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
- 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.
- The ability to tolerate frustration. Addicts tend to respond to frustrating situations as disasters rather than having any perspective.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 alcoholrehab.com
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?
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.