Coping with Emotional Immaturity with Dr. Lindsay Gibson

EPISODE 21

In this episode, Doryn chats with Dr. Lindsay Gibson, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist. They talk about the effects that emotionally immature people (especially parents) can have on us even as adults, how we can manage our relationships with them and heal the conflicts that we’ve had with them.

Dr. Gibson holds both a Masters and Doctoral Degree in clinical psychology. She has been a psychotherapist for over thirty years, working in diverse settings such as the Juvenile Court system, community mental health, psychiatric hospitals, group practice, and solo practice.

She is also the author of Who You Were Meant to Be, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents and Recovering from Emotionally Immature Parents. Since its publication in 2015, her second book has been a repeated Amazon #1 bestseller in its category and has been translated into fourteen languages.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT


Doryn Wallach:

Welcome to It's Not A Crisis. I am your host Doryn Wallach, I'm an entrepreneur, a mother of two, a wife and a 40 something, trying to figure out what is happening in this decade. Why is no one talking about it? I created this podcast to help women in their late 30s and 40s to figure out what is going on in our mind, body, soul, and life. We may laugh, we may cry, we may get frustrated, but most importantly, my goal is to make this next chapter of life positive. I'm also full of my own questions and I'm here to go on this journey with you. So let's do it together.

Hey, everyone. Welcome to another episode. Thank you, again, for joining me. I am your host, Doryn Wallach and so excited to have you here. I am thrilled about this episode because I read this book a while ago and it was life-changing for me. And I was honored that Dr. Gibson said that she would come on the show. So this is going to be an amazing episode that you're going to learn so much from. And I promise you if you read... Anyone, everyone should read that book. When you read the book, you will realize how life-changing it is.

Lindsay Gibson has been a clinical psychologist for over 30 years, specializing in helping people find their true selves and recover their self-esteem after dealing with emotionally immature people. Her psychotherapy work has included both public and private practice settings. She also was an adjunct assistant professor for many years, training doctoral students in a graduate psychology program. As an author, Dr. Gibson has written three books, Who You Were Meant to Be, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents and Recovering from Emotionally Immature Parents.

Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents has been a five-star rated bestseller on Amazon in various categories with over 3000 reviews and has been translated into 14 languages, that's because the book is phenomenal. Her next book, A Self Care Companion for Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents will be released and fall 2021, and I'm so excited for that one. So without further ado, let's welcome Dr. Lindsay Gibson to the show.

Welcome to the show Dr. Lindsay Gibson, I am so honored that you are here today and that you chose to come on, It's Not a Crisis.


Lindsay Gibson:

Oh, it's absolutely my pleasure. Thanks for having me, Doryn.


Doryn Wallach:

I have been obsessed with your book since I first read it. And I use it as a reference in my life. And I just wanted to explain quickly sort of how I came across it without revealing too much about my family's privacy, but a therapist had said to me at some point to read this, and I said, "Well, I don't..." I mean, I wasn't neglected, I wasn't rejected, I had some things as a child, but I was very loved by my parents. And she said, "No, I know. It doesn't matter. Just read it. I promise you we'll take something from it." And so I did, and I couldn't believe how loudly it spoke to me on so many different levels, and as I was reading it, I was thinking about 12 different friends that could benefit from this book. It just describes so many people that I know and why they're the way they are.

And these are friends with lovely, wonderful parents. But the way their parents were raised and their parents were raised often affects the generations and things get carried down. And we obviously want to try to resolve those things as much as possible with our parents, but also parenting our own children. And I found that your book allowed me to forgive my parents for things that were beyond their control. And that to me is the biggest gift ever because they're getting older and I never want to feel that when they're gone, I wasn't able to understand, and after reading your book, I actually sat down with each of them and I asked them a lot of questions and it really helped me to understand them better.

So, thank you for coming on. I think this is going to be a really popular podcast, and I think a lot of people are going to be running out to buy this when we're done.


Lindsay Gibson:

Oh, well, you know I can not contain my curiosity. What sorts of things did you ask your parents?


