Are Alcoholics Emotionally Immature?

Concerted attempts have been made to relate personality factors to alcohol dependence.

In fact, for many years, research attempted to define the so-called alcoholic personality. Attempts to do so have dwindled in recent years.

Potential alcoholics tend to be emotionally immature, expect a great deal of the world, require an inordinate amount of praise and appreciation, react to failure with marked feelings of hurt and inferiority, have a low frustration tolerance, and feel inadequate and unsure of their abilities to fulfil expected male or female roles.1

Although the obvious emotional immaturity often seen in alcoholics seems to cover a number of the more recent findings on bio-psychologcal aspects a alcoholism.

For example, if we partly defined emotional immaturity as containing some of the following, then we appear to be covering a number of much researched and demonstrated aspects of alcoholism. Do these then not come under an umbrella term of emotional immaturity? This list was complied by Psych Central

Dimensions of Emotional maturity

  1. The ability to modulate emotional responses.  Addicts tend to have an all or nothing emotional response.  When they respond they become overly emotional and take a longer time to return to baseline.  They are easily flooded with emotion to the point of impairing functioning.
  1. The ability to tolerate frustration.  Addicts tend to respond to frustrating situations as disasters rather than having any perspective.
  1. The ability to delay gratification.  Emotionally immature people have trouble planning and working toward goals.  The ability to give up immediate gratification is necessary for anyone to go about life in a successful way.
  1. The ability to control impulses.  The mature self has the ability to see that feeling the urge to do something is not the same as doing it.  The recovering addict has a level of control over his or her behavior and can put boundaries around what is inappropriate to say or do.
  1. The ability to be reliable and accountable.  Addicts are often self centered and not good at dealing with the everyday requirements of life like being on time, fulfilling obligations and telling the truth.  As they gain emotional maturity they gain the ability to get out of themselves and think about the impact of their actions on others and on their own lives as well.




According to a list drawn up by

If people are emotionally immature, they may exhibit some of the following symptoms:

* Such individuals will often find it hard to deal with the normal challenges of life. When they are faced with problems they feel unable to cope. They may have developed a psychological state known as learned helplessness.

They struggle to develop meaningful relationships with other people. They may appear too needy or a bit overbearing.
* Those people who are emotionally immature will tend to have a pessimistic outlook on life. They may see the future as a threatening and hostile place.
* This type of person will usually have low self-esteem. This means that they do not value themselves highly so will be willing to accept very little in life as being all they deserve.
* They find it almost impossible to live in the present moment. They are either reliving the past or worrying about the future.
* They can easily lose their temper at the slightest provocation. When they are dealing with uncomfortable emotions they will tend to take things out on other people.

* People who are emotionally immature can have unrealistically high expectations. This means that they are frequently disappointed. Such and individual can have impossibly high expectations for other people yet low expectations for themselves.
* Such individuals can suffer from severe mood swings. This instability of mood can make life a bit uncomfortable.
* If people are emotionally immature, they find it much harder to control their own behavior.

Recognize any of these symptoms?

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We were completely like this before doing the 12 steps.

We, however, do not think that anyone, alcoholics or otherwise choose to behave in this emotional immature way.

We have already looked at the emotional distress accompanies alcoholism and addiction, and will be examining more in the months ahead and it is difficult not to see the above emotional immaturity as all being products of a distress state.

In the course of addiction the alcoholic in particular grows in emotional distress as the stress and emotional dysregulation associated with addiction increases.

This means the brain “collapses” from more cortical, goal-directed (and emotionally regulated) areas of the brain to more sub-cortical areas which are more automatic, unthinking and compulsive.

Emotional distress activates these areas of habit-like compulsive behaviour, acting as a stimulus response, distress the stimulus and compulsive (unthinking)  responding as the response.

This is like a distress based or “fight or flight” reality or a heightened emotional state or “emergency” state. It seems to us that alcoholics live in this region more than cortical regions. They are primed to go off!

They then have a tendency to either run away from situations or to fight “everybody and everything”, to be intolerant of uncertainty, to catastrophize, to be fear-based people to be over reactive, hypervigilant, perfectionist etc These are all distress based states.

Are aspects of the  apparent emotional immaturity mentioned above not also not  a surface manifestation of these deep subcortical processes?

