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  • Writer's pictureRichard Hughes

The Obsession With Eternal Adolescence

Updated: Jul 9

As a psychotherapist, one of the most common issues I deal with is people who are stuck in their younger sense of self, and the impact this has on their day to day lives, relationships, and how they manage stress and anxiety.

What I mean by this is that their emotional, physical and cognitive responses to stress and anxiety mirror how they felt and responded when they were children or teenagers. 

I’ll give you an example here. A work colleague is being tricky and self-serving. You may find yourself kicking off or being passive aggressive in response, or alternatively, you may retreat and allow the colleague to trample all over you. 

If you investigate this response, I can guarantee that you will find parallels with how you responded to stress as a child. You may recognise a dynamic that mirrors how you were with a parent or caregiver. It is almost as though, the child part within you has come foreground and is now steering the situation. 

Many people rely on their ‘professional persona’ at work to overcome this, and without doubt that goes quite far. But there are limitations. A persona - which is a Jungian term - can come across as a mask or a bit false. I would argue that applying a persona in intimate relationships is not a good idea. 

A more useful way of being is to develop your adult sense of self.

We all have an adult sense of self, but we have to consciously apply it - create a new habit if you like - and be aware of what it feels like and does. We have to allow it to come foreground. Often in therapy we explore the adult sense of self, because of course the nuance of it is different for everyone. However, there are some fundamentals:

An adult sense of self can be emotional, but it understands boundaries. 

Rather than being angry or judgemental, an adult sense of self is assertive, knows their own feelings, wants and needs. 

Rather than being over-helpful or self-sacrificing, an adult sense of self offers support when needed.

The adult sense of self respects others' ability to think for themselves. 

The adult sense of self does not obsess about what other people think of them. 

The adult sense of self is aware of their own self-agency, and actively develops that, asking for support rather than automatically going to a place of helplessness.

The adult sense of self knows the difference between a thought and a feeling. 

The adult sense of self is aware when they are catastrophising.

The adult sense of self is pro-active in developing vulnerability. Vulnerability is not a weakness. Far from it, it is a strength. Vulnerability is about candour, the ability to be open, honest and direct. Vulnerability can feel counter-intuitive, and if it does that is often a good sign. 

All of this is a work in progress and we are never going to get it right all of the time, but an awareness, and a commitment to our adult sense of self is a good start.

It is important not to ignore or disown our child part. 

Being aware of our younger part when it emerges, listening to it, and seeing what it is trying to tell us is key here. But the response does not have to be ‘child’. Sometimes we need to say to ourselves, ‘I can hear your pain child part, but I am going to let my adult part come foreground to deal with this.’

Our child part is much needed. Being playful, and allowing wonder, and curiosity into our lives can help develop meaningful connections and supportive networks. Anyone for a weekend of cosplay at Premier Inn?

I’m also aware that there is a cultural element to all this. We live in an age where TikTok, ‘me me me’ culture, girl squads, and online personas dominate. Instant gratification and ‘likes’ are encouraged. Pop culture is cartoonish, cutesy and kitsch. The lines between what is real or fake are blurred.

The eternal adolescent inhabits this arena. The eternal adolescent often lacks spatial and audio awareness, shouting into their hands-free phone in crowded places, attracting attention whilst taking little responsibility, cocooning themselves from the outside world whilst not being considerate to others. They feel more comfortable online, or within the realm of Harry Potter and Marvel movies, and whilst this world might be expansive, their real life and relationships are small and diminished.

Perhaps the eternal adolescent or 'child part' is foreground here because the world seems unsafe and unbalanced. We've been through a destabilising pandemic. Maybe, cutesy nostalgia, Spiderman outfits, and shouting into the void feels safer in comparison.

Whilst there are aspects of the eternal adolescent that can be fun in small doses, there is something infantilising about the relentless intersection on our sense of self. I appreciate that it can be hard to explore our adult sense of self when we are bombarded by algorithms that tell us we want something else, but I also believe that we need to be aware of, and balance out the eternal adolescent if we are to live more contented and connected adult lives.

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