Doryn Wallach:

I asked them about, "What were your parents like emotionally? What kind of pressures did they put on you? Or what were their parents like? How were they treated affectionately? What were rules like in your family?" I've said this on other podcasts, my mom's really mad at me, but I already said it, so I'm going to say it again. My mom had an alcoholic father and my dad, I think his parents were wonderful, but a little bit emotionally distant at a certain point in his mother's life when he was a lot younger. I think she suffered from post-partum depression, and it was kind of undiagnosed at that time.

I was able to hear them and they both wanted to get out of their homes really young. And they got married at 23, and they met at 16, and eventually they divorced, and it was very traumatic for my mother who also lost her mother, and her grandmother, and my dad's mother who she was close with all at a certain time of her life. So then I think my dad was just one more loss, and then when she went through divorce with my dad, she had a hard time with it, and I suffered as a child because I sort of had to step in and parent a little bit. All right, it was just interesting to hear them speak, and it just made me actually so much closer with them.


Lindsay Gibson:

Yeah. I just had to ask you, because a lot of times people will have the instinct that they want to go to their parents, especially, after they've read a book like mine that points out these dynamics. But the way that they go to their parents is often either... And I think these are fine because I think they're honest communications, but they'll go to them in the spirit of, "Let me tell you what you've done to me," or they'll go at it with a sort of the expectation that they will be able to convince or persuade the parent to be different if only they understood what they were doing to them.

But your approach was really cool because what you did was, you went in and you asked them questions that were likely not to make them defensive, or to make them sort of the object of your interest, and that always, that calms all of us down.


Doryn Wallach:

Let me tell you, both of my parents are super stubborn and defensive. So they're slow to warm up to things, but they usually come around. So I knew that going in... And I just sent the book to my mom the other day, and my stepfather got really angry and was like, "That's ridiculous. You're an amazing mother, tell her dah, dah, dah." I explained, I said, "Mom, I'm not giving you this book to say that you're a terrible mother. I think you're going to learn about your own parents in this book. I think it's going to help you to understand who you are." And I think it's really an important thing for everybody to do that work. So she got it, but he's very... He's been my stepfather since I was 12, basically. He's very black and white about certain things, as are some men.

That approach I think really works, and we can talk about that a little bit later, I think it's important not to blame, I think it's important to ask questions and emphasize with them from their own journey. I do empathize with my mom, and dad, and how they grew up and also the generations that came before them and the way that they dealt with parenting. I think it's probably confusing, can you explain what emotional immaturity is and how we would know if we were surrounded by it in our lives?


Lindsay Gibson:

Sure. Yeah. Well, emotional maturity and immaturity is kind of like, if you think about a person's development as proceeding along these sort of parallel lines. Like you can have your line of emotional development. The way a three-year-old thinks is not the way a 12 year old thinks. You can have another line that has to do with your social development. How a three-year-old relates to other people is different from a 12 year old, you know, like that. But the emotional maturity is its own line of development. And you can have very uneven lines. Like if you want to think about it, you could think about any kind of graph, like imagine a stock market graph, only this time you're measuring strength of qualities.

So in some quality, some lines of development, you might be very high and others you might be low, you know like that. If you are emotionally immature, but you are intellectually mature, that's very confusing to people because they say, "Well, this person is very smart. They're very accomplished, they're very successful, how could they be immature in any way, because they're functioning so well as an adult?" But emotional maturity, like I say, is its own particular developmental line of development.

So for instance, if you're emotionally immature, it means that you're functioning as a much younger person might do, who was kind of stuck at a certain level emotionally, even though they developed in a bunch of other areas and often they get stuck because of some kind of trauma. It's like something happens to them that that kind of makes it unsafe for them to continue developing in their emotional development. But basically what happens is that they end up being stuck at a level where they're functioning in terms of being able to handle their emotions, being able to deal with reality and being able to have empathy for other people, may be more like a four year old, than a 40 year old.

And so if you think about what four year olds are like, you think that they're egocentrism, everything's about me, everything is taken personally, their emotions dominate their view of the world. Like one of the things that emotionally immature people do, which is very hard to spot until you know what it is, and then you see it immediately. They do this thing that's called affect of realism. And that means that they determine reality on the basis of how it feels to them. So reality is what I feel it to be. If you are more objective in your view of reality, it just staggers your belief that someone could sit there and tell you something that is so untrue, factually, but in terms of how it feels to them, that's what they are basing their opinion of reality on. And so their relationship to reality is that they either deny it, distort it or dismiss it.