It is this state of heightened uncertainty and fear that whittles away at the alcoholic psyche. This amount of stress/distress promotes implicit, do, memory, over explicit, reflective, evaluative, memory. Distress makes one act without much thought of consequence, it makes one choose short term over greater long term gain, it makes one want to act impulsively or compulsively to alleviate distress. It is this distress that is in charge of action and emotional behaviour. It calls the shots.  A state of emergency has been called in the brain of the alcoholic.

I know it is widely shared at AA meetings that we got stuck in the emotional age of our first drink, in the early teens and never developed our emotional selves or capacity to regulate and process emotions. We are not sure this is completely true as the stress that accompanies alcoholism, as alcohol is literally classified as a pharmacological stressor,  not only causes chronic stress dysregulation but also the emotional dysregulation which accompanies this. It is emotional parts of the brain and the cortical areas that are supposed to keep them in check that are most impaired via chronic alcoholism.

Dr. Stephanie Brown (2) has explored these developmental changes in cognition, which lead to “alcoholic thinking.” She states that these changes refer “not only to rationalization, denial and frame of mind, but also to character traits that frequently accompany drinking. These include grandiosity, omnipotence and low frustration tolerance.” (3) These traits appear to be directly associated with the addictive process rather than with the individual’s personality prior to establishing this abusive cycle.

As alcohol becomes more dominant, the need to deny these changes becomes greater. It appears that there is an interaction between physiological changes and psychological defenses which creates emotional immaturity, self-centeredness and irresponsibility. Alcoholism becomes a thought disorder as well as an addiction to alcohol.

This is the consequence we believe of prefrontal atrophy and subcortical hypertrophy caused by chronic alcohol consumption, a constant injection a pharmacological stressor into the brain, wrecking the ability to maturely deliberate and instead rely on “I want it now!”  type of thinking.

We firmly believe this progression is to a state of constant distress signal in the brain and a cortical hyperarousal.

The alcoholic may not be emotionally distressed all the time but his brain is never satisfied, it constantly needs more, it finds only transient balance, via allostasis, it never finds true balance, i.e. homeostasis. it is always seeking, never reaching satiety, never completely at rest. This is emotionally exhausting.

It may represent, on superficial observation to some, the “emotional immaturity, self-centeredness and irresponsibility” (4) but is it really this simple, seeing these as the primary defenses and interpersonal style typical of normal development in the first three years of life or to characterize the addictive part of self as a “two-year-old child”?

Isn’t it more apt to say instead of  a “two-year-old wounded part of self begins to “drive the bus” and create havoc for all concerned” to say chronic stress manifest  as emotional distress “driving the bus”?

Thus a valid question remains for us and we ask it to our normies or earthling friends (i.e. non-alcoholics), wouldn’t you act in a childish if you were this distressed most of the time, having to rely on impaired emotional regulation and processing parts of the brain?



In fact, to all those normies or earthlings who are reading this blog, how well do you think or consider others when in a state of persistent and daily distress? In this heightened anxiety how good is your action outcome memory, goal-directed planning and awareness of future consequence?

Are you ever moody, emotionally volatile and over reactive in this state of high anxiety? Hyper sensitive? Ever strike out unthinkingly at others although you had not intended to? Leading to guilt and shame, and remorse and self pity which can in the fullest of time lead to depression? This is called a transient emotional dysregulation, distress leading to an emotional cascade. This is the brain of an alcoholic all the time. It can lead to dejection and relapse.

In this sate of nauseating anxiety, how well do you consider the consequence, negative or otherwise, or your fear-based decision making?  Do you choose the short term answer in these anxiety-filled moments just to simply relieve this distress this unpleasant feeling of doom? So do alcoholics!

It is not enough to call the alcoholic emotional immature or stuck in the “terrible twos”, although let’s face it the evidence for it is compelling at times!! Let’s instead understand the reasons for it. Would you like to be in a state of distress most of the time? It’s not a whole lot of fun!

The 12 steps help solve these issues, there is a solution to emotional immaturity – it leads to emotional maturity or emotional sobriety which is blogged about here also.

The next time the alcoholic is your life acts in an immature way don’t ask them why they are acting that way, ask them how they feel. instead. Get them to identify, label and process their feelings  by verbalizing them.

When the anxious amgydala has quelled and  it’s feverish responding quietened,  get them to an AA meeting where many tens of thousands of alcoholics are doing the same, “sharing”, processing their emotions by talking about them and how they really feel.



