During the four years I spent in prison for a first-offense drinking and driving charge, I had many cellmates – most of whom were drug addicts. But one stood out more than any other. Her name was Leslie and she had been a meth addict since she was 12 years old. Now, over twenty years into her addiction, she would cry at the drop of a hat, communicate using baby talk and frequently pick fights between whoever was around. She would do anything she could to become the center of attention of any situation.
In other words, Leslie had the emotional maturity of a preteen.
Leslie’s case isn’t unusual. Experts have long indicated that substance abuse can stunt emotional growth and cause enormous difficulties for individuals transitioning into adulthood.
When individuals start using in their teens, the brain changes shape and the cortex thins – the part of the brain associated with higher-level functioning. As a result, the brain becomes stuck at the same level of maturity it was in when drug use began, a term known as “arrested development.”
Arrested development can lead to many consequences down the road. One that may not come as much of a surprise is the high probability of relapse, since these individuals tend to struggle in dealing with their own feelings or forming meaningful relationships.
Stunted brain growth can also lead to certain developmental problems, such as the inability to make decisions, a lower ability to assess consequences, and a predilection towards risky, impulsive behavior.
In addition, higher incarceration and unemployment rates are commonly reported amongst those with low emotional maturity levels.
So what can you do to develop emotional maturity? First, learn how to become present and aware of your feelings. Addicts run away from difficult emotions when they arise and bury their feelings by drinking or drugging. Instead, when you feel something strongly – loneliness, self-hate, or insecurity – don’t back away from it – face it head-on. Look at the situation, determine what is making you feel that way, and decide what positive steps you will take next.
Another good course of action is to join a support group. Surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals allows you to realize that you’re not alone and that others who have reached the level of personal growth you’d like to achieve have been in your shoes before.
Additional Reading: 6 Transformations from Drug Addicts to Role Models
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