment for hours, just like one would have the opposite from a distressing event. I could not deny this was real. I felt love from him. I felt solid and grown up and a sense of security I have never known. I told him about this experience via email because I likely would have changed my mind before the next session and he would never have known. I told him if I had this loving feeling on a consistent basis growing up, my life would have been so different. After I disclosed this experience I unknowingly avoided any contact for four days and did slip back into the frozen four-year-old. I was practically mute this past session. Thankfully, we went very slow and figured out what was going on inside me pertaining to our relationship and all the dynamics at play.That was great to be able to do. That sense of security, attachment and understanding is authentic and knowing this makes me feel grown up and strong. Great article!

  • The “why” in my opinion is that they don’t know how. Having been abandoned by a parent at a young age, I have achieved success in many areas of my life, but still have great difficulty with self soothing. The skill set is missing and without the important foundational building blocks that should have been provided in early childhood there is an emotional/cognitive delay. Jung says we are waiting for those players who can enter our life stage with the keys we need to open our locks. When we meet a person with complementary parts then we will attempt to have those locks opened and needs met, Freud’s repetition compulsion. We unconsciously repeat and hope for a different outcome. The best outcome I believe is to come to realization of what was lost, complete grief work and come to terms with reality. Most of us desperately try to avoid this pain. Reality brings freedom.

    • Interesting. I have a complicated way of thinking about this. I think the trigger for internalizing skills, states of mind, and even values is when we have to say good bye. That happens when children go to bed and are alone. That would be the time to internalize the soothing presence of an attuned and loving parent. Of course without that, as you point out, learning the skill is not going to happen. Jeffery

  • I am still in the process of reading your website bits by bits over the last weeks and months. It is so nourishing.

    After a series of harsh social experiences lately, leading to and including 2 burnout in 10 years, I realized I had to take care of early wounds that had reopened and were bleeding. That was the beginning of psychotherapy for me, which started with studying and digesting a lot of modern information on neuro-psychology, especially on Developmental PTSD, in order to understand what kind of therapeutic modality or self work could best help me. I find out the best way is to combine bottom-up (somatic, body based) work and top-down (relational therapy) work. See for ex. Heller and LaPorte, “Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation” (Somewhere on this blog Jeffery asked for mainstream references. This is a good one).

    It’s too early to say anything definitive regarding my own process, but I do notice a huge resistance to adulting. And although I eventually stopped blaming my self, or at least pay much attention to that propensity, still, as you say,

    “Those who don’t blame themselves may find fault with the people and resources available to them
    as adults. Preoccupied with things they can’t change, they continue to wait for the inner signal that
    they have had enough mothering.”

    To help me with say my social situation and my work out there with the “people and resources available”, where I am pretty much stuck, I have now turned to a lovely coach, besides therapy. I keep the mothering work/grieving etc. for my therapist. My coach herself went through 4 therapies so she understands what I am doing besides meeting her and we can focus on my external life while knowing there is deeper stuff to fix too. With her, I nonetheless find the prospect of taking fully charge of these outer aspects of my life terrifying. It makes me feel as nervous and anxious as the relational therapy does. All my deep psychology, i.e. deep neurosystem that releases all sort of neurochemicals, is triggered. Last night, coaching led to more insomnia. Just as you describe, symptoms are back. So the key is therapy.

    I also wanted to add, since you mention addiction to substance, that social media on the internet (or maybe porn on the internet, for males in particular) is a big place of addiction where one seems to connect with others and somehow really does it. It’s a very tricky place of diversion, because it is also relational.

    Unlike cubs and mammals, we have an extra huge social brain–the human brain is a social organ. So we have to get it mature to be adult, there is no other way. If it’s wounded, dysfonctional because of attachment disorder or trauma, we cannot ‘adult’. And because it works together with more primitive parts of us that are not conscious and can ‘drive the bus’ (limbic sytem, reptilian brain) and can shut our higher intelligence down, awareness alone cannot do the trick. We need, as Nina Bosch relates above, the actual experience of safety, to become ingrained.

    Without this social and relational safety, from an evolutionary perspective, we are ‘food for lions’ —dead. So there is a vital need for a signal of safety.

    • oops, it’s Heller and LaPorte, “Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship”

      The work of Dan Siegel is also fantastic.

  • I am 22 and have this same problem with adulting. I am willing and eager to work towards independence, but every little bump in the road causes me crippling anxiety that in turn reduces my ability to do… anything. My depression goes through the roof and my energy and motivation through the floor. Fear and exhaustion make it difficult to focus on my university coursework despite my very high IQ. I just can’t seem to get up the traction to get anything real done in life, and I’m constantly haunted by financial fears. I don’t feel adequately supported by my parents in any way, although it’s hard to put my finger on why. They are not emotionally attuned to me at all. Meanwhile Gen X and the Baby Boomers are always ready with another helpful story about how “I had my first job when I was 12” and “I worked three jobs to get through school without debt”. I would give anything to be able to do that, but I can’t. It makes me ill.

    My previous therapist chose this very bad time to end our relationship. I had to end therapy with her a few months ago because the agency she works at is meant for short-term therapy. Because I kept having panic attacks when she told me this, she agreed to let me call her once in awhile. I kept within the boundaries she gave me and only called every few weeks. We just talked for a few minutes about how life was going. Nevertheless, she became really uncomfortable with the arrangement, saying I was still “relying on her emotionally”, and told me we couldn’t continue the phone calls. So I can never talk to her again. I completely lost it. I forget about it for a while, and then I lose it again. The pain is just as potent every time. I don’t even want to live without her. I wish she had explained transference or something, but she just told me my attachment to her was inappropriate for a former therapist. Obviously it is, but I can’t do anything about it. Would I be living through this hell if it were optional?
    I understand that she made the decision she thought would be healthiest for me to “move on”, but I’m convinced that cutting me off was the worst possible thing to do.

    I’m planning an overseas internship, to give myself a (hopefully productive) life change, but planning that entails more stress. I’m terrified that if my depression gets any worse, people will try to keep me from going. And then I’ll be stuck in this cycle forever. I find it very difficult to believe that any of this pain will fade, although intellectually I know that things will change. Meanwhile I can barely get to class most days. And yet I’m expected to function as an adult. None of the regular measures (therapy, meds, mindfulness, etc) are working. Going to the hospital isn’t justified, as I’m not suicidal. I’m stuck in this terrifying limbo and there’s no way out. From the outside, of course, it looks like an ordinary young adult life. In theory I’ll manage to get through it with my bachelor’s degree, but I’m pretty sure my mind will crumble long before that.

    I wasn’t intending to leave a long depressing autobiography. But yeah… adulting. How do you even survive? At some point I won’t be able to even get out of bed anymore. 🙁

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