And it's all around defending themselves from any kind of insecurity, or a threat to their self-esteem or to their security. So they have a great fear of emotions, other people's emotions, and of emotional intimacy, because emotions are kind of stressful and emotionally immature people have a very low tolerance for stress. Emotions make it so that we have to be flexible and very in the moment, and they have a lot of trouble doing that because they get terrified when they are not held together by their rules and their beliefs, and often they're kind of rigidity. So they maintain their self-esteem and their sense of stability by doing things like blaming other people, insisting that you stay in a certain role with them, expecting you to mirror them, that is to be exactly how they need you to be, and they make you responsible for their self-esteem and their emotional stability.

So you fall into a... Like you were talking about the parentification that happened with you. It falls to you to keep them happy or to restabilize them. And if you were a child when that happens, that really sucks energy out of you, and it's very emotionally demanding to be around these people. The other last thing I would mention about it, is that, emotionally immature people have a very poor, what they call receptive capacity. And that means that even though they seem very needy in terms of what they require from you in the relationship, no matter how much you give them, it's never enough. It's kind of like pouring water through a sieve, it's like they continue to, quote, unquote, need what you have to give them, but as you are giving it to them, it just like it doesn't stick. And they are momentarily comforted by the interaction, but it's not something that they can take in and grow from. It's something that they have a continued need for, and that can make them very draining.


Doryn Wallach:

So how does that differ from narcissism?


Lindsay Gibson:

First of all, I stayed away from any psychopathological terms, any diagnostic terms in the book, because once you slap a label on somebody, it tends to demonize them a little bit.


Doryn Wallach:

Yeah, yeah.


Lindsay Gibson:

Yeah. And nobody wants to demonize their parents.


Doryn Wallach:

No. I think that was the point of your book, is not to demonize.


Lindsay Gibson:

Right. Once you say that someone is narcissistic or some other diagnostic category, then the whole quest becomes, "Well, how are they, maybe, not narcissistic? So, is this a right diagnosis or not?" And I didn't want any obsessing about that, I just wanted to describe a set of behaviors and interactions that is common with these people. So think of it like there's emotional immaturity as a general characteristic that has many signs that are pretty invariable across people. So that's one big subset of an issue and then narcissism would be a subset of that because not all emotionally immature people would strike you immediately as narcissistic, but a lot of people who are emotionally immature will have some narcissistic qualities.


Doryn Wallach:

Got it. Okay. That makes sense. And how would you describe someone who's emotionally immature?


Lindsay Gibson:

Yeah. Well, emotionally immature people are easy to be around because they kind of have their batteries included. You're not always feeling like they're looking to you to calm them down, make them feel better. In fact, they're more likely to be doing that for you. Basically, they are flexible. They have a good sense of self, so they're not depending on other people to bolster their self-esteem or stabilize them when they get upset. They're able to do that internally because they have a well-developed articulated sense of self that can be flexible and oriented toward reality as they cope, because they're not consumed with insecurity and anxiety all the time. They tend to be more complex people in that they can think and feel at the same time for the emotionally immature person, they can think, and they can feel, but they have a really hard time doing those two things together.

And that's why when people kind of come at them in a way that makes them anxious, their thinking function shuts down and they become extremely rigid. But with an emotionally immature person, they are able to kind of step back and continue to hear what you're saying objectively, even if they don't like it, even if it's upsetting to them, they retain their ability to think and feel at the same time.

And then a huge difference is that the emotionally immature person is able to feel empathy for the other person, and they are able to put themselves in your shoes, and this makes them able to be fair in their dealings with people. They're able to basically love, they're fine with emotional intimacy, they can tolerate emotion, which is not something that emotionally immature people are able to do. They get scared when things get too emotionally intimate.


Doryn Wallach:

Do you feel that emotionally immature people tend to feel like everyone's out to get them in some ways?


