Part One: “Battling Impulsiveness”
            “Sometimes I just don’t think about consequences.”
With those words the boy (let’s call him John) tried to explain why he had gotten into trouble at school. Another student had annoyed him so John hit the kid over the head with his notebook. The incident led to a visit to the principal’s office and ISS (In-School-Suspension), followed by additional restrictions imposed by his frustrated parents. Unfortunately, the incident was not the first time John had reacted inappropriately to his fellow students. In describing the incident he said, “Sometimes I think about the consequences, and sometimes I just don’t think about consequences.” In other words John was very prone to “leap before he looked.”
John’s example is typical of arguments and fights initiated by kids and adults who battle with impulsiveness. They say things and do things without considering the negative consequences. They may feel remorseful afterwards but the damage has already been done. An impulsive person is definitely an “accident looking for a place to happen.” The least provocation can trigger an instant reaction that is harmful and hurtful. One impulsive man admitted “I don’t act, I just react.” Acting without regard to consequences is a behavioral pattern that lies at the heart of impulsiveness.

John reminds me of a camper I knew years ago. I enjoyed working as a volunteer with a youth camp for one week each of several summers. During one such week the camp director had to leave his post overnight, and I was asked to “fill in” as the interim director. He had no sooner driven out of the campgrounds when a young camper was brought to me with a bruised head. Thankfully, a quick look at the injury brought a sigh of relief that the kid was not really hurt. Out of curiosity I asked him how he got hurt, and he replied that he bumped into a tree while running downhill to his cabin. I then asked why he didn’t dodge the tree. His response explained his mistake: “Well, I didn’t see the tree because I had my eyes shut.”
The camper’s experience fits the impulsive pattern. We run through life with our eyes shut, totally oblivious to the consequences that lie ahead. Predictably, in our state of blindness we continue to bump into things; these mistakes make messes, and our messes often result in misery, both for ourselves and for people around us. Instead of following the advice “Look before you leap!” we jump out into thin air without regard to what’s at the bottom of the cliff. Our impulsiveness means that we lack self-control of our behavior and self-regulation of our emotions. We allow our out-of-control emotions to generate actions that often bring very painful consequences. Unfortunately, we don’t often learn from our mistakes, so we continue through life like a runaway train picking up speed and getting ready for a track-jumping disaster.
Some people seem to value their impulsiveness and prefer not to change their lifestyle. They view themselves as spontaneous and free-flowing, unrestricted by structure or schedules. They prefer to live in the moment and on the edge. The problem is, however, that these people take spontaneity (usually a desired quality) to an excessive extreme. In its basic form impulsiveness is simply spontaneity taken to excess. This may be the time to recall the adage, “Too much of a good thing can soon become a bad thing.”  Most impulsive people, though, do recognize that their impulsive pattern is more negative and harmful than it is positive and helpful. Thus, they see a need for improvement, and they’re searching for ways to beat impulsiveness.
As a therapist I work daily with individuals, couples, and families who are impacted in multiple ways by impulsiveness. The hurt caused and the havoc created by one impulsive family member can bring extensive suffering to the entire family. You may already be acquainted with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) that describes and delineates the various mental health diagnoses that are treated by psychiatrists and therapists. You may also know that one category in the DSM is called “Impulse Control Disorders” (or ICD’s). This list includes such behavioral patterns as Intermittent Explosive Disorder, Kleptomania, Pyromania, Pathological Gambling, and Trichotillomania. Additionally, impulsiveness is included in the diagnostic criteria for several other disorders, including Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and alcohol/drug addiction. All of these disorders share a common pattern—the inability to control or regulate one’s impulses. Without effective treatment people with these patterns usually continue to travel the same destructive highway through life, suffering as they do but seemingly unable or unwilling to change to a better highway. Tragically, as impulse-driven people suffer from their unending mistakes, their families also sustain significant damage. When impulsiveness is allowed to grow into a full-blown ICD, the individual will probably need professional assistance to accomplish meaningful, permanent change.
The impulsive person may wonder, “So, why am I impulsive?” The causes of impulsiveness and the development of effective treatment approaches continue to challenge researchers who specialize in exploring human behavior.  While there certainly could be some level of genetic influence that generate a predisposition toward impulsiveness, the bulk of the problem is, in my opinion, the result of undeveloped impulse control during childhood. Understandably, until a child’s brain matures to a point where he can cognitively connect behavior to consequences, he is prone to act impulsively without considering consequences. However, if the child lives in a setting in which he is allowed to “get away” with misbehavior (that is, he suffers no significant consequences), he is likely to continue and even increase the misbehavior. At the same time the tendency toward impulsiveness is also strengthened. Parents who do not hold their children accountable and responsible for their misbehavior are actually reinforcing the child’s impulsive patterns. Such parents may think of themselves as “good” parents, but their efforts to rescue and “bail out” their children will only promote impulsiveness. No parent is perfect, but we need to be consistent with our children in terms of consequences. The lack of consistency means that the child reaches chronological adulthood without the personal tools necessary for effective self-regulation and consistent self-control.

Parents are not the only factor in the development of impulsive patterns. Unfortunately, our culture promotes impulsiveness. The message of impulsiveness permeates media marketing: “If you want it, go get it.” This public message emphasizes instant gratification, regardless of the consequences (such as health problems or overwhelming indebtedness).  Our culture promotes reliance upon emotional feelings as the best guide for decision-making:  “If you feel it, do it,” “Go with your heart, not your head,” and “Just do it!”