Not running away from them or intellectualizing about them, not fighting them. Simply saying in words how they feel.

It is a miracle awakening for us in recovery, the emotional regulation normies and earthlings take for granted.

The age of miracles is amongst us and it starts by opening your mouth, asking for help, getting help and getting real about what you are really feeling.

It is through sharing our deepest feelings that we start to mature and grow up.





1. Chaudhury, S.K. Das, B. Ukil,  Psychological assessment of alcoholism in males Indian J Psychiatry. 2006 Apr-Jun; 48(2): 114–117. doi: 10.4103/0019-5545.31602

2. Brown S. (1985). Treating the Alcoholic: A Developmental Model of Recovery. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Spring.

3. Brown, S. (1988). Treating Adult Children of Alcoholics: A Developmental Perspective. New York: John Wiley and Sons.




  1. adealc · August 14, 2014

    what can I say bud, just been on the phone to EE , ongoing complaint. my God it felt like my brain was being stretched, grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. TEHE

    • alcoholicsguide · August 14, 2014

      it all takes time I guess! I wrote the blog then and felt all mature, then my PC froze and I started shouting at it! Watch out for that distress signal in the brain eh? Nice one! te he.

  2. adealc · August 14, 2014

    Great bit of insight into the complexity of thw working of the addicts mind. MORE MORE I ”WANT” more. that goes with it too. te hw

  3. melissaintransition · June 29, 2015

    Ummmmmm, YES, YES, AND YES! I have been told by Old Timers that whenever I drank alcohol to escape life was when I stopped emotionally maturing. If that is true, then when I got to the rooms I had the maturity level of a 12 year old…. That was 3.5 years ago and I know for a fact (well, just for today) that I am SOOOOOO different mentally than when I came in. Living life on life’s terms has helped me grow up and knowing its NOT all about me helps me continue seeking for a better way to live. Learning to grow up takes time, besides, I had 20 years of hard drinking SO I’m hoping in about 16.5 years I will be a real adult. 😊

    • alcoholicsguide · June 30, 2015

      Sounds like you are doing well. There is a another blog on this site linking this immaturity to insecure attachment too which kinda applies to me also plus another on whether the spiritual malady really talking about emotional immaturity? I have hit the dizzying heights of 20 at one point according to my wife but have regressed recently 😦 so it is back to basics for me , constant thought of others etc altho I grew up dramatically at certain times compared to others in recovery and it all involved working with others whether in education, or recovery. You would think I’d learn that there may a link here…?

      • melissaintransition · June 30, 2015

        Thanks! I will check out the other site. No matter how much time we have it all one day at a time and (my fav saying) progress NOT perfection! Believe me, I work the hell out of that statement…

      • alcoholicsguide · June 30, 2015

        ha ha – at least you are honest about that! honesty is one the most important things in recovery for me – even if the truth can hurt – which it always does – we see ourselves only with the help of others sometimes – thank God there are those others – like that going blog it 🙂

      • melissaintransition · June 30, 2015

        My philosophy is ~ If I’m honest with everyone, it’s hard to lie to myself.

      • alcoholicsguide · June 30, 2015

        that’s a cracker too – that most have put another three months on your age easily 🙂

  4. Janet Geisler · June 23, 2016

    Love what I read. I would love to forward it to my husband but he would explode! We have been together 16 years. I knew he drank – I did too in moderation – but I stopped drinking and he increased his – his behaviors are too much to deal with and getting help scares him. Not drinking scares him. What can I say to him to make him see what he is like?!?!