Lindsay Gibson:

Yeah. It may not be a clinical paranoia, but it makes sense because our coping mechanisms and our defenses are also on a kind of a hierarchy of maturity, and down there in the level of immaturity, psychological defenses are geared toward blaming and projecting responsibility on to other people. So there is that kind of paranoid quality of seeing the problem as being outside of themselves and blaming other people, definitely.


Doryn Wallach:

Before we go further, what led you to write these books?


Lindsay Gibson:

I can still tell you kind of how I felt sitting in the office when it hit me. So I was in a psychotherapy with someone and I don't remember who it is now, but I was sitting there with them and they were describing... I think they were fairly new client and they were describing about their childhood, and their parent, and their continuing problem with their parent and what was going on. And as I'm sitting there, I'm thinking, "Wow, they're parents sounds like a four year old." And then the next thought that hit me was, "What is this person doing here?" When the real problem is this emotionally immature person who is causing all this havoc in the family, and this person has come to see me is full of anxiety because they're having to deal with this difficult person. So it was sort of like, "Wait a minute, the wrong person is in my office."


Doryn Wallach:

But the right person wouldn't come to your office?


Lindsay Gibson:

That's a big right.


Doryn Wallach:

Right.


Lindsay Gibson:

Yeah.


Doryn Wallach:

Because they're never wrong.


Lindsay Gibson:

That combination of, "Wow, what is this person doing here?" And man, their parents sound like children. But I also... Doryn, you came to this through my training because I did a lot of training in psychological testing, and in psychological testing, one of the things that makes a personality description useful to another clinician, say the person who's requested the testing of their client. The thing that's really helpful to them is when you can say, "This person psychologically is functioning like a five-year-old or this person is functioning like a 15 year old."

If you have that developmental perspective, when you're writing up a personality evaluation, it really helps people quickly get the idea of what they're working with and what some of the obstacles are going to be. So I was really trained heavily in developmental psychology.


Doryn Wallach:

That makes sense. And by the way your book has 2,702 ratings on Amazon, five stars, number one bestseller in parent and adult relationships, that must feel good, but why do you think it's so popular? What need did it hit?


Lindsay Gibson:

Well, I think it put into words something that had not been put into words before, and of course, you know the power of naming something. Once you can name something and describe it, you can deal with it so much better. And when you read something that describes an experience that you've had, and not only describes it, but tells you why, it's a very powerful experience of being empathized with and being seen. Like what a lot of readers have communicated to me, is that they say, it's like I was there, in their living room when they were growing up.


Doryn Wallach:

Yes, yes. That's how I felt.


Lindsay Gibson:

Yeah. Or like how did you know all these things about me?


Doryn Wallach:

Right. So funny. Sometimes my listeners say that to me, they're like, "How did you know I was going through this?"


Lindsay Gibson:

Yeah. Yeah. So I think that that seemed to be the main thing that people felt. I think for the first time they felt really mirrored, like really seen, really responded to in an area that had caused them great distress, but in a kind of an underlying background way, and also in a way that they didn't feel like they had a leg to stand on in terms of complaining about it, or even knowing what to complain about, they just knew that they felt bad. And I think the popularity of the book was that it put into words something that people were trying to get a handle on, but they couldn't conceptualize because they didn't have the words for it.


Doryn Wallach:

And I think that you... I'm not sure if I said this at the beginning before we recorded, but I think it relates to so many different types of people that I think you... The title of the book is good because it makes you think a little bit, but also, I have to sometimes convince people, "No, no, no. I know you think you might not relate to this book, but you will, I promise you." And every time I have done that... A friends has said, "Oh my God, I really did." And even with my own mother, I said, "You know, I really think you should read this." I think her mother died young at 58, my mom was 28 and her father died later in life, but it was a little difficult at that point in his life, and I really think that she could see her parents in here.

It's interesting also generationally, I'm actually having a guest come on in a few weeks, she is a generational expert. And she's going to be just talking about different generations and the way that they were raised and the way that they were taught about emotion, or they were taught about parenting or what was happening in their lives.


Lindsay Gibson:

Oh yeah. I'll look forward to that one.


