If only controlling our thoughts, words and actions and situations in our lives were as easy as controlling our television, our lives would be a whole lot easier. Unfortunately, controlling our lives is more like using a malfunctioning remote control. You press one button and something completely different happens, or maybe worse, nothing happens at all. Yes, if only life was simple, but it’s not.
One of the areas in my life where I always wished I had better control was over my impulses. An impulse is defined as “ a sudden spontaneous inclination or incitement to some usually unpremeditated action” (merriam-webster.com). The key words in this definition are sudden, spontaneous and pre-meditated. Imagine you go to the supermarket to buy some cheese. Cheese is all you want, cheese is all you need, cheese is all you can really afford right now. You are standing in the cash line 10 people deep and you see a magazine about your favourite celebrity. You think “Oh, My God, I have to know”. You stand a little longer and you see some chocolate and you think “I could eat”. Then you see some mints and you think “Well who wants bad breath?”. Before you know it your 1 item grocery trip has turned into a 10 item shopping spree. Those sudden urges to buy something you didn’t know you wanted are impulses and in this scenario, they are purposely triggered (that’s a story for another time).
In the scenario above, the impulse might seem harmless, well you have to eat to live and what’s life without a little entertainment? What happens when these impulses are no longer harmless and they begin to undermine what you are trying to achieve in your life? You want to, need to (for your health) lose weight but you can’t help but eat sweets whenever you see them or you are offered them. You are struggling with debt but you pass a clothing store and you just have to have that new designer shirt. You are in a toxic relationship and you are trying to break away from it but every time you see the other person you have to have sex. These are all instances where our impulses are not working in our best interest.
There are situations where our impulsiveness can be of a benefit. It can help us get out of our shell by inciting us to try new things that we never would have tried otherwise. However, inciting us is all it should do. It should never mandate us to do anything. When an impulse becomes a requirement, we have a problem.
How Do We Control Our Impulses?
I’m sorry to say that impulse control is not an easy task to undertake, especially when the impulse can be overwhelmingly strong. However, here are some strategies that you can try, that I have tried, to learn impulse control.
1) Be Willing
This is the first and most important step to controlling our impulses. This step is non-negotiable and if you try to skip it you will lose the war. There is no way that you or I can control our impulses if we don’t want to. That’s a fact. Sometimes in life we underestimate how important willpower is to achieving our goals. Willpower is “energetic determination” (merriam-webster.com), essentially actively carrying out something that you are dedicated to doing. Unless you really want to control your impulse, i.e. believing that controlling that impulse is important, and you have and will actively dedicate your energy to controlling that impulse, you can never control it. That brings me to the next step…
2) Disengaging With The Thought
In my previous post “Overcoming Negative Obsessive Thoughts” I talk about engaging with and disengaging from a thought in order to overcome it. In step one we talk about energetic determination. Energetic meaning to do something. Engaging with the thought and dismissing it is doing something. But being energetic goes beyond just doing something, it means doing something with vigour and passion. In the scope of overcoming our self-destructive impulses, it means actively overcoming them over and over again until they no longer become the norm, they become the exception.
Actively engaging and disengaging with the impulse means to acknowledge that you have the impulse and to ask yourself why you are having it. So in the instance of eating sweets all the time when you want to lose weight, you might pause and ask yourself the following questions:
- Why do I want to eat this?
- Why do I want to eat this now?
- Am I even hungry?
- What am I gaining by eating this?
- What am I losing by eating this?
- Why am I thinking about this now?
Here is an example of me utilising this method to overcome my impulse. I started the Keto diet which for those who don’t know it is a diet where you can eat meat and fat and very little carbs (from vegetables if any). That’s a very basic explanation of what it is. My goal was to lose weight as I have been uncomfortable with my weight for a while. This diet should be a dream for someone like me who loves meat but I also really really really love bread and cake and all non-nutritious carbs. So I am shopping in the supermarket and I pass by cereal. I love cereal and I haven’t had it in a while so I suddenly get a craving for cereal. I hold it in my hand and am about to place it in the cart when I pause and think “I really shouldn’t buy this you know”. I still haven’t put it down.”I really could go for a delicious bowl of cereal right now but if I buy this it will set me back on my goal to lose weight and so I really shouldn’t”. I look at it for a few more seconds, then I put it back and I walk away.
In that situation, walking away from the cereal was harder for me to do than it sounds. What I explained to you is a small snippet of the thought process that went through my head that led me to not buying the cereal. You might be thinking that’s easy, that’s something small but it can work for anything if you have enough willpower. There was a man that I was addicted to, well the addiction was mutual. We had one of those relationships where it would always be an argument but the chemistry was indescribable. I knew he was bad for me but the pull was so strong we kept falling back into the same pattern no matter how much we tried to walk away. One day though we did it and the impulse to re-initiate contact was so strong til one point it was all I could think about but I knew if I did I would continue to live in misery so I actively chose not to everytime it occured. This is an example of a situation where an impulse starts off as a small seed that is easy to ignore but instead of dying like the others, it grows stronger every day until it is a massive tree that feels impossible to chop down. In this situation disengaging worked for me for a time, but there comes a time when you need to go further to control that impulse.
3) Avoiding Triggers
I discussed avoiding triggers in my post “Lonely or Just Alone” in detail and I invite you to read that post for detailed steps to avoid your emotional triggers. Avoiding triggers for your impulses can help you control or at least avoid them in situations where you may not as yet be strong enough to overcome them. In the situation with the man I was addicted to, I avoided situations where I would be reminded of him, deleted anything in my calendar that related to him, removed him from my social media, and told anyone who might call his name not to.
To you, doing all of the above to avoid the situation might seem weak and you know what, I agree with you. It is weak, because I was weak. I knew that I was not strong enough in the beginning to handle that situation and avoid the impulse on my own. Therefore, I did what I needed to, to avoid indulging until I had the willpower needed. There is nothing weak in acknowledging and understanding your limitations. In fact, acknowledging your limitations allows you to do what is needed to become strong.
4) Reward Self
Sometimes willpower isn’t enough or strong enough for us to control our impulses. There are times when we need an incentive to do what needs to be done. Motivating ourselves to do something that seems difficult and will not bring us pleasure can require us to focus on something else that we will do to bring ourselves pleasure when we complete our task.
In the case of the Keto diet, in order to motivate myself to continue, I would allow myself a cheat day weekly. On my cheat day I would eat whatever I wanted, then I would fast the next day and continue on the diet (this is not a discussion about keto, please do not come for me in the comments). Now I acknowledge that this is not the ideal strategy for the diet, but it is the strategy that worked for me. When I am exercising by walking, I visualise myself reaching my goal to get back home and relax. By having these concrete goals to focus on, I was able to muster up the willpower to continue on, despite the impulse to so something self-defeating.
As I stated initially, life is not easy and neither is impulse control. You will not win this war overnight, you will fail many times. Even when you win one battle you might fail another one immediately after. The key thing is that you acknowledge that it is something that you need to do and you are working towards that goal. As the saying goes, nothing beats a fail but a try.