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Emotional (Im)Maturity: Normative, Criterion, and Ipsative References




I’m a follower of the podcast, We Can do Hard Things—I am a member of the Pod Squad. Recently, they had four episodes ( #263, #264, #284, #285 ) with Dr. Lindsay Gibson regarding emotional immaturity and maturity.  Intrigued by the ideas discussed on the podcast episodes, I read her book, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents.


Psychologist Lindsay Gibson categorizes people as emotionally immature or emotionally mature. According to Gibson, people who are emotionally immature are incapable of empathy and intimacy. People who are emotionally immature don’t choose to be distant or non-responsive; instead, they are so driven by their own needs and fears that they are incapable of attending to others. These insecurities also mean that emotionally immature people are often rigid and dualistic in their thinking. Ultimately, they are egocentric. Emotionally immature people stymie our ability to engage in meaningful relationships with them, resulting in our feeling lonely.  If we are raised by emotionally immature adults, our feelings and instincts will not be validated—or may be actively discounted—leading us to doubt or not even know our responses to events.


In contrast, a person who is emotionally mature can think objectively and conceptually and—concurrently—sustain deep emotional connections. Emotionally mature people are introspective—it is this quality which leads to all the other characteristics of emotional maturity. They are able to understand their response and the response of another simultaneously—even when those responses are at odds with each other. Although an emotionally mature person can act from an emotionally immature place, usually they will catch themselves fairly quickly or acknowledge another’s complaint, and seek to repair any rupture caused in the relationship. We will all mess up—acknowledging this and then doing the work to understand why something was a trigger for us provides the opportunity for growth.


Grappling with Emotional Maturity versus Immaturity

At first, I struggled with Gibson’s categorization of people as either emotionally immature or mature.  Generally, I resist binaries. My belief was that we are all somewhere on a continuum of emotional immaturity to emotional maturity. There is probably a part of this continuum, at this developmental point in our lives, that represents our emotional maturity range. There are some relationships (maybe where I have felt my needs not acknowledged or not met previously) where I operate primarily from the bottom of my range. Conversely, there are some relationships where I feel seen and supported where I am my best self—operating from the top part of my emotional maturity range. And, then there are situational variables. Perhaps a prior interaction has left me depleted. Or, maybe I’m tired and hungry. At these moments, I perceive that getting my needs met is precarious, and so I operate from a less mature position. And then, across our lifespan, we change. As I better understand how and why I respond as I do, my general emotional maturity is enhanced—I have moved my range toward the emotionally mature endpoint. And I know someone who I perceive has declined in their emotional maturity range in recent years.


Thinking about how I perceive emotional maturity versus how Gibson has written and spoken about the topic led me to think about the three main comparison techniques in the social sciences: normative, criterion, and ipsative references. Perhaps this is because I used to teach psychological testing and measurement theory. As I developed my thinking from these three ways of conceptualizing emotional maturity and immaturity, I realized that each has something to add to our understanding.


Normative Reference of Emotional Maturity

With a normative reference, we compare one person’s performance to that of a group to which the person belongs. This leads to the oft-utilized bell curve. For most traits and skills, the vast majority (over 95%) of people are grouped around the middle—they are within two standard deviations of the mean. There are a few individuals, outliers (about 2% on each end), who are either much lower or much higher in this trait or skill. Not all behaviors and traits fit a bell curve, but most do.


An easy-to-imagine example is height. You’ve met some people who were either exceptionally short or tall, but most people you meet cluster around a standard height (5’4 ½” for adult women and 5’10” for adult men in the US).  If you are an outlier, taller than 6’4” or shorter than 5’0”, you frequently run into equipment that doesn’t work well for you (e.g, as a tall person on an airplane, your legs don’t fit into the economy seats’ legroom; as a short person, you can’t reach the overhead compartments).  Even within the “middle” 95%, there are notable differences: you see the world a lot differently and are treated differently as a 5’0” woman than as a 6’4” man.


Applied to the emotional maturity-immaturity continuum, people who are exceptionally low (the bottom 2%) are dangerous and pathological. These people could be diagnosed with anti-social behaviors or delusional thinking, and would evidence no regard for the autonomy or needs of others—they are dangerous to your well-being. Returning to parents, the bottom outliers are abusive—emotionally, and probably in other ways as well.  At the top end of the spectrum, people with exceptional emotional maturity are our role models for living a virtuous life. I would speculate that many Nobel Peace Prize winners are emotionally mature outliers.


From a normative perspective, 95% of us fall somewhere in between. Just like with height, in this “middle” 95%, there are notable differences between those at the bottom versus those at the top. The low “middle” parent would evidence a lot of emotional immaturity, leaving their children to feel lonely, guilty, and inadequate. Conversely, parents at the top of the “middle” would be loving and responsive parents, providing their children with solid foundations for self-identity development and establishing future intimate relationships.


Criterion Reference of Emotional Maturity

If we consider the emotional maturity-immaturity continuum from the criterion perspective, we can understand it differently—perhaps more similarly to how Gibson conceptualizes it. With criterion references, there is a standard (the criterion) for meeting competence. People still vary in their abilities, but once a certain criterion has been met, the person is deemed to be adequate in that ability. For example, in my field, to be licensed as a psychologist, a person must obtain a doctorate in psychology, pass an examination, and be evaluated as adequate in both pre-doctoral and post-doctoral supervised field work (i.e., practicing as a psychologist). Some people graduate with a higher GPA than others, some score better on the exam, and some show stronger clinical skills. But, everyone who successfully passes all of these criteria can become a licensed psychologist.


