Emotional intelligence or emotional maturity?

Nov 26 2013 by Peter Vajda Print This Article

It's now widely acknowledged that Emotional Intelligence (EI) is a key skill for managers and business leaders and that getting in touch with your emotions and managing them when interacting with others plays a major part in managerial effectiveness. But despite this awareness, old habits still die hard. Even when an individual has worked to improve their emotional intelligence, they often experience a type of disconnect in real-life situations. They may have learned the concepts of EI at an intellectual level, but they still find it hard to manage their emotions or emotional reactivity and quickly revert to old, self-destructive emotional habits and patterns when certain triggers are pulled.

So why is EI so hard to embrace in our day-to-day lives?

One reason is that many people who worked on their EI have (consciously or unconsciously) failed to deal with the root causes of their emotional reactivity. They haven't explored the deeper nature of their emotional history. This history of their emotional evolution is a prerequisite to understanding how they "futurize their past" – how they interpret the present based on their history, experiences and memories.

Without this understanding, it's very hard to separate our present from our past - "that was then; this is now". So we're not able to see the present - people, places, events, circumstance and objects - as "fresh" and unencumbered by our past emotional history. We're unable to experience the present in a positive, neutral way and so we experience many of life's events shrouded in a mist of negativity, judgment and fear.

In other words, very few of us actually "process" our emotions. Few of us allow our emotions to just be - watching, witnessing and observing them and asking, "what are you teaching me, about me?"

Finally, many of us choose to bury our emotions. And we ought to know that when we bury our emotions, we bury them alive. They will return to rear their ugly heads, sooner or later.

Emotional maturity

So instead of focusing on emotional intelligence, perhaps we would be better served by focusing on emotional maturity.

The difference between the two is important. Emotional maturity is not "intellectual" but refers to a higher state of self-awareness – something that lies beyond "intelligence" - where we are guided by our senses, intuition and heart.

Emotional maturity is characterized by five principles:

  1. Every negative emotion we experience is a childhood emotion overlaid on a current person, circumstance, place, event or object.
  2. Emotionally, many adults are 3-4-5-year-old children in adult bodies.
  3. No one can make you feel a way you don't want to feel.
  4. An adult can be emotionally mature and child-like or immature and child-ish.
  5. Mindfulness, focus and presence are the keys to emotional maturity

Emotional maturity focuses on our emotional history, beginning with our interactions with our primary caregivers, extended family, teachers, friends, etc. We learn that around the age of seven, our psychological and emotional "programming" is set. Our emotional reactivity (anger, sadness, fear, shame, hurt, guilt, loneliness, etc.) that was triggered early on in life becomes stored in our cells and arises when "related" triggers pop up later in life.

Emotionally intelligent, but emotionally immature

Being emotionally mature means we seldom act out on, or suppress our emotions.

Emotionally intelligent, but "immature" adults are often unable to identify or manage their emotions. They usually avoid their emotions by intellectualizing, explaining, analyzing, disagreeing, attacking, flattering, joking, apologizing, evading, going silent, becoming aloof or suspicious, rejecting, criticizing or judging. They often come across as superior, arrogant, stubborn, defiant, hostile, people-pleasing, wishy-washy, phony, resentful, intolerant, self-pitying or victimized.

Because they haven't explored their emotional development, many of them aren't aware that they superimpose their childhood emotions on to their adult life. Their past is leaking out in the present.

In contrast, the emotionally mature adult understands that "my emotions are not me, but mine – I'm in control, not my emotions". So they are more objective are less judgmental. They are better able to detach themselves from triggers that would normally provoke an emotional reaction. They experience states of equanimity, serenity and inner peace. Blaming others is no longer a strategy they use to make themselves feel safe.

That's not to say that an emotionally mature individual isn't chid-like. In fact they are often lively, excited, adventurous, joyful, happy and open. But they are also nurturing, supportive, firm, fair, helpful, respectful, self-responsible, non-judgmental, honest, sincere and focused on the well-being of themselves and of others.

The emotionally immature adult, however, is often childish, rather than child-like. They are reactive and throw tantrums. They are fearful, scared, needy, angry, resentful, pushy, bullying, jealous or envious. They can be quiet, withdrawn, defensive, argumentative or grandiose. They can come across as overbearing, micromanaging, controlling, disrespectful, fearful, angry, negative, judgmental, critical, abusive (mentally, emotionally, psychologically, physically), dishonest, insincere, narcissistic and focused on the self and the ego.


  • Do you ever feel you need to change the way you respond emotionally to others?
  • How do you feel when others challenge or disagree with you, or give you feedback?
  • Do you ever find yourself feeling fearful, angry or anxious? Do you know why?
  • Are you ever surprised by the way you react to others?
  • Do you ever feel afraid about exploring your emotions? Why?
  • Do you consider yourself to be emotionally mature? What would others say?
  • How did you learn about emotions when you were growing up?

The most visible quality of emotional maturity is the capacity to be in the moment, to be present while being non-reactive or non-judgmental.

This "being present" supports our true and authentic self to guide us. We intuit "right knowing", "right understanding" and "right action". We feel our emotions without "becoming" our emotions. We grasp that the "trigger" for our reactivity may be "outside me", but the "cause" of my emotions is within me.

So when we're triggered, we watch, witness and observe but don't succumb to a childish reaction. We accept our experience as it is. Practicing mindfulness, presence, focus, trust and surrender, we allow our heart and soul to push aside negativity or reactivity and bring what is needed, a considered, emotionally mature response.

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About The Author

Peter Vajda
Peter Vajda

Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a seminar leader, workshop facilitator and speaker. He is the founding partner of True North Partnering, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counselling and facilitating.