TIFT #16 Failed Rites of Passage

tift Jun 15, 2021


Not everyone of adult chronological age feels or functions like a full adult. This TIFT is about those individuals. I suppose every therapist has a personal list of “syndromes” or patterns they recognize but don’t find in the literature. This is one I have found useful in many circumstances.

The good news about problems of development is that they are repairable at any age. Development happens when we take the risk of trying out new behaviors and going through the anxiety and discomfort that naturally accompany change. The other side of that coin is that not trying out new behaviors can be a way of avoiding uncomfortable affects. That is how failed rites of passage become entrenched.

Here are some signs:

  • A chronological adult (often secretly) doesn’t feel like a full adult.
  • An adult seems not to take on important responsibilities and waits for someone else to step up.
  • Separation anxiety is prominent in adult experience.
  • An adult is focused on some game or activity most often associated with childhood or teens.
  • An adult avoids some of the outward dress or manners of adulthood.

The passage from adolescence to adulthood is often very scary. Perhaps in cultures or families where the adolescent has clear role models to show the way, it may be a little easier, but in societies where young people expect to chart their own course towards their “passion,” they may see only their overstressed, overworked parents struggling to cope with the burdens of striving for the “good life.” Under those circumstances, the adolescent may privately vow never to follow in those footsteps. But what then? There may not be any attractive path to follow. Such a daunting future may, of course, be made worse by economic recession or political unrest and conflict. Perhaps this is why college students do so much drinking, drugging and general avoidance at the same time they prepare for success in a competitive and rapidly changing world.

The developmental arrest may also start earlier. Trauma, and especially neglect, almost always leave behind a young child waiting for the parental sponsorship that is universally needed to manage the anxiety of stepping into the next level of development. When part of an individual is still waiting, that part will not be there to participate in a rite of passage and will be absent from the person who steps into the grown-up world.

It is a universal principle of human life that when we move into a new role, a new group, or a challenging new activity, we feel an increased need for support. We need someone to fill the role of sponsor, someone who believes in our ability to make the move and who knows what we are getting into. When support is not available, the move may be partial or avoided entirely. A small child might go to kindergarten but spend the entire day waiting for it to end. An adult may enter the workforce but feel more like a visitor than an employee. With practice, the child adapts to school and the adult becomes a worker, but in both cases, something may be left behind.

What happens in therapy?

The incompleteness of adulthood may not be the reason for entering therapy. It is likely to become a factor because therapy usually involves making moves towards a more fully functional adult life. When the patient begins to feel a tug towards more mature functioning, instead of advancing eagerly, there is resistance. The drama is likely to unfold outside of consciousness. The reasons for holding back will be rationalized such that they seem due to outside factors. “I can’t because…” With more exploration, it is likely to become apparent that the patient is actually waiting for outside conditions to change. Those conditions often boil down to having more support or help from someone outside.

Another variation is that the patient goes ahead with new, adult functioning, but somehow fails. A roadblock appears, a physical injury or condition stops progress, or some other project has to be completed first.

It may not be easy to discover the deep reluctance that is holding up progress, but one factor is in our favor. In the therapeutic relationship, the therapist stands as a candidate for the missing sponsor. This is one of those delicate balances where too much “neutrality” may kill hope that the therapist might help, while promises that can’t be fulfilled hold the danger of future betrayal. The answer, in my view, is clarity about what one can and cannot do to help.

One man in his late forties asked for some “concrete guidance about how to be a full adult.” I told him I would be happy to offer whatever guidance I could, but that it might very well be information that he already had, and his own ideas might turn out to be better suited to his particular situation. What he really needed was my willingness.

Resolving reluctance to grow is greatly helped by being able, with compassion, together, to understand how hard it is to go forward alone. The joint act of understanding is ultimately what conveys the sponsorship that was once missing and clears the way to advancement into full adulthood.

A definition of adulthood

Work with people stuck in this way shaped my definition of psychological adulthood as “a subjective sense of full ownership of one’s own life.” In early adolescence we are still blindly borrowing parental values and counting on parental wisdom to prevent us from irreversible mistakes. By the end of adolescence, young people who have succeeded in their rite of passage do feel ready to own their values, even give their life for them, and own the consequences of what they do. They may seek guidance, but experience themselves as the final decision makers. When we start the process it may not be obvious that this state has advantages. It does. The advantage is that what we achieve and accomplish, the relationships we build, the places we occupy in the world, now belong entirely to us.

Jeffery Smith MD



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