 Gibson’s explanations of emotional immaturity and emotional maturity map very well onto a criterion-referenced evaluation. Some people aren’t there yet—they haven’t met the criterion for emotional maturity. They are emotionally immature.


And, some people have reached a “good enough” level of emotional maturity—they’re not perfect, but they are mature enough to have intimate and empathic relationships. When they act with emotional immaturity, they acknowledge their breach and skillfully seek to repair relationship ruptures. In 1953, pediatrician Donald Winnicott coined the term, “Good Enough Mother,” which has been expanded to the “Good Enough Parent.” The good enough parent allows their child some frustration—purposefully or accidentally—while also providing reliable support and comfort. Recent research has shown that relationships will have ruptures—we will be insensitive—and this in itself is not disruptive to a relationship. It is how we handle the rupture that determines if the relationship becomes strengthened or weakened. If the child (or another beloved) gets the message that they and their needs are important to us, that we feel remorse for hurting them, and that we aspire to do better in the future, the relationship is strengthened. Conversely, if we become defensive, or try to deny that we caused harm, then the rupture weakens the relationship.


Ipsative References for Emotional Maturity

The final way that we can think about a trait, including emotional maturity, is ipsatively. Ipsative measurements started with personality assessments where there was no assumption of a preferred or “better” answer—just what was truer for the individual. Ipsative assessments evolved in education to evaluate a student’s growth.  We compare a person’s current performance to their past performance, asking, “How have they changed? What have they learned?”


Ipsative referencing is a useful way to evaluate emotional maturity in ourselves:

·         How have I progressed in my emotional maturity, compared to some past self?

·         When, where, and in what relationships do I see myself exhibiting emotional maturity?

·         And, where or in what ways do I aspire to enhance my emotional maturity?

Ipsative references require introspection—exactly the characteristic that Gibson stresses is essential for emotional maturity. We don’t compare ourselves to others (normative references), nor do we spend time considering “Am I emotionally mature or immature?” (criterion references). Instead, we accept where we are at, note our progress, and aspire to even greater development.


Utilizing Normative, Criterion, and Ipsative References to Support our Emotional Maturity

For me, thinking about my emotional maturity from each of these reference perspectives is helpful.


From a normative perspective, I believe I exist in the top half of the “middle.” I am inspired by people I perceive as extraordinarily emotionally mature—the top outliers—and seek to learn from them. I also gain empathy for—and recognize the need to protect myself from—people at the lower end.


From a criterion perspective, I can see that some people meet the minimum criteria—and some do not. Becoming secure enough to admit my insecurities was a qualitative change for me—I went from being emotionally immature to emotionally mature. With the security of being able to love all of myself, I was able to descry my triggers. Using criterion referencing, I can recognize people who are emotionally immature, and adjust how I interact with and what I hope to accomplish in relationships with them. Being emotionally immature leads to unconscious self-protective strategies. Therefore, trying to have authentic intimate exchanges with an emotionally immature person will only activate their defense mechanisms—leading to further pain for both parties.  A criterion perspective can help us assess a situation and engage more productively with people who are emotionally immature.


And, when I notice feeling lonely in a relationship, I can utilize introspection:

·         Am I wanting something from this relationship that this person is not capable of fulfilling?

·         Am I still holding on to hopes for a past that never was?

·         What is a reasonable expectation for this relationship?

·         Where, realistically, can I get my needs for intimacy met?

This moves us into an ipsative evaluation. Noticing my loneliness, feeling compassion for myself for this suffering, and acknowledging the truth—the limitations—of this relationship: these are signs of my emotional maturity and growth. The ipsative perspective helps me to articulate how I have changed, savor my abilities and accomplishments, and aspire to reaching the next relationship skill level with people, wherever they are on their emotional immaturity-maturity journey. As Gibson notes, emotionally immature people often have no desire to change—highly defended and without introspection, how could they? My pushing them to change behaviors that they are not even conscious of will only lead to frustration for both of us. What I have control over is setting goals for my behavior that acknowledges the truth of their limitations. For example, I can aspire to behave in ways that I define as acting with integrity—ways that are true to myself—without having any expectations of how they will respond. Further, if I have a limit on what I will or can tolerate, self-protection can be a goal—assuming that I have some means of stopping the contact or escaping the situation. For example, my goal can be to remain aware of my bodily response—breaking my habit of dissociating—and leave the room when I need to reestablish my equilibrium.  


One gift of being human is that practice opportunities abound. Just this morning, at my yoga studio, I was situated next to a loud and active practitioner—they sighed and moved (out of sync with everyone else) a lot. My first thought was, “I hope I am never next to them again.” And then I realized, “I have consciously chosen to go back to a studio”—I want to practice in an inclusive community. Furthermore, I aspire to enhance my emotional maturity. I know nothing about their emotional maturity, but I noticed my response to them was a milder version of my response pattern towards emotionally immature people with whom I have intimate relationships. This was a low-stakes opportunity to practice being aware simultaneously of myself and them—to separate what they are doing from how I am responding. They are loud and active—it is I who is irritated and distracted. I can notice when I struggle to maintain awareness of myself—when I stop attending to my breath, how I am holding a pose, or where I can push and where I can relax. By the end of the class, I was grateful for the opportunity provided by getting to practice next to them, and hoped that we would be in future classes together—maybe not next to them in every class, but sometimes.

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