Are you emotionally strong?

In our conversations about strengths this month, physical and character strengths have been relatively easy to define. In this last week of our explorations, let’s dive into one additional strength: mental strength, specifically emotional strength. 

What’s the difference? There are philosophies, studies, and so many books about these topics. 

The lines blur from one article to the next. It’s confusing. In my humble attempt to make sense of it to make it useful in my everyday life, here’s where I’ve landed. 

Typically, the conversation around mental strength refers to resilience, the ability to keep going in a challenging situation. Resilience, in its simplest definition, is a defensive strategy to get through tough times. Karen Revich, the leading researcher on resilience, defines it more broadly as an individual’s capacity to adapt positively to pressuresetbackschallenges, and change to achieve and sustain peak personal effectiveness. In other words, it means learning and growing to be better than you were before the challenge, not in that exact moment of the challenging situation but over time. 

It’s a great concept; it appeals to my hope for the future even when things are tough, but how exactly are we supposed to magically transform challenges into growth. 

Here’s where I’ve been curious about emotional strength, also called emotional maturity. The whole subject of emotions can feel like a lot of woo-woo. Stick with me. Researchers have studied the science of the way our brains navigate the turnings of the mind, known as our emotions. Decoding some of that navigation system allows you to understand and work with your daily struggles and suffering better. 

Emotional maturity, defined by Lindsey G. Gibson, is ”a person capable of thinking objectively and conceptually while sustaining deep emotional connections to others. Emotionally mature people can function independently while having deep emotional attachments, smoothly incorporating both into their daily lives. They’re direct about pursuing what they want, yet do so without exploiting other people.” 

Gibson elaborates further with all the science to back her work in her book, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents. (Don’t be put off by the title of this book. It’s a treasure trove of valuable information for all of us currently parenting and wanting to do better.)

Here are a few of the most valuable traits of emotional maturity that I took away from Gibson’s work.  

Emotionally mature people

  • Differentiate from their original family relationships and build their own life. 
  • They have a well-developed sense of self and identity and treasure their closest relationships.
  • Have a well-developed sense of empathy, impulse control, and emotional intelligence that makes them comfortable and honest about their feelings, enabling them to get along well with others.
  • Feel comfortable sharing with others in an emotionally intimate way and are interested in other people’s inner lives.
  • They deal with others directly when there is a problem to smooth our differences.
  • They cope with stress realistically, looking ahead and processing their feelings and thoughts.
  • Admit their weaknesses and can be objective in their knowing of themselves.

That list invites me to take a breath. A. Long. Deep. Breath. As I look at that list, some of those things are certainly things I can say unequivocally: yes, I can do that. Other items on the list are a work in progress for me and maybe for you. 

Building emotional maturity and strength is a habit, just like brushing your teeth. Is there one on the list that generated the biggest catch of our breath? One that you might want to build awareness and a habit around? 

Here’s my invitation. Pick one. (Yes, only one!) It may not be the one that seems the hardest, but the one you are ready to dance with. Imagine what a habit around this one might look like? 

The one that stuck out to me the most was the part in the third one about being honest about your feelings. A clarification on this one is that it does not say to share your thoughts and opinions about other people with them. It’s about sharing your feelings so others can better understand you. However, there is a step even before that: being comfortable enough to accept how you are feeling. 

I recently experienced a friend who shared several times at a gathering one evening with a group of people how she felt about some idle conversation near her. I felt a little uneasy. Would the others be insulted? The others received it and moved to another room at her request.

However, the next day, I was in another group with her and was uncertain about my actions and how she might respond. My first reaction was to be anxious, worrying about her reaction, but then I had a sense of calm, knowing that if she felt differently, she would speak up, not hide her preferences out of fear of what others might think or how they might react.

This experience showed me that being honest about my feelings and being open to allowing others to do the same was a beautiful gift of trust and deeper connection. 

Whether you are dipping your toe into this work with emotions or have been swimming in it for years, thank you. As a culture, we are ready to dive deep into the great treasures this inner work offers. 

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