Developmental inertia is the force of our emotional baggage increasing as we get older. David Stanley is helping his teenage son over the teeter-totter from one stage of life to another.
Inertia, you may recall from the time you spent watching Bill Nye, is a property of matter. Nothing moves unless acted upon by outside forces. The more mass, the more inertia. Big rocks, ships, and teenagers – they don’t like to move. But once things get moving, inertia says: Get out of the way. NFL defensive lineman. Runaway semi-trucks. Teenagers.
Our emotional & psychological development is no different. After extensive Googling, I’ve termed it developmental inertia. As we mature, the mass of our emotional baggage becomes greater and greater. As the mass increases, so does the inertia. You might recall Eriksen’s eight stages from your Developmental Psychology class. Eriksen said that when one masters a stage, one can move on with confidence to the next stage.
But if we don’t master a stage, if we’re not emotionally capable, our baggage becomes so heavy that the inertia of one’s current stage inhibits movement into the next stage of development. Many of us have done battle with developmental inertia. We leave home for college, get an undergraduate degree, and boom!, find ourselves back in the childhood bedroom.
Perhaps you married, and soon divorced. Emotionally and economically devastated, your developmental inertia was so great, it pulled you right back into a few extra months of late-twenties adolescence in your parents’ cellar. Maybe your love-life is like the rock of Sisyphus. You just keep rolling that same rock of deceit to the top of the hill, only to have it roll back down to the bottom of the damn hill.
If you are raising an older teen, you’ve probably seen it. Some kids can’t wait to tackle life’s stages. Some kids, on the other hand, can’t get over the hump. As a kid gets older, s/he realizes that something isn’t quite right, but still, just can’t get moving. They get angry, and frustrated, but until they overcome their developmental inertia, there they stay.
That’s my kid. More accurately, that WAS my kid.
Aaron was stuck in Eriksen’s Stage 5: “Who Am I and What Can I Be?” When Aaron and I talked about college and his coursework, I always heard one over-arching theme: “Dad, I have no idea what I’m up to in school.” Aaron loves learning. But in the midst of a big group of highly motivated, future-oriented young adults, he felt adrift. No assurances from me that he was far from alone could assuage his angst.
Aaron came home.
After a long search, he found work. His work, as I have mentioned here before, has energized him. Aaron has found purpose, motivation, and a tribe at Bed, Bath and Beyond.
Right now, I am trying to help Aaron push his own boulder up and over the hill. For whatever reason, my son lacks confidence in his decision making. He is intelligent and well-read, creative and successful in a variety of areas. Yet, he often is paralyzed by indecision and over-analysis. Afraid to make a bad decision, he too often makes no decision. And as Rush’s Geddy Lee sings, ”If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
My job as his father is simple enough. It is to help him find enough safe situations where he can learn to trust his decision-making process so that he gains a sense of adult self-efficacy. Failing that, I am sending a young man out of my home who will continually be plagued by self-doubt – a gigantic rock, with lots of mass, which will always have inertial control over his life.
We are all balanced, quite precariously, on a teeter-totter. One foot on one side of the fulcrum, one foot on the other, we tip back and forth. We search for equanimity as we go through life, shifting from one stage to another. As we push off with one leg and move into a new phase of life, we feel that leg wobble under us. Unless we give a good, solid push, 100% committed, and land solidly on the new leg, we lose our balance. Our move into a new phase of life; compromised.
Aaron pushed on his teeter-totter. He pushed hard enough to budge the teeter-totter. That got him off to college. At college, he pushed again; harder this time, but not hard enough to spring him out into the world. He lost his balance.
He landed on solid ground – a safe place; his home. He pushed off again, searching hard for work. He landed like an Olympic gymnast sticking the landing. Tens from all the judges.
Working has given him freedom to think and dream. “Who am I?” is mankind’s oldest question. “What am I up to in life?” would be a close second. This young man loves gaming, writing, thinking and analyzing, and coaching. He’s developing a business plan for an eGames coaching business. He writes on gaming for several blogs; on strategy, tactics, team line-ups, and analysis. Stability and mastery at work has given him the freedom to dream, plan, and implement.
Young adulthood has always been a big ask. It was probably easier 200 years ago. The shift from an agricultural economy, where one’s entire pre-adult life was one big apprenticeship, to a modern economy, has left many young men and women floundering. In our modern era, some of the blame lays at the feet of parents who helicopter over kids and teens and disavow their sense of self-efficacy. But even 50 years ago, a young person’s path to adulthood and career was much more clear-cut.
As long as Aaron pushes hard, with 100% commitment, he will always be welcome back home should he flail madly and stumble. But the best thing about mastering his teeter-totter is that he won’t need to come home. His inertia, once started, will keep him moving. Aaron will become the master of his domain.
The Big Questions:
1) How did you handle the transition between college and young, independent adulthood? How hard did developmental inertia hit you?
2) At this point in your life, where are you on the teeter-totter? Tippy? Solid? Familiar? Scary?
3) How did your parents, and other important adults, assist you in the transition to young and independent adulthood?
What advice would you give young men and women in my son’s position?
More from David Stanley:
—photo by O.Ortelpa/Flickr