Emotional maturity

If you’ve ever gone home for the holidays and found yourself acting like you’re fifteen years old again, whether you’re in your twenties, thirties, forties or beyond now, you might notice that you seem to have regressed—but be unable to stop it. Our emotional maturity levels aren’t linear. They’re messy, and in times of high stress or trauma, we tend to revert back to earlier seemingly “safer” times that are our comfort zone. The same short-term regression can happen to addicts who are in the early stages of sobriety.

Part of this regression is due to our inability to cope with very real, challenging emotions that emerge with sobriety. It’s common to feel unable to take care of ourselves, particularly for those new to rehabilitation. It’s also common for some people to get stuck in a developmental phase. This can sometimes be seen in people who married their high school sweetheart and remained in a bubble of their teenaged selves. However, if divorce occurs in their thirties, they might suddenly act like a teenager again.

Alcoholic and drug dependency can also get a person stuck at a certain point in their life. The earlier a person becomes addicted, the more emotionally immature they may act when they decide to get sober. Regressing to a “simpler time” can be a coping mechanism when sobriety makes it tough to handle life. In some cases, it’s hard to tell whether innate emotional immaturity was present before the addiction, or whether it’s an adopted coping mechanism developed post-addiction. Drugs and alcohol are both popular choices to help hide a life and issues that are deemed uncomfortable by the addict.

It’s rare that addiction alone causes emotional immaturity. Instead, a variety of factors can be at the root. They can include brain physiology, psychological factors (related to drugs or not), and a common fear of growing up. Regardless of the causes of emotional immaturity, learning skills necessary to cope are a big part of early sobriety and can ease the emotional immaturity, too. Part of learning these skills in a sobriety program includes learning things to avoid in early sobriety as well, such as people, places, and things that may trigger addictive tendencies.

The role of drugs and alcohol

Alcohol and drug use that begins at an early age has been linked to stunted brain development. Any powerful substance introduced into a growing body, including caffeine, can have lifelong impacts including emotional immaturity. The risk of long-term side effects increases with stronger substance and prolonged use. Alcohol and drugs can shift dopamine production, too. One study from the University of Georgia suggested that alcohol and drug abuse stops the brain from advancing from whatever developmental stage it’s at.

Plus, drugs and alcohol give users a seemingly easy out of navigating life. When a person doesn’t have to learn conflict resolution skills, social skills, or how to handle their own emotions, what does that leave them with when the crutch of drugs and alcohol is taken away? A person who isn’t an addict will be able to cope with the struggles of life, but an addict might not have the emotional maturity to be able to handle tough but common situations (such as losing a job or a romantic breakup).

A person who reaches for their drug of choice to soothe themselves has an extremely tough time in early sobriety. That’s why a professional support network is so prevalent. They have to learn skills others learned years ago and play emotional maturity catch-up.

Growing up

Fear of growing up is common—nobody wants to get old. However, people who get addicted to drugs or alcohol in their late teens and early twenties often blame college. In university settings, binge drinking and experimenting with drugs is considered par for the course. Drugs and alcohol are easily accessible, there are always parties which provide excuses for getting high or drunk, and it’s rare that a person is seriously called out for having “a problem.”

This can feed a fear of growing up, and college is the perfect environment for it to thrive. Most students who skip class to drink aren’t lazy. Instead, they’ve found a mechanism for coping with adult issues in an environment that indulges them.

The best place to overcome emotional immaturity is in a recovery program. Coping skills are introduced and practiced, but it will take time. The person also has to prioritize it. Growing up notoriously has pangs, whether you’re catching up or right where you’re supposed to be on the emotional maturity spectrum.

Article provided by Trevor McDonald