How old do you feel? Making gains in emotional maturity

We come to recovery filled with fear and desperation. We achieve stability and greater health. We repair the wreckage of our past and we struggle all the while because as the expression in 12 step fellowships goes:

“The good thing about being sober is you feel more and the bad thing about being sober is you feel more.”

There are three questions I ask most everyone I serve:

  1. How old are you?
  2. How old do you feel?
  3. How old do you feel when you’re afraid?

There are common themes in the answers I receive. It’s darkly amusing to me that the more a person sees their life as a mess, the more likely they are to shame themselves for being their chronological age and, “still not having my shit together.” I most often quote Marilyn Gray. She said, “Nobody ever has it all together. That’s like trying to eat once and for all.”

Filled with fear and desperation

Most of us feel much older than we are physically and mentally. We were never free to be children. We were burdened with responsibilities that we were not ready for and denied the care, attention, and approval that all children need to grow. Kids are always doing the best they can, but we grew up being taught that our best was not enough and that by extension, we were not enough.

The age we feel when we’re scared is usually the most defining indicator of our emotional maturity. It’s evident in other emotions as well. Most especially, the ones we don’t allow ourselves to feel and express. These are the basis for anxiety and depression, for struggles in managing anger and impulsiveness.

Our discomfort with vulnerability is a product of past experiences. We learned not to express sadness or disappointment. We learned to maintain appearances and pretend to be okay/normal. We were admonished not to discuss any problems outside of the family, but we found they wouldn’t be discussed within the family either.

We know that the age at which a person starts using drugs and alcohol to cope is the point at which their development is arrested. What we often fail to consider is that abuse, neglect, and any traumatic experience also arrest development.

Dealing with it

We thaw out. We stop numbing and self-sabotaging. What is imperative is that we learn to simply sit with what we feel, identify it, and share it with others. Learning coping strategies is great but the biggest mistake we make is trying to deal with overwhelming emotions (past and present) on our own.

This is one of the most important reasons to connect with others on similar journeys and ideally, why we seek mentors who are further along in the process. In a very real sense, we need help growing up and filling in the gaps of our childhood, adolescent, and early adult development. We need to be able to simply express what we feel and have folks who care about us identify and share what’s been helpful to them.

If you have access to such people, please know that you’re not burdening them by asking for their help. Truthfully, you’re giving them a break from themselves and an opportunity to share what they’ve learned. You’re also allowing something beautiful to come out of what they’ve endured.