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Managing impulses

Are you in control of your impulses?!

As humans, the ability to control our impulses distinguishes us from other species and marks our psychological maturity. Most of us take our ability to think before we act for granted. But there are often times when we make plans, set goals and then…our impulses sneak up on us and sabotage the whole thing. Often this doesn’t really matter – buying a chocolate bar at the service station checkout when we’ve decided to eat healthily is fine as long as we are able to enjoy the treat and revert to our good habits again afterwards.

But there are times when our impulses can have very serious consequences as in when we drink too much, let our anger dictate how we act, let our spending go out of control or have an affair. And instant gratification has become part of our lives – we almost expect our desires to be met right away whether its instant credit, fast food, internet gambling and pornography or instant celebrity via YouTube.


Just a tiny treat – does it matter?

Well yes, it seems that it does! Research has consistently demonstrated that there are many benefits to being able to manage our impulses. The most famous series of experiments carried out in this area was in the late 1960s at Stanford University by psychologist Walter Mischel. In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward (typically a marshmallow) provided immediately or two small rewards if he or she waited until the tester returned after an absence of approximately 15 minutes.

Mischel found that the ability to hold out in this seemingly trivial exercise had real and profound consequences. As they matured and became adults, the kids who had shown the ability to wait got better grades, were healthier, enjoyed greater professional success, and proved better at staying in relationships even decades after they took the test. They were, in short, better at life. Mischel’s work has been enormously influential, making its way into popular culture in a way that few academic studies have. It has changed the way educators and psychologists think about success and demonstrated that self-control is critical to academic and personal success.

The lesson is that it’s not just intelligence that matters, but self-control and patience and being able to tame one’s impulses, from the desire to eat the marshmallow to the desire to tell your overbearing boss exactly what you think of him.

While it is easy to say that impulse control is a good thing, it is harder to actually do it! But a bit of time and effort and knowing the best techniques can go an awful long way.


6 ways to manage your impulses
  1. Know your risks.

Assess what areas of your life have caused troubles for you in the past as regarding impulses. Some people have trouble with procrastination (putting things off to another day). Others have problems with drinking too much or eating too much. Still others are “hot tempered” and have trouble controlling their anger. Still others find it challenging managing their spending impulses often getting themselves into financial or debt troubles. Can you identify the areas of your life where impulse control gets you into trouble?

  1. Plan for your risks.

Once you have identified your particular impulse control risks, you can better plan for them and develop a productive problem solving action plan. If eating too much is a problem for you, then consider ways to keep problematic foods out of your environment. If drinking too much is a problem, perhaps keep alcohol out of the home. If shopping is a problem, consider getting rid of your credit cards.  If friends or family encourage you in a negative way (e.g., having “drinking mates”), consider altering who you spend time with. Altering your environment can be a good first step to help you cope better with impulse control.

  1. Count to 10… a lot!

If you can delay action on your impulses you can often overcome them. There really is something to be said for counting to 10 slowly…Or if it’s appropriate, tell yourself “I’ll wait 15 minutes and then see how I feel” and do something to distract yourself in the meantime.

  1. Be mindful.

Being attentive to your feelings, impulses, and desires in a non-judgmental way by noticing them without attaching to them in a mindful manner can be very helpful. Remember, just because you have an impulse doesn’t mean you have to act on it. Neither does it mean you have to beat yourself up. It is just an impulse. for more information on Mindfulness click here.

  1. Ask for support

You don’t want friends and family to be nagging you but if they can helpfully and without judgment point out behaviours that you might not notice, then it might help you to make progress on your goals.

  1. Be in it for the long haul (but it will be worth it)

Behaviour change is hard. Sometimes very hard! The odds are high that you’ll need to work on it over time and that you’ll make progress sometimes with several steps forward and several steps backwards. Don’t give up. Any progress in the right direction is good solid progress and you might try to be gentle with yourself knowing that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Make sure you take time to congratulate yourself for any success.

If you would like more information on my counselling services go to my Counselling Cork and Counselling Douglas pages.

Need some more help?

If you would like to talk this over and get some help working out a plan of action for yourself, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Cork, on 087 9934541.

Book a counselling session today!