Doryn Wallach:

Yeah. Yeah. But I think that your book somewhat speaks to that too, without being as detailed as that. I'll tell you what I was reading this book, and as a mom, I'm always fearful of being a bad mom and I want to do the best I can. And I love being a mom, but I do sometimes, like all of us, I'll see myself doing something, that maybe one of my parents did that I didn't like. And it's scary to me because I'm like, "Oh my God, I couldn't even help what I just did." I was modeling something that I only have ever known. I guess, how do we, A, not be so hard on ourselves if that does happen, but, B, how do we learn to improve upon that, if we feel that we're being emotionally immature or that we're mirroring something that our parents did?


Lindsay Gibson:

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Somebody once said, it doesn't matter what you do, it matters what you do next. And that's not absolutely true.


Doryn Wallach:

Right, right.


Lindsay Gibson:

But I think for a lot of things, it is true, especially in relationships. So I'm just curious after you did something that you wondered about, did you have a sense that you wished you hadn't done that?


Doryn Wallach:

Yes.


Lindsay Gibson:

Okay. All right. See what that tells me, is that what you did Doryn, was you self reflected, right? So you reflected on your behavior, you reflected on the feeling that you had after you did it, that's the main thing. So you were able to self reflect, feel the feeling and realize that you didn't feel good and maybe you even had empathy for your child, because you could see that however you respond to them, didn't help them.

So in those cases, if you continue to process why you may have responded like that, and you come up with the answer, like, yeah, I wanted to be a better mom, but that just hit me in an area that's very hard for me to talk about or very hard for me to think about. And so, I think I reacted defensively, just, I had a knee jerk reaction, and I'm not proud of that. I wish I hadn't, but it just kind of got me. That might be everything that goes on inside of you as you process what happened. But you can always go back to your child and say kind of the same thing to them. Like, "Honey, I want to talk to you about what happened yesterday."

And then you might share with them some of your insights and it doesn't have to be a long involved psychoanalysis, but just that you realize that you got triggered by something and you reacted in a way that had you been able to stay calm or not be so surprised by it, maybe you would have handled it differently because you would have been able to think about how it would affect them and their feelings, and you can apologize. You can say, "I'm really sorry that I did that, and I hope that you'll forgive me." You're actively giving your child understanding and empathy when they probably have not asked for it at that point. You're going back in, you're saying, "Here's what..." And you're also modeling for them as a parent. "Here's what you can do when you stepped in it with somebody. You process what happened, you take responsibility, you go back in and you try to let the other person know that you're sorry, and ask them if they can forgive you."

It's not only repairing... That's called relationship repair. You're not only repairing the relationship with your child around that incident, but you're also showing them, "Look, there are other options other than beating yourself up when you make a mistake and you can work it out with other people if you're sincere and authentic with them."


Doryn Wallach:

It's funny, my parents when they were younger, that was a lot harder for them, but as they get older now in their 70s, the first reaction is usually defensive and then they stop and process and come back and say, "You know what, you're right. I shouldn't have said it like that or whatever, or you have to understand that when I was growing up, it was different," or whatever it is, and I can see the difference in them as older adults and having process their own life. So I think that there's hope for stubborn parents who won't admit when they've done something wrong.


Lindsay Gibson:

Yeah. I know. I just want to mention something. Because I know that you gear your podcast to a certain age group that I believe it's the late 30s, 40s, am I correct?


Doryn Wallach:

Yeah.


Lindsay Gibson:

Okay. And so, if you think about everything that you are facing in that age group. I mean, where you are in your life, you're in the early to middle part of doing your career, if you have a career, you may be raising children, you certainly are dealing with all kinds of adult stresses because there's a great pressure to hit certain benchmarks of development in our society. And if you haven't hit this one by that time, like everybody freaks out, like life is over. But the pressure's on you from multiple fronts are likely to really make worse any underlying tendencies toward rigidity and insecurity, right?

