Liquid Maturity Liquid Maturity
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Illustration by Mieczysław Wasilewski
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Liquid Maturity

An Interview with psychology professor Piotr K. Oleś
Aleksandra Pezda
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time 17 minutes

Sometimes in life you have to take bold decisions, ones that don’t always fit with what others expect from you. Professor Piotr K. Oleś, a psychologist of personality, talks about our more (and less) responsible choices.

Aleksandra Pezda: In Thomas Vinterberg’s Oscar-winning film Another Round, adult men drown their nostalgia for their youth in alcohol. But it’s not about how they can’t look at themselves in the mirror. They miss their past selves – their lost energy, discarded ambitions, the wonderful prospect that everything is still possible. With them, we rediscover what a high price we pay for maturity.

Piotr K. Oleś: At bottom, that’s what maturity requires: an awareness that in life we’ll need to part with many relationships and things. But I’m a supporter of the thesis that human life is subject to the principle of continuity. That would mean that even in adulthood, we remain in contact with our youth. We don’t just remember what we were like; in addition, much of the old matter is within us, or returns to us. It’s also about what we value in life, as well as this unique emotional climate, the quality of a relationship with another person, which make us feel like ourselves. So if somebody has departed far from themself, or definitively left behind who they were in their youth, as a psychologist I’d ask what went wrong in their life.

Another parting, a defeat, monotonous tasks at work: ordinary affairs are enough to make us feel weary.

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It’s true – we change along with our experiences and the professions we practice. A friend betrays us, a husband or wife leaves, we get fired – all of this affects our approach to life. It’s even harder to come to terms with our profession. After all, we also betray people, break our own rules, don’t advance as far in our careers as we planned, or give up our passions. Despite it all, you can remain a young spirit, regardless of your age. One who seeks new activities and new impressions, who doesn’t fend off fresh experiences, will be young.

A second youth, a fresh start – isn’t that a myth?

It doesn’t have to be. Even though we often give in to the illusion that Western civilization offers us – that in order to change, it’s enough to work on the external. We imagine that cutting off a relationship, quitting a job, moving to another city or travelling around the world will be enough to make us a new person. We do this not only as part of a midlife crisis, but also after every vacation or holiday season, when, pulled out of our daily routine and rested, we feel different and have the impression that we’ll keep this change for a longer time, that from now on we’ll function better. Unfortunately, we rarely succeed. We learn this in circumstances we all know: when we come back from vacation and leap right back into the old ruts.

What’s missing for a life change to succeed?

Most often we lack deeper self-reflection. People quit their jobs; buy houses in the country or, for a change, move to the city; end an unsatisfactory relationship; or sometimes just dive into something new. For a serious change in your life, you need to know yourself well, consciously set out new goals and accept the costs that this will entail. For example, somebody built their career in the city, but longed for nature; at a certain moment of their life, they notice that this longing is limiting them, and they decide to satisfy it. They’ll have to quit that lucrative job and take a worse-paid one. They’ll benefit, because they’re closer to nature, but they’ll lose professional and social prestige. They can implement such a change successfully – provided that they’re ready to absorb certain losses.

Psychological research by master’s students I supervise has shown that people who follow a path of great life change that’s internally motivated are happy with it. In turn, those who tried to force this change, focusing only on external conditions, on the principle of “I don’t know exactly why, but I’m quitting my job/wife/partner”, generally repeated old mistakes and were disappointed once again. That’s because the heart of the matter is something much more important: a change of their main values, and only second a change in the type of activity, at work or in life, or the environment, or social circles.

Is that the Gauguin syndrome you researched?

The case of Paul Gauguin is used to analyse midlife crises. Gauguin syndrome is an example of an impulsive decision caused by such a crisis. We make such decisions for a variety of reasons, but most often at the root lies a not-fully-conscious fear of death, which strengthens around age 40. Gauguin had a career as a broker, he earned good money, maintained a wife and five children, and painted only as an amateur. Some experts say he quit his job, others that he lost it but could have returned to it – in any case, when he was 34 he decided to devote himself entirely to art. As a result, he lost his means of support, his wife and children had to return to Copenhagen in the care of her family, and he hung up posters for a living. But he painted. In making this great change, he fulfilled his life’s mission: he found what was most important for him, and concentrated on that.

Is egoism really a component of mature decisions?