    • alcoholicsguide · June 24, 2016

      “I would love to forward it to my husband but he would explode” certainly suggests the emotional immaturity and reactivity I mention here in this blog. Action speaks louder than words in the situation you find yourself in. My wife simply withdrew from me at the end of my drinking as it was too painful for her to see me drink myself almost to death. I suggest you can take action not to enable his drinking in any way. Leave him to deal with it and try the best you can to get on with your own life, although this can be very difficult. It was only when my wife withdrew from me and let go of trying to control me that I realised I was all alone and needed help. I could not be dependent on her anymore. So for the first time in my life I asked for help. First I asked my wife for help, then she organised treatment and an AA meeting. It was only when I got to AA that I realised there were others with the same problem as me. It was the emotional disease that we seemed to share that convinced me I was an alcoholic not their tales of drinking. I knew there was something wrong with me that was more than drinking that the drinking (which was kinda medicating me) and I could previously not put my finger on it. It was seeing my condition in others, who were effectively strangers, that made me realise I needed their help too. I relate to your husband being too scared to get help and being too scared to drink. I was like that too and millions of other alcoholics have been there too, we called it the jumping off point and most alcoholics will not jump until they hurt too bad and sometimes that can be too late for some. I would say there is more to your husband’s drinking than drinking. AA helped me with this other thing and in doing so removed my craving and my need to drink. That was 10 and 1/2 years ago. There is hope, there is a solution. I found it in the fellowship of other recovering alcoholics. This is what I would suggest going to AA and if he doesn’t like it they can refund his misery. For some like me, the realisation of my alcoholism was instantaneous, I had give up so profoundly that the solution seemed easier to accept than it can be for others. But there is a solution that is the good news! My advice to your husband is, you are at the edge, go ahead and jump! There is an invisible parachute attached to your back which will open when you do that.

  5. Pingback: Promises – LA to Miami
  6. louisablog · November 22, 2017

    My days of living in continuous distress are pretty far behind me (almost 23 yrs sober, 20 post-steps!) and can be hard to recall, so reading your posts often gives me “ah-ha” moments regarding my ex — the one who developed sex addiction to boot. After ignoring his “I’ll love you forever” texts for a couple of years, I recently became concerned he might kill himself and responded with a forgiving note that included potential AA sponsor’s number and a recommendation that he get counseling. HIs response? “Don’t contact me again.” If I still needed more closure, I sure got it! He IS killing himself, slowly, but I am free to live. Hmmm… I might blog on this, come to think of it.

    • alcoholicsguide · November 22, 2017

      The days of continuous distress are long gone for me too Thank God but my alexithymia means I still have momentary distresses (as most humans do). This blog was initially written mainly for newcomers and those seeking to help or simply understand them and still mainly address coming into recovery or early recovery and attempting to answer questions I had then too. I feel distress and shame in particular are at the heart of sex addiction as they are with other addictions (although not really mentioned in the Big Book). When in the illness we can’t be told anything, especially if we do not want to hear it, and that is often from those close to or who were formerly close to us. His shame was rebounding your wish to help. Many people I know who do not stay in recovery do not always leave because they do not realise they are alcoholic, they often leave for other reasons such as shame, not feeling good enough and many other reasons linked to their co occurring conditions. Many issues and attitudes I had always thought were my alcoholism have since turned out to be my complex PTSD. Treating the Complex PTSD then helped make my alcoholism less severe in terms of symptoms. I now appreciate there may be other things going on with people that prevent recovery other than denying their addiction.

      • louisablog · November 22, 2017

        But the shame/distress are so tightly concealed! He’s both disciplined and successful at his work (diagnosing airplane malfunctions), so all he shows the world is arrogance and superiority. I had that, too, for as long as I held onto teaching college. It’s a bullet-proof shield, professional success.

      • alcoholicsguide · November 22, 2017

        shame and distress can be so deeply concealed they lead us to play the opposite role, of being in ultra control. It is all about seeking control externally and playing the part, not letting the mask fall. Plus we can be very talented – think Buzz Aldrin or the many very talented writers, doctors, lawyers etc who are alcoholic. We can be very high achievers and in early life exceed in many things but always wanting more, it doesn’t fill us up and lead to contentment. Plus the distress need not be evident in a very stressed out person, it is the distress of our spiritual malady/emotional disease in many cases which leads us to drink or have compulsive sex. If we could deal with ourselves we would not need to do these behaviours but we do because we have difficulties being us, difficulties with our emotional selves. A compulsion is to relieve distress that is what it is and when we are not acting compulsively then we are thinking obsessively about it.

  7. RJ Handley Spiritual Life Coach · November 25, 2017

    Your post is full of wisdom. I am going to refer back to it for my clients who suffer or have suffered from addiction. It took me years after I got sober to emotionally grow up because when I was drinking, I numbed myself out to the experiences that were so important to my emotional development. Thanks for your insights!