Because it's just so much more stress. And so emotionally immature people do not handle stress well, they're very impatient, they just can't handle it. But then you compare what is life like when you're in your 70s, and kind of a lot of these life questions have been answered one way or the other. I mean, life has happened. You're not waiting to find out what you're going to be in your life if you're going to make it. A lot of the suspenses is out of your life at that point over some of these major issues. And so, I think at that point in your life, you have... If you're fortunate, if you're fortunate, I should say, because I think life can get harder if you're not, but if you're fortunate and some of those stresses have been taken care of and you've moved into retirement, you have more resources available to maybe be able to come back. Not every parent is like that, like yours, but I think it makes sense that they could be, if they're in a time in their life, when they have less stuff on their plate.


Doryn Wallach:

Yeah. That's true. There are a lot of people who will never get through to their parents, and that's unfortunate. I'm lucky that mine were more receptive to listening. What do you think the biggest difficulty people face with their parents is? And also, we should also mention by the way that having emotional immaturity in your life doesn't necessarily always relate to your parents, right? As you said in your book, I think you can go on to see that you might find friendships or other relationships that mirror what you grew up with or what you were used to, and whether those are negative or positive. I think that I've learned that in friendships. Once I did this work, myself, I started to realize that like, "Oh, that's why I was friends with that girl." And I no longer am, but it was giving me something that I thought I needed based on what I needed as a kid. I'm not sure I'm explaining that correctly, but what are the difficulties that our generation is facing?


Lindsay Gibson:

Well, as I mentioned before, it's an incredibly busy time with all of these societal and developmental challenges. Have you done this by the age of 30? Have you done this by the age of 35? Have you done this by the age of 40? You have this... It's kind of like you're on a evaluation timeline. And this is all... It tends to be very subconscious. I don't know how many people come for therapy when they turn 30, or turned 40, or turned 50? We are keeping track at some level in our mind about how we're doing, but those ages, the late 30s and early 40s, that is when you are doing the career stuff, if you have children, you're doing that. And it's a very demanding age and you may be dealing with multiple drains on your time and your energy. Like if you are working and you have children, or you're trying to maintain a relationship.


Doryn Wallach:

And a lot of people are in care-taking mode for their parents, if that's right?


Lindsay Gibson:

Oh yeah. Yeah. That's right. That's right. Yeah. And then you have the additional issue of parents who are sort of coming in and wanting to be... Well, when I start to say involved in your life, but that's not really what I mean. Not that exactly, it's that they want to create the kind of role or story they want to have with you and maybe your children, or you and your life. So they may be ready for more visits, maybe they have more time on their hands. They want to have more time with their grandchildren, or they don't want to have anything to do with their grandchildren.

Whatever it is when their emotional needs are coming in, and you are expected to stay in some rigid child mode with them that keeps them feeling secure and good about themselves. You can see the conflict that that would stir up because in that age group, you simply don't have the energy or the time to be doing that for your parents while everything else is demanding you in your life. And so, that's a time where the parent's demands or expectations can be especially honorous and they can also end up making you feel like you're being stretched way too thin, or that you're being intruded upon. Like there can be boundaries that you want to set, because maybe you want to do Thanksgiving with your own family this year, instead of traveling to be with your parents.

These things are like greeted, not well, by emotionally immature parents because they don't have the flexibility to deal with change very well, as transitions are extremely stressful for them and their behavior tends to get worse when you're going through any kind of transition. So when you have to set boundaries with them, what often happens is that they don't see it, that you're in a bad way and you need to protect yourself, or you need to get some extra time to yourself, they take it personally, and they will challenge the boundaries that you set instead of saying, "Oh, okay. I understand, you must be exhausted." No. It's that, "Oh, I must be the worst mother ever then, or does this mean you're never coming home for a holiday, again?" They go into these disaster scenarios.

It's very hard to be doing everything else that you're doing in your life and then to be dealing with older parents who may have expectations of you that really can't be met anymore because you have so much on your plate. And then if it's a care-taking mode with older parents, that just exacerbates it even more because people don't get more mature and more resilient when they get old and sick, they have fewer resources with which to deal with stress. So a lot more falls on people in your age group.


Doryn Wallach:

Right. And I think that boundaries are really difficult. I think our parents have this mentality of like, "I worked my butt off to get you where you are, and to get you into college, and a little bit of you owe me type of attitude," because of how they were raised and I think that there's that guilt that when we try to put up boundari