As a rule, changing the course of your life can be controversial. It can also happen at the cost of your loved ones. But if it brings a feeling of harmony with yourself, you have to understand it as desirable and mature. The essence of this change is the element of development, which is connected with the process of emergence of a new identity, so it seems that in some cases egoism is a necessary condition. In such a situation, it is key to calculate costs and benefits. Nobody lives on a deserted island; you have to consider that your decision may impact somebody. But what to choose – remain an unhappy father, or decide on the happy life of an artist, who sees his children from time to time? We make choices; there’s always a trade-off. People who are excessively responsible, even if they have a good idea for a new life, put it off out of fear that their loved ones will bear excessive costs. It doesn’t have to be this way. In general, our families accept changes in the life of a partner or parent more easily than it appears to the person themselves. It even happens that they say: “It’s a shame you didn’t do this earlier.”

Gauguin lost his source of income, exposed his family to risk, eventually lost them. So not only did he pay a high price, but his loved ones did, too. And yet this decision began or accelerated the process of creating his new identity.

How can we define maturity?

That’s the fundamental question, so the answer should be simple. But it will be complex, because the models of maturity are changing. In the mid-20th century, in our cultural circles, the touchstone of maturity was stabilization: a permanent job, the same circle of friends, a single relationship, professing specific values, defined religious convictions. What counted was being rooted in your environment. Among the criteria of maladaptation that clinical psychology used in those days were frequent job changes and instability of relationships, which today, completely the opposite, are now normal. Today, it’s the ability to adjust to frequent change that is among the criteria of maturity.

On the other hand, for these changes to be possible, we need a core that remains unchanged. The lack of one would expose us to a feeling of chaos, lostness. The point is ideals, rules of behaviour and – something that is to a significant degree fleeting – a feeling of authenticity and harmony with oneself.

In fact, our belief systems also evolve over the course of our lives. It’s rare that we adopt the values of our childhood home word for word; rather, we shape our individual identity in a certain tension with the values preferred by our parents; we make our own re-evaluations. But these are changes caused by reflection, and thus as a rule they’re more drawn out over time – so they can perform the function of an anchor for external changes, such as where we work or live. In general, the point is that we need a permanent context, rooted in us. That will hold us and slowly build new content onto what we identify with ourselves. If my work doesn’t suit me, I change it; if my relationships don’t suit me, I look for better ones; but I remain myself. That’s what I’d call maturity today: a reflective connection of permanence with change.

So who can we demand maturity from?

There are various criteria of maturity depending on age. We speak of a mature child when they can manage on their own in various situations, including staying in preschool with no problem; pointing out their needs and those of other children; sharing; knowing what’s good and what’s bad; and being able, within the scope of their life, to act in accordance with defined values. In school, this will be taking up tasks typical for learning with a feeling of responsibility – that I’m learning something, and not that the teachers are cramming something into my head. Meanwhile, we can talk about immaturity when a child doesn’t have their own scope of responsibility and acts only as they’re led by adults. For example, we often deal with the phenomenon of overinvestment, when a child runs back and forth between tasks imposed by parents or teachers, and when asked what they’d like to do and achieve in their life, they can’t give an answer.

As a person grows up, important developmental changes take place, connected with things including accepting changes in your body and establishing emotional relationships. The problem, which I see in the research and which I’ve noticed in my office, and which applies to people in the period of so-called emerging maturity, consists in too easy and too early entry into intimate relationships. The age of initiation is declining, so young people are starting sexual relationships when their emotions aren’t ready for it yet, which hinders integrated personal development. So maturity at that age would consist in postponing initiation, so as not to experience it in random circumstances, with a random partner.

When speaking of the generations that have recently entered maturity, we often call them ‘immature’. We accuse young people of expecting ideal partners or ideal working conditions. Isn’t that just an attribute of youth?

Here I think we’re speaking of an inability of self-limitation. Once again, I’d refer to what was typical of the mid-20th century. As a result of socio-economic and cultural conditions, children were brought up on a path of self-limitation and sharing with others. When they grew up, they were better prepared for the fact that in life, situations will occur that won’t completely make them happy, but which they’ll have to put up with. This model of thinking was imposed by their environment and culture. Since there wasn’t enough income, or products on the market, it was necessary to limit oneself – not only in simple matters of life, like the everyday menu or the available home appliances, but also in more complex matters, such as relationships with other people, marriage. We removed this self-limitation as living conditions improved. Now children are prepared not to survive in difficult conditions, but to fight for their interests and to assertively fulfil their own needs above all. You can say that the philosophy of raising children has changed direction – to simplify, from a person raised primarily for others to a person raised primarily for themselves. There’s still a great deal of adaptive content there, but there’s been a clear turn toward individualism, at the cost of excessively weak development of the dimension of community and self-limitation. As a result, we don’t see the need, for example, to go through difficulties in a relationship, even though crises of course happen in any relationship, intimate or professional.