    • alcoholicsguide · November 26, 2017

      thank you RJ! Glad it will benefit your clients too. I agree with numbing out emotions with drink. I also suspect for me, my chaotic childhood may have led to me never really being that good at regulating my emotions or knowing how to cope with them in the first instance. Hence I regulated how I felt externally with drink and drugs. Most of what I know about controlling my emotions has been learnt in recovery. Thanks again!

  8. Lucy · July 28, 2018

    As much as I found this post interesting, It’s all very well to say think of how they have to think constantly. As much as I hate to say it, the build up to being an alcoholic is their responsibility. They made that choice and I know a lot of people (even those that don’t have an addiction) don’t like to hear that. The great thing about taking full responsibility for your actions or non actions, is that your life changes in generally positive steps. People on the outside can only have so much empathy for someone before that someone has to make that choice.
    This possible comes off as a little strong but I speak from experience of having a violent addicted father who refused and still refuses to do this day, to deal with the underlying grief of his addiction. And let’s be honest, it tends to be undealt grief that sets off people down this road.

  9. alcoholicsguide · August 1, 2018

    Why do you say you hate to say it, if that is what you believe? I obviously strongly disagree with what you have written but that is okay? We learn via discourse. If via genetics and environmental influence such as attachment trauma, trauma disorders, abuse etc the brains of many addicted individuals have not developed to “maturity” in emotional regulation parts of the brain – they are stuck on level two, say, of five levels of maturity in emotion processing which means ultimately the cognitive part of the brain is not properly recruited and involved in processing emotions and in the decision making that follows this emotion processing. Decisions we make in life are based on how well we articulate our emotions and how well we differentiate our feelings and act on this clarity of feeling. If we do not have the ability to differentiate emotion it results in impulsive and “immature” decision making as the decisions we make are to relieve this undifferentiated state (to get away from it), not based on exactly knowing how we feel. There is a world of difference between decisions based on clearly knowing how we feel and what we want than decisions based on needing to get away for this distressing undifferentiated emotional state. All our decisions are based then on a wanting to get away from self. There is very little conscious decision making going on at all! So to say alcoholics then have the same ability to make choices as normal people does not make sense. I think this is not the case, as you state. At best, there is a severely limited ability to choose. I am talking prior to even drinking. I was fixing my feelings via sport, sugar, cigarettes etc way before I ever drank alcohol. Replacing the distress of being me with pleasurable external consumption was always there. I have always have an addicted brain because I have never processed emotion properly – I have an emotion or affective disorder called addiction. I have a mental health problem called addiction. Would you say other mental health sufferers have made the choice to have a mental health issue too? We all have a possible choice over going into recovery but again this is not as simple as people think, including people in recovery. Many addicts feel they are not worthy of recovery, not good enough, don’t want to give up the “medicine” they have got used to to take another better “medicine” especially when that means they have to trust someone in order to take this life changing first step. I was like that and many abused, traumatized people find it nigh on impossible to take that first step. We need, all of us, a better understanding of what addiction is for many before we start condemning those for not seeking treatment. Understanding brings compassion.

  10. alcoholicsguide · August 1, 2018

    I also understand the underlying grief of his addiction too. Many people later in life start drinking later in life after a bereavement, trauma or drastic change to their life. There are many unresolved emotions that drive addiction like you say. Shame is a massive one for a start. I think later trauma or grief, in vulnerable people, can alter stress systems in the brain, especially in emotion processing processing parts of the brain. Some have similar experiences but are more resilient. Studies show sons and daughters of alcoholics who are resilient as opposed to being vulnerable to later addiction are way better at processing emotions. Better even than “normal kids” that are not from families with a history of alcoholism. I grew up in addiction too. I have para addiction as well as addiction and drank on these unresolved emotions just like the thousands of other resentments and unresolved emotions and traumas. In recovery, via the 12 steps I have dealt with these and also been given the”tools”, that I never had before, to deal with resentments that arise today. In recovery if I could not deal with these I would get so emotionally ill that I would drink again. In later recovery, via EMDR I have also dealt with complex PTSD. I have been given a way to dealt with my in recovery. I never had this program for living until recovery and your father will not until he decides he needs recovery. I did not even realise I had a profound mental health disorder called addiction until I came into recovery and even then it took months and years to fully realise this, some never do even in recovery. Addiction is heart breaking for every one. I would suggest stepping away from your father so that he hits his own emotional rock bottom as soon as possible.

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