Saturday, January 9, 2016

The adult notion

A high school senior’s only question, during one of his first few therapy sessions, was: What is it like to be an adult?  He was very worried about having to become something bigger and better, stronger and more thoughtful, more competent and complex, responsible and goal-oriented and stuck in the maturity treadmill, than he was, and of course – having to be that way for the rest of his life.  He was feeling the failure of himself – nothing less.  Because only that feeling can provoke the dread of losing oneself, leaving one’s chance to be a child behind.

An earlier blog post – “Being 18” – addressed this problem: the inability of some or many youngsters to ascend to psychological adulthood.  Here I just want to review my peculiar response to the young man.  I suggested to him that adulthood is essentially a societal-cultural construct and a psychological strategy or defense that helps us live on despite the unhealed injuries of our past, and that gets us to do the “right thing” for self, family and community.  I told him that most “so-called adults” are not: They are children wearing the stiff clothing of pretension and action.  Inside they are just themselves, without category or definition: souls carrying ten billion idiosyncrasies and childlike feelings, and confusion.  They now have the benefit of being seen by others as arrived, but inside they are still smoking pot, eating ice cream at midnight and drinking beer in the morning, watching Saturday cartoons, masturbating and having regressive fantasies, dreaming they and their world will be transformed by love.

I proposed that adultness is like sexuality.  Once generally allowed to be a duality (hetero- and homosexual), there are now other entities like bisexual and asexual and transgender, aromantic and bicurious and gender fluid.  In fact, a microscopic continuum made of one’s full – not merely sexual – identity, where virility and femininity fade imperceptibly into and fuse with each other.  Adultness, similarly, is a continuum where some healthy few grow and individuate through the psycho-developmental stages, their interests sophisticate and complicate; others feel no individuality whatsoever and crave symbiosis and pleasure, but must fake it; others who finesse child and adult parts.  An old college friend is a well known cartoonist of cats and sex-obsessed geeks and pixies.  His daughter is a professional puppeteer.  Where does the child leave off, or get stuck, and the adult begin, or merely appear?

My practice has shown me that children who “grow up too fast” are unnatural beings, with a shell of worldliness or toughness under which is a left-behind continent.  This pulls them to be the child.  They have blind rages and disturbed dependencies, secret craziness,* gastrointestinal ailments that mean their childhood fears, “strength” for others that wears them out, urges to “succeed” or saboteurs to fail.  But these folks can seem to all the world to be top-notch, the full adult.

This information (or theory) was meant to help my young client drop his fearful urgency to, in effect, graduate at the doctoral level without education or diploma.  We’re just struggling youngsters carrying our heart, our needs, our losses into a wider open space.  You are un-judge-able, valid, private (unseen by others), the world is yours not a standard to adhere to, your time is easy not rushing.  In this context I urged him, with some humor, not to commit to a relationship precipitately.  The felt need to be aligned with a friend or savior will be tremendous – in the very midst of basking in your freedom and independence.  Watch out for that.

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Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.