Are You Dominated By Your Impulses?

July 12, 2019
Taking control of your impulses isn't an easy task. It's kind of like taming a wild animal that lives in the deepest part of you. In this article, we are going to talk about how you can take control of your impulses before they take control of you.

Impulses stem from your irrational, primitive side. It’s like trying to tame a wild beast. It might seem docile most of the time, but in certain situations, it’ll act according to its nature. In those moments, it doesn’t matter if what the animal does is ultimately beneficial or not. In short, impulses put your self-control to the test. Are you dominated by your impulses? Keep reading for an explanation and strategies on how to control your impulsivity.

Dominant impulses are the root cause of many psychological issues. Addiction and dependency are obvious examples, but uncontrolled impulses are also characteristic of disorders such as bulimia and borderline personality disorder.

It’s normal to have some degree of impulse in your life. The problem is when your impulses take over and you lose your way. Your impulses force you to act in such a way that doesn’t coincide with your values, goals, or beliefs.

Impulse control problems cause emotional tension that’s difficult to shake off. It’s only when you succumb to the impulse that you’ll experience relief from that tension. That relief that you feel reinforces the impulse and makes it even more difficult to control. It’s also ephemeral and, once it wears off, you’re left with much deeper and discouraging feelings: guilt and remorse.

With time, you might forget those awful feelings and make the very same mistakes again. That desire for momentary gratification eventually leads to feeling like you aren’t capable of resisting your impulses. You feel powerless against them. This can become a vicious cycle that’s very hard to break.

A sad man at a window.

Where Does Impulse Come From?

Scientists don’t know the exact origin of impulse, but looking at people on a case-by-case basis gives some information about what scenario is more probable.

Genetics play a significant role in determining impulse. If your parents are impulsive, neurotic, or emotional, you’re much more likely to inherit that trait.

You can also learn to be impulsive through imitation. If you watched your parents deal with problems impulsively and impatiently, that’s how you’ll do it too. The good news is is that you can learn to change those patterns.

Studies also show that a serotonin deficiency in the brain can predispose people to be impulsive. Consequently, scientists believe that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can be effective for people with these disorders.

However, keep in mind that the effectiveness of these medications is limited. SSRIs might help at first, but you won’t be learning alternative, functional behavior. The other problem is that you can develop a tolerance to the medication and experience some side effects.

It seems that certain emotional wounds from childhood might also be partly responsible for your impulsive behavior as an adult. When researchers look into the past of people who are pathologically impulsive, they find certain voids in their upbringing, such as an absent parent or a lack of affection or emotional regulation. People want to fill these “voids” as quickly and as intensely as possible.

That is precisely the moment when it’s easy to fall into the claws of emotional dependecy, alcohol, gambling, compulsive shopping, or anything else that casts doubt on your self worth.

Are You Dominated by Your Impulses? How Can You Manage Them?

Learning how to manage the impulses that dominate you isn’t an easy task. As we mentioned before, impulses are like wild animals, and we all know that taming a wild animal is no easy task. It requires patience, willingness, and persistence.

That being said, it’s unrealistic to think you can completely control your impulses. Instead, celebrate your small victories along the way.

Time to Think

The first step to liberating yourself from your impulses is to distance yourself from whatever situation triggered them. When you step away, even for a short time, you put the brakes on your impulsivity.

Impulses don’t last very long, although they can be intense. This is something that can work in your favor if you’re aware of it. The longer you can resist acting on an impulse, the more likely you are to correctly resolve the problem.

Label the impulse

It’s important to label your impulse and recognize exactly what it is. Tell yourself: “This is just another impulse, I don’t have to do what it wants me to do”. The key is to disassociate it from who you are. See your impulse as an enemy who’s attacking you instead of something that’s part of you.

Focus Your Five Senses on Something Else

While you wait for the emotional intensity of the moment to subside, try doing some other activity to distract your mind. Go and buy something unrelated to your impulse, for example.

That’ll force you to focus on what you’re going to buy, what you’re going to say to the cashier, how much money you need, etc. These are banal things that help you concentrate and pass the time. However, make sure that you aren’t just replacing one impulse with another. Leaving a high-conflict situation to go to drink or smoke isn’t healthy.

Think about Your Goals and the Consequences

If I go through with this impulse, what’s going to happen? Will I feel better? How long will my relief last? Do I want to be the kind of person who can’t control themselves? Does this coincide with my beliefs and values? If you’re clear about your goals and values in life but you find yourself doing something you know you shouldn’t, you create cognitive dissonance.

This dissonance is an uncomfortable mental state, a kind of “I want to but I shouldn’t” that you should try to avoid. Try to make sure that everything you do makes sense for who you are and what your goals are.

Solve the Problem (If There Is One)

If the problem has a solution, it’s not a bad idea to explore the alternatives that you can apply to solve it. In order to do that, you have to use some problem-solving techniques. If the problem comes from your mind and it doesn’t have a solution, label it as such in your mind and try to ignore it.

A woman sitting on a leather couch.

Tolerate Discomfort

Controlling your impulses inevitably involves dealing with a certain amount of tension that’s uncomfortable at first. That discomfort is often the reason why people let their impulses dominate them.

The key is to dominate your impulses, even if it hurts and causes anxiety. Anxiety, or emotional distress, are just emotions caused by chemical reactions in the brain. However, it won’t kill you or trigger catastrophes. When you learn to tolerate it, you’ll see how quickly they lose intensity.

When your impulses dominate you, it’s easy to fall into their trap. However, being aware of how it all works is a big step towards controlling your own emotions. Once you know what’s happening to you and what to do about it, the difficult part is maintaining this control. With a lot of patience and acceptance of distress, you’ll be able to take charge of your life and you’ll no longer be dominated by your impulses.

  • Chico, E. (2000). Relación entre la impulsividad funcional y disfuncional y los rasgos de personalidad de Eysenck. Anuario de Psicología, 31(1), 79-87.
  • Clark, L., Iversen, S. D., & Goodwin, G. M. (2001). A neuropsychological investigation of prefrontal cortex involvement in acute mania. American Journal of Psychiatry; 158, 1605–1611.