Stop Trying to Make People Grow Up

A therapist explains the power of focusing on your own maturity

Kathleen Smith
Published in
2 min readNov 1, 2021


Photo: rbkomar/Getty Images

When anxiety is high, the more we fixate on the behaviors of others. Maybe you try to teach your partner to dress better, or lecture your father on how to be a better listener. You’re more likely to be embarrassed by your children’s bad behavior or frustrated with a colleague’s inefficiency. If you’re not careful, you’ll exhaust yourself trying to drag others towards maturity.

As a therapist, I help people think about how to work on becoming more differentiated in their relationships. Differentiation is your capacity to think and act for yourself, but also to let others do the same. A less differentiated person is more likely to treat others like an extension of themselves. Their families often operate like one giant emotional blob, where an individual’s functioning depends on the entire group behaving better and calming down.

Working on differentiation looks like shifting from focus on others to focus on oneself when anxiety is high. To stop directing, and to start reflecting maturity.

Directing others can look like:

  • Needing others to behave so you’ll feel calm.
  • Lecturing or criticizing others.
  • Needing people to think or act how you think or act.
  • Turning a loved one into a project.

Reflecting maturity can look like:

  • Letting people be responsible for themselves.
  • Managing your own anxiety instead of theirs.
  • Sharing your thinking only when asked.
  • Focusing on how you want to respond to poor behavior.

A person who is reflecting maturity recognizes that they can only tinker with their side of the relationship equation. If they have a mother who criticizes their weight, they think about how they want to respond to her. If they feel the pull to debate a partner’s decision, they might first strive to better understand their thinking.

Being differentiated isn’t about letting people do whatever they want — it’s about interrupting our tendency to anxiously fix others and generating more thoughtful responses to relationship challenges.

When you’re focused on growing yourself up, and not everyone else, you’ll become less allergic to other people’s choices. There is more freedom, flexibility, and intimacy in relationships when people are focused on managing themselves. And when you give people the opportunity to direct themselves, they might surprise you with their capabilities.



Kathleen Smith
Writer for

Kathleen Smith is a therapist and author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.