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What Constitutes an Adult?

This blog came about thanks to (another) lively and enlightening discussion I had with a client about what qualities make us feel like adults. Even when we’re chronological adults, we may not know how to act maturely or may have only a hazy idea of how adults ought to conduct themselves. After all, our concept of adulthood is rooted in a template of how our parents and other important grownups acted when we were children. Many dysregulated eaters may not have bothered to update this view, even long after they have become adults themselves.

The discussion with my client on adulthood grew out of the conversation we’ve had on more than one occasion about her feelings when we touch on whether or not she acts childishly. This time, rather than focus on what behaviors or reactions might be childish or childlike, I headed in another direction: How did she feel about adulthood and what constitutes that state of being anyway?

Through our dialogue, I realized that whether we view adulthood as positive or negative will dictate whether we enjoy acting like adults or not. Among other things, for me “adulting” means enjoying great freedom, not feeling compelled to answer to or depend on others the way I did as a child, focusing on self-motivation and self-pride, caring for myself, being resourceful, taking responsibility for balancing and finding joy and meaning in life, and managing my emotions. I confess to loving being an adult and wouldn’t trade it for returning to even the best days of childhood.

I also discovered that my client—and, I’d wager, many of you—think of adulthood as restrictive, overly rigid, overwhelming, frightening, and so full of expectations and lacking in joy that there’s no other word to describe it but negative. She saw it as an overabundance of saying no to herself with little upside or recompense. She saw it as freedom surrendered and greatly feared a loss of “mirth and joy.” Childhood held great possibility for her, while adulthood has proven disappointing in myriad ways.

However, when I asked her to let go of the ways she has viewed adulthood and, instead, define the ways she now wishes to be an adult, she warmed to the task. She wants to take care of herself, think about consequences and the future, take life seriously (but not too seriously), avoid being perfect, learn from her mistakes, and not get hung up on failure. The truth is that part of being an adult—and enjoying being one—is not to grow up to be someone else’s idea of mature, but to define and work towards your own ideal: to keep the best of childhood and leave the rest behind.



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