Another side of this problem is fear of responsibility. I often hear from young people that when forming new relationships, what they fear most is the moment when they start to feel responsibility for the other person. On the principle of “I still don’t know what I expect from this relationship, and I see the other person is already getting involved.” Sometimes at that moment young people pull back – they run away from the relationship, because they’re not sure whether they’ve chosen correctly. As if they fear that they won’t manage, as if they didn’t believe in their own strength and ability to create a ‘we’ with another person.

Is maturity also a feeling of self-esteem?

That’s where it’s most difficult. Research shows that self-esteem is 40% due to your genes. So we could possibly thank our parents for that, but we can’t do anything about it. The rest we shape in our environment. Insufficient or excessive self-worth can be a symptom of a personality dysfunction if it affects your relationships or your plans, your choices and the level of achievement of your goals. A person with low self-esteem chooses goals below their abilities, even if their environment suggests to them that they can do more. On the other hand, even though low self-esteem makes life difficult, it has a certain adaptive value – to simplify, somebody decides not to take on a supervisory role because they believe they can’t do it, and that saves them from stress and psychosomatic disturbances, which perhaps they would have if they were overwhelmed by the responsibilities of a high position. Particularly as they’d have the constant feeling that they weren’t doing it as well as they should. Contrary to appearances, excessive self-esteem also conceals traps. A person who overestimates their abilities can suffer failure during an exam or a job interview, even though in direct contact they would still get more than somebody with low self-esteem.

Getting back to maturity, it’s not low self-esteem, but only the way of dealing with it that can be a signal of a lack of maturity. Maturity consists in taking on risks despite fear, but also taking actions that aren’t too difficult, so as not to cause a crisis. This can be recognized when a person observes themselves and others closely.

Today we’re happy to take up tasks where success is already calculated in advance. That’s how we choose jobs, vacation spots, often partners. When we encounter slight discomfort, we prefer to withdraw. Is that immature?

Expecting that I’ll find somebody who fully meets my requirements isn’t very realistic. It’s the same in other areas of life. Such expectations can be fulfilled only if a person gets engaged in something they’re not sure will fully satisfy them. That sounds paradoxical, but let me explain how it works. In becoming engaged, we feel responsibility, and that motivates us to try harder – both at work and in relationships. That effort in turn translates into success, large and small, and that gives a feeling of fulfilment. It’s a feedback loop: engagement, effort, action, satisfaction, action. Those who don’t make an effort cut themselves off from this feedback loop of life satisfaction that results from achieving things that are subjectively important. Unfortunately, engagement alone is no guarantee that this satisfaction will occur, because much depends on situational factors or those related to your partner, who may not want to risk engagement on the same level. But without taking risks, this can’t happen.

That’s why we approach relationships – both personal and professional – with caution. We like the possibility of choice.

That’s just the illusion of freedom. People today are happy to buy into it. They see it like this: I have a lot of options, I’m not in any rush, I feel freedom, I’ll gladly extend this period and this nice feeling that comes with the ability to choose. It’s also the pressure of culture: you have a choice, you’re not subject to any compulsion; you have time to achieve your goals. Life begins at 40, or even at 60 – that’s the message we get at every step.

On the one hand I’d say, after Baumann, that the culture creates the ability for us to freely shape our identity, liquid or multiple. But on the other hand it puts pressure on us to postpone identity decisions. Some people are great at swimming in this pond, but for many it can be destructive. What will happen when they reach their milestone 50th birthday and perceive that many possibilities that they thought lay open before them have been closed off?

Would life under pressure be better?

It’s good, of course, when a person frees themself from the stress related to various kinds of duress, such as “Get married before it’s too late.” But they don’t hear enough that they also lose when they don’t make any choice, and don’t engage. Because they miss out on a whole range of experiences – perhaps difficult ones, but ones that give emotional strength and satisfaction. It’s a bit like shopping: when we look at the display in a shop for a few hours without buying anything, we feel something like a defeat.

The American psychoanalyst and psychologist Erik Erikson worked on the theory of identity formation in in the mid-20th century. Those were times when 20-year-olds already knew exactly who they were, how they’d make a living, and planned to start families. That boundary has moved very far now – the same is true of 40-year-olds, it’s just that they already have several relationships under their belt, they’ve changed jobs a few times, and they know they can’t count on permanent employment. Because they haven’t made life decisions such as a permanent relationship, having children or finding a stable place to live, many of them fall into depression. Partly it’s precisely because in maintaining freedom without deeper engagement, they didn’t get any positive reinforcement. Well achieved smaller goals, such as perfect execution of a project at work, a long-term friendship or a developing relationship, are actually those small satisfactions in life that could protect at least a few people from crashing into depression.

