“You’re acting like a child.” That statement will usually make any adult continue acting like a child. What is being referred to in such an allegation? It means we are acting out our emotions rather than verbalizing them. In so doing we are harming others or even ourselves. This is a major distinction between the mature and immature – emotionally act out or verbalize.
In 1 Corinthians 13 the Apostle Paul deals with the subject of spiritual maturity in regards to our motives in the use of spiritual gifts. The ultimate spiritually mature motive God desires is love. It is this motive that compelled Christ to the cross. Paul illustrates the difference between the immature and the mature with this statement in verse 11. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” The inability to give up childish ways is what causes so much conflict in the important relationships of our life. To become mature, we must understand the process of giving up childish ways.
The source of childish ways
Childish ways come from childhood; they are normal. This is a stage of life everyone passes through. Unfortunately, everyone doesn’t experience a normal, safe and healthy childhood. Safe and healthy can be described as secure attachment and loving nurture. As dependent babies, we need a protective place to bond and attach. Here we feel wanted and out of danger. Once here we also need to be nurtured. Nurturing is when someone meets my physical, emotional, spiritual and relational needs. This is what the family is designed for. From this safe place we mature from dependence to independence and are launched into the world as healthy and productive members of society.
Unfortunately, because this is a broken world, this process doesn’t always happen as it should. When we receive less than ideal attachment and nurture, these shortcomings create emotional wounds in us. We then develop defense mechanisms to cope with the wounds. Along with the defense mechanisms come emotional freeze points. A piece of our personality freezes at the age when the wound happened. We grow into adulthood, but most of us have personality pieces of the child within us.
Acting out childish ways
In relationships the presenting problem usually isn’t the full problem. This is why we often don’t understand a person’s reaction to us in a given situation. We may feel they are overreacting and being unreasonable. We need to remember there is always a reason why people do what they do — even when it doesn’t make any sense to us or them. What is happening is the present emotion is triggering the same emotion from their past. In other words, you are making them feel the same way someone else made them feel in their past. All the emotion past and present is coming together in one big reaction – thus the overreaction. The person will usually not be fully aware of the connection to the past because much of the childlike emotion is in the unconscious memory.
What is the childish way? The person’s emotional wound takes them back to not only the same past emotion but the old defense mechanism — a defense they developed as a child with limited mental and emotional resources. The problem with using it now as an adult is it won’t work. The reason it won’t work is because the inner child is acting out their emotions just as in the past. Whatever form this acting out takes will only wound the other person, triggering their defenses and the conflict is escalated. The dance is on.
How to heal and give up childish ways
The goal of maturing is to integrate all the pieces of our personality (child, adolescent, adult) into one whole, healthy and mature person. We can then verbalize our emotions, thoughts and views of situations in a reasonable and solution-oriented manner. Problems and conflicts then get solved rather than just recycled. People feel better about themselves and each other. Our homes, workplace and community are more unified and peaceful.
Someone is thinking, “Oh, if it were only that easy.”
I didn’t say it was easy, but it is possible. It does require some training in communication skills. However, more important than the skills is the healing of the past wounds. This requires a willingness to look within and revisit unpleasant places. It may require the help of a wise and trusted friend or counselor.
One very effective healing technique is to allow your heavenly father to reparent you. He is able to walk back with you through your past. He can use his truth to expose the hurtful lies you have come to accept as truth about yourself. These lies have become locked in at both a mental and emotional level. They cause us to self-blame and own things that are not ours to own. Now from an adult perspective and with his presence and truth you can hand over the childish ways. Then you can reprogram your mind with the truth that will set you feel. As a loving father he can welcome you into adulthood with a blessing; “You have become a person with whom I am well pleased.”
Dr. John Hawkins, Sr. runs Gateway Counseling Center in Boynton Beach along with his son John Jr. He can be reached by visiting gatewaycounseling.com.