Furthermore, the emphasis upon “me” and “now” encourages impulsiveness, as does the focus upon constant stimulation and excitement. Boredom is perceived as the worst enemy. The “good life” is the lifestyle filled with risk-taking and life-on-the-edge. We are bombarded with pressures to embrace a lifestyle of “entitlement”; we “deserve” anything and everything that promises to bring instant pleasure and the avoidance of personal boredom. Basically, we are encouraged to be selfish, self-centered, and self-serving. We are taught to “live fast” and to “be quick,” and we are seemingly discouraged to take time to sit still and wait or to take time to think something through. The Impulsiveness Train is pulling out of the station and we must be on board. Too many of us succumb to these media messages and social pressures, and thereby we feed and strengthen our growing pattern of impulsiveness.
This combination of absent or inconsistent consequences along with cultural pressures toward instant gratification provides a feeder system that allows our impulsiveness to grow into an inner monster that threatens our personal health and well-being. In these influences I see an equation that describes this dangerous pattern of behavior. 
                                                                                SB             +                   AC                           =               SI
                                                                        (Selfish behavior)   (Absence of Consequences)   (Stronger impulsiveness)

The causes of impulsiveness and the processes through which it grows into its monster status may not be totally understood, but the resulting impact of impulsiveness is quite apparent to us all. Let’s consider several types of impairment, and then we’ll highlight the importance of self-control, along with several tools and techniques that can provide improvement.

Impairment through Low Self-control

The word “impairment” certainly fits the negative impact of impulsiveness. The impulsive pattern hinders our progress and limits our success. When we practice a lifestyle of low self-control, we are very prone to make many mistakes. These mistakes may generate major messes, all of which will increase the misery we experience in our journey through life. I think of this sequence as the 3-M’s:  mistakes, messes, misery. This 3-M sequence can be seen in several types of impairment brought on by high levels of impulsiveness. 
(1). Impulsiveness impairs personal health.  Impulsive actions often result in physical injuries and can sometimes even cause death. The emotional price tag for impulsiveness is often quite high. For many people the moral implications of impulsive behavior are important issues. Sometimes we break laws through impulsive actions and we pay a heavy legal price, perhaps including incarceration and the loss of many valued privileges. Years ago I had the opportunity to teach college-level courses and to conduct life-skills workshops within a maximum security correctional facility (that is, a prison). In that context I got to know many inmates who were serving long-term sentences for their mistakes. As they talked about their patterns that led to their incarceration, they often would say (in one form or another), “I just never really thought about the consequences.” Now, regrettably, they have plenty of time to ponder the issue of impulsiveness and the impairment they invited into their lives.
(2). Impulsiveness impairs employment. Impulsive behavior in a job setting can initiate write-ups, reprimands, penalties, demotions, and even termination. Wise managers are extremely cautious about hiring a person known to be highly impulsive. They understand that impulsivity hinders the ability to function effectively and to work well within the context of group effort or team activity. An impulsive employee may react to a job incident in a “knee-jerk” fashion by resigning quickly, only to experience shock and regret later about his “stupid” decision to quit without thinking through the consequences of unemployment. Clearly, impulsive behavior and successful employment do not co-exist well as partners in most job settings.
(3). Impulsiveness impairs relationships. During my thirty-year tenure as a professional Marriage and Family Therapist I cannot recall a single time when high impulsiveness benefitted or strengthened a human relationship. Alternatively, I have witnessed countless times the misery brought on by mistakes and the messes made by impulsive actions. In this context I’m reminded of an old saying, “It only takes one night to live it up, but it may take a lifetime to live it down.” An impulsive word, action, or decision can do damage to a relationship that is not forgiven nor forgotten by the other person. I’ve seen spouses in marital therapy who one moment stated a clear desire to improve their marriage and at the next moment blurted out some comment that clearly caused more damage. The excuse often given is something like “I shouldn’t have said that, but it just came out. I guess I just speak before I think.” Most people find it difficult to live safely and securely with a spouse given to impulsivity. They never know what will be said or done next, or what kind of mess will have to be cleaned up following their spouse’s impulsive behavior. This “walking-on- eggshells” lifestyle usually increases anxiety and decreases intimacy. Clearly, relationships are impaired by impulsiveness.
Concluding thoughts. . .

So far we’ve explored the negative impact of impulsiveness and the impairment it usually brings to our lives. The price tag is indeed a high cost to pay. Now we raise the question, “How do we beat this enemy?” I doubt that any of us could grow to the point where no impulsiveness exists at all. The human element and the limitations of the flesh suggest that “beating” impulsiveness really means that we learn to manage it more effectively. We may lose an occasional battle but we need to win the overall war.
In Part Two, published in two weeks, we will examine the importance of high self-control, and we’ll explore several tools and techniques that can help us grow toward decreased impulsiveness. In the meantime I hope that you will examine your own impulsive patterns carefully and that you will make a personal commitment toward improvement. Beating impulsiveness will mean a huge victory for you—and for everyone around you. 

I wish you the best in all of your relationship journeys. 

To view a short television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses self-control and impulsiveness, click on the image to the right or click here.

Resources: If you’re looking for other good materials about impulsiveness and self-control, check out the list of books on this website. From the Home page tab Resources click on List of Categories, then the Mental Health category, and then scroll down to the section about Self-Control and Impulsiveness. Or, to go to the Mental Health page you can just click here.
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