There’s a chance to change your personality after 50?

After 50 you can’t really change the structure of your personality traits – extroversion, neuroticism, openness to new experiences, agreeableness or diligence. We remain with the set of traits we’ve inherited and which were subject to certain modifications during our lives. For example, somebody who’s not very conscientious has learned to be punctual and systematic because that’s what their job required. But that’s only a part of our personality. Its changeable elements include ways of adaptation that cover convictions, needs, values, life goals. We can allow life to run down its own track when we surrender to it; we can also withdraw or reject the requirement to adjust ourselves to others. So we’ll be able to change our attitude till the end of our lives.

Another personality problem, which we have more influence over, is the level of personal significances, or self-narrative: the story of our lives that we write ourselves, the meaning we give to our existence. With age, this is actually what changes the most. Often after the passage of a longer time, we can perceive a completely new meaning in what we’ve experienced. A broken-off relationship may not look so attractive years later as it did when we started it after a breakup, and losing a job may lead to not a bad career. A person who in childhood spent a lot of time home alone most likely survived the pandemic lockdown a lot better than others; from this point of view, they could perceive the positive aspects of their earlier experiences. Of course, it may also be the opposite: our behaviours that we assess highly we see after a certain time in a significantly worse light and begin to regret, even though we can’t do anything about it anymore.

What is a ‘fulfilled person’?

A fulfilled person is somebody who’s constantly moving to accomplish their goals. They don’t think “I’ve already achieved everything, I don’t have to do anything anymore”, because that attitude is a straight path to regression. Well, unless somebody is dying and summing up their life, saying “I was happy, I achieved a lot of what I set out to do.” Then we can say that this is a fulfilled person. But for those who aren’t departing yet, maturity will consist in seeking new spaces for their interests or further challenges, and readiness to pursue them. Then fulfilment will be a process, not a destination point.

What’s a mature way to approach the inevitable end of life?

A midlife crisis or breakdown happens because there’s already a lot behind us, and this painful truth is getting through to us. A person realizes that they had a lot of possibilities they didn’t use. They’re certainly still within reach, thus the chance for an original programme for the second half of your life, when fortunately you can follow not so much society’s expectations as your own needs. But there’s a whole lot of things we don’t do because we didn’t manage, or because our body imposes boundaries. At a certain moment, we won’t go climbing high mountains anymore, we’ll have to give up on extreme skiing, we won’t learn a new profession and we won’t become parents again. In fact, contrary to what our culture tries to tell us, we won’t relive our youth.

But that doesn’t mean we’re in a hopeless position, or that we should give up before we’ve started. People often make this mistake. It seems to them that at a certain age something is inappropriate – they won’t start a relationship because it’s too late; they won’t look for a new passion because they won’t manage to learn something new. In fact, fortunately, the culture is more and more accommodating. For example, if you liked to play football when you’re young, and now you can’t keep up with your younger friends, you can at least switch to tennis. But getting back to the question about preparing for the end of life, there’s yet another very important dimension: not to leave behind you harms, unresolved conflicts, wounded people. Such things weigh heavily on the balance of life. As far as possible it’s worth resolving problems, apologizing, trying to compensate for losses and injuries, reconciling, trusting. Even if this costs a lot emotionally, it’s worth going out with a clear conscience, as they say.

What should we do with our lists of unachieved plans? Does a mature person catch up, or pull back?

A mature person can draw out a map of goals – each on a separate piece of paper or a card, so you can shuffle them around. On the right side we place goals to be achieved, in the middle those that we might still manage to carry out, and on the left those we know we’ll have to give up. You can try various configurations, shuffling the papers, and observe how you feel in one configuration or another, until you reach a feeling of harmony with yourself, even if the arrangement seems not completely rational. Some life tasks seem important to us, but either we haven’t taken them up at all even though we could, or we tried and failed. We often include in such tasks close relationships with other people. In that case, the basic question will be “Is it too late?” Because perhaps – as in Edward Stachura’s famous poem – “it’s not too late.”

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.


Piotr K. Oleś:

Supervisor of the Department of Personality Psychology at the Institute of Psychology at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, head of the Department of Psychological Diagnosis at SWPS University.

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