What does it mean to be “emotionally mature?” To some it would mean being stoic – having mastery of your emotions so that you felt only what you wanted to when you wanted to feel it. To others it would be sentimentality—feeling all there is to be felt in any moment to its fullest extent.
Here I will propose another definition (but not “the” definition). Emotional maturity is (a) the ability to differentiate and properly identify one’s emotions while (b) granting yourself the freedom to experience whatever emotion is appropriate to a given situation.
That is difficult, because the physiological, cognitive, and neurological experiences of various emotions are not that different (see previous post). Differentiating emotions (as we will see) can be much more like parsing the 47 shades of green at the paint store than one would think.
Let’s take a very common case study: An individual in his/her early twenties is engaged to be married and transitioning from student to adult life, deciding upon a career while in a job better suited for student life. What emotions would be common in this experience? I’ll pick three: anxiety, dread, and insecurity.
- Anxiety – How many areas can this person ask, “Am I making the right decision?”
- Dread – How hard is it to be that excited about the future and content in the present?
- Insecurity – Who wouldn’t be asking, “Am I ‘good enough’ for the marriage/roles I’m wanting?”
What do all three of these emotions have in common?
- Neurologically, there is a high degree of overlap in the neurotransmitters involved.
- Physiologically, the bodily reactions of these emotions are highly similar.
- Cognitively, for all three thoughts race while predicted outcomes get larger and increasingly negative.
So what happens for the emotionally immature person (not meant as a derogatory description)? Usually they pick one emotion as their problem. That becomes the focal point of their thinking and three smaller emotional struggles become one large, insurmountable struggle.
If the person views them self as an “anxious person,” then all of their dread and insecurity are labeled anxiety. This does two things. First, it makes the strategies for dealing with anxiety (even biblical ones) two-thirds ineffective (assuming equal parts anxiety, dread, and insecurity). Second, it creates a gravity where every unpleasant emotional experience adds to the overwhelming sense of anxiety.
So what must an effective biblical counselor or one-another disciple-maker be able to do in a situation like this?
First, they need to be able to help their friend separate their emotional experiences. Often we are better at this with our theological categories than we are in our interpersonal and intrapersonal categories. As an example, a biblical counselor should be as attune to the various aspects of emotional experience as Mark Driscoll is to various aspects of the Gospel in his book Death by Love (where he makes pastoral application of distinct features of the Gospel like: redemption, gift righteousness, justification, propitiation, expiation, atonement, ransom, and reconciliation.
Second, (which too often is where I fear we begin), we need to be able to provide good-biblical-practical guidance to the individual’s struggle. In the case study above, unless dread and insecurity are separated from anxiety, then good counsel based on a sloppy assessment will produce limited results. However, once the individual sees him/herself accurately, then (if they are a Christian) their biblical existing instincts are likely to begin to implement their existing biblical wisdom as their sense of being overwhelmed dissipates.