Acting like an adult means regulating our emotions. It is about recognizing our habitual patterns of responding, taking responsibility for them, and changing our behavior to better help us navigate our lives.
However, for many people, it is easier said then done.
“Something keeps getting in the way of you mastering this thing called adulthood,” writes Laura Fielding.
In her new book, Mastering Adulthood: Go Beyond Adulting to Become an Emotional Grown-Up, Fielding offers a comprehensive guide to developing healthy emotional habits that help us better navigate challenges and, in the process, develop emotional strength.
“Every day, each of us is tasked with the business of adulting — taking on responsibilities that are the price of entry into the life we want to build while we’re on the planet,” writes Fielding.
In the process, we develop emotional habits of thinking, feeling and acting that are designed to minimize discomfort and maximize comfort.
Fielding writes, “It’s not what you do that is really the problem, but the purpose or function of the habit that starts to sabotage you.”
While our habits are often interpreted as our personalities, personalities can be somewhat flexible. At one end of the spectrum, we can wall ourselves off, over-focusing on our self-definition, and at the other end, we can become too focused on what others need from us and lose sight of our own goals.
However, as Fielding notes, “The key to successfully transitioning into and throughout adulthood is to learn how to skillfully and flexibly adopt what works in a particular context.”
The part of yourself that will help you navigate adulthood is not the reactive part, but rather, the observant part.
Fielding writes, “It’s from this place of ownership, rather than reactivity, that you can learn to more skillfully negotiate the bumpy terrain of life.”
However, repeated negative experiences can make us afraid to feel our emotions, or avoidant of them altogether. Fielding describes her client, Gavin, who, after growing up in an alcoholic and emotionally abusive family, had learned to avoid his anger. Over time, he’d learned to associate anger with anxiety and a feeling of powerlessness. He then acted in ways that confirmed his feelings.
“Emotions become extra confusing when we have secondary emotions, or an emotion about an emotion, because they send an ineffective message,” writes Fielding.
Beliefs also can influence how we interpret the world around us and can shift thoughts from conscious actions to automatic assumptions.
Fielding writes, “The stories we collect from experience and our tribe become tacit assumptions or unconscious rules about how the world works.”
Our power is in our actions, in the daily habits that combined create — or do not create — the life we want.
Taking action, however, requires that we first recognize that our perceptions of the events in our lives — Fielding calls these “passengers in our mind-body vehicle” — affect how we respond at any given time.
It is from the observant part of us that we can begin to notice our internal reactions that, Fielding tells us, are based on old programming.
One exercise Fielding suggests is to write down an incident where we might be holding on to blame or judgment, then, after noticing how we feel, go back and underline all of the facts, circle the emotions related to the facts and rewrite the incident without any judgement or causal interpretations.
Becoming more mindful — noticing and labeling our emotions, our triggers and our impulses — not only helps us identify our thoughts and feelings, but separate them, which is an essential skill.
Fielding writes, “Making the distinction between what you think about a fact and how you feel emotionally is going to be super important for later deciding which skill to apply to which piece of your internal experience.”
Life is full of limitations and choices, but our values do not have to abandoned altogether. Rather, by prioritizing our choices and understanding that we can feel uncertainty and discomfort and still pursue our goals, we can learn to accept life on life’s terms.
Another exercise Fielding suggests is to make a list of any and all actions we can take that would move us toward our values, and then, after rating how much distress each one would cause, choose the three easiest actions to commit to in the next week.
“The iterative process of commitment to values and commitment to skills is how you start transitioning out of your autopilot emotional habits, which keep your emotion-thought-action system rigid, and into the life you want,” writes Fielding.
Fielding’s book is filled with tips on how to become more aware of our emotions, automatic reactions, and impulses, how to develop mindfulness and the ability to tolerate uncertainty, how to cultivate willingness to cope with challenging emotions, how to use wisdom to investigate our thoughts, and how to pursue our goals in spite of setbacks. Mastering Adulthood reads like an owner’s manual for the adult self.
Mastering Adulthood: Go Beyond Adulting to Become an Emotional Grown-Up
New Harbinger, January 2019
Paperback, 224 pages