Chronic Impulsiveness


Impulsiveness - The tendency to act or speak based on current feelings rather than logical reasoning.

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

Impulsiveness is a normal form of human behavior. All of us make some decisions impulsively, based on “gut-feel”, “instinct”, mood or whim. And life would be very dull we didn’t!

Impulse can be a tremendous ally. Some people have made the best decisions of their lives impulsively, and many people make big decisions based on “gut feelings” - decisions such as which career to follow, who to marry, where to buy a house or where to invest their savings.

However, in some circumstances, impulse can be a tremendous liability. Some people have made the worst decisions of their lives impulsively based on that same “gut feeling”.

In his groundbreaking book “Emotional Intelligence”, psychologist Daniel Goleman explains how our emotional mind, which is based in the brain’s limbic system, is distinct from our intellectual mind which is based in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. The emotional mind makes lightning-fast decisions about things we like and dislike, hate, love and fear. The intellectual, logical mind makes slower, more deliberate, rational decisions.

Most mature, mentally healthy adults learn how to regulate their impulsive urges with logical reasoning, applying the wisdom of experience to minimize risks and maximize potential rewards.

For example, a married woman who has children may have the urge to have an affair with a co-worker, and then reasons that the consequences of the affair would be devastating to her children and her husband, so she doesn’t. A young man may feel the urge to drive his car at 120 mph, yet restrains the urge because he knows he may wreck his car or may get pulled over by the police. An angry employee may feel the urge to hit a belligerent boss, and hold back because her ability to reason convinces her doing so would probably result in the loss of her job.

Not all impulsive urges are wrong. The impulse to duck and raise your hands to protect your head when an object is hurled at you could save your life. A couple may travel to a vacation in Las Vegas and, knowing the odds are against them, may gamble some of their hard-earned money, knowing they will probably lose but enjoying the thrill of the chance that they just might win a fortune. A young graduate may decide to forego a great job opportunity because he/she wants to head off and “see the world” for a year.

Impulsiveness starts to become dysfunctional when those spur-of-the-moment decisions are insufficiently regulated by rational thought, and chronically harm the decision maker, their immediate family or other innocent bystanders.

The frontal lobe, or prefrontal cortex, is the area of the brain located just behind the forehead. It has been shown by neurologists to be associated with predicting the consequences of actions, ethical decision-making and pattern recognition. In other words, the prefrontal cortex is the risk/reward-calculation zone of the brain. Experiments have shown that, in most people, the prefrontal cortex reaches full development at around the age of 25. The lag between full physical maturity and prefrontal cortex maturity is sometimes used to explain the apparent emotional immaturity in teenagers and young adults, who often make decisions which appear “reckless” to older adults.

In his best-selling book “Blink”, author Malcolm Gladwell gives a very readable overview of how impulsive decision making can, at the same time, be both a powerful asset and a costly liability.
There are four commonly used sub-categories for impulsiveness:

Urgency - A desire to act immediately to avoid a threat or avoid missing a perceived opportunity;
Whimsical - Little or no serious consideration of positive and negative consequences of actions;
Procrastination - Unfettered acceptance of diversions to circumvent an undesirable task;
Thrill-seeking - Experiencing a thrill associated with taking a big risk.

What Chronic Impulsiveness Looks Like

• A man spends the family’s monthly budget on a “sure thing” at a gambling institution.
• A woman wants to stay married yet still has affairs.
• A man repeatedly quits jobs for no adequate reason.
• A man starts a brawl while he has his children with him.
• An employee berates and insults her boss and co-workers when faced with a minor disappointment.
• A woman threatens her husband with a loaded weapon after he returns home late from work.

What it feels like

Depending on your situation, your own psychological make-up and your current mood, you may find episodes of impulsivity thrilling, exhausting, entertaining, frightening or threatening.

However, if you are a mentally healthy adult and you are living with a person who routinely exhibits a dysfunctional impulsiveness, you will likely be very concerned about your own safety and the safety of any children and/or innocent bystanders.

You may feel frustrated at your inability to “talk sense” into such a person. You may also feel torn between a desire to run to safety and a desire to stay and try to help the person who is behaving impulsively.

What NOT to do

• Don’t ignore any threats to your own personal safety or the safety of any children or bystanders.
• Don’t repeatedly try to talk sense into a routinely impulsive person. If they don’t listen to their own rational thoughts, they are unlikely to pay attention to yours.
• Don’t fight or retaliate or fight fire with fire.
• Don’t leave precious objects, keepsakes, documents, resources and bank accounts in the custody of a reckless person. Protect your assets.
• Don’t take responsibility or blame yourself for the reckless actions of an impulsive person.
• Don’t go it alone or keep what you are experiencing a secret.

What TO do

• Protect your assets. Move important objects out of the reach of an impulsive person. Make copies of important documents, close joint bank accounts. Move precious items to a safe place.
• Hope for the best but plan for the worst. Develop an emergency plan for any scenario that may include violence or abuse being directed towards or your children.
• Protect your children and yourself physically from any impulsive acts of violence. Call the police if necessary.
• Talk about it! Talk to trusted friends and family about what you are dealing with. A reality check can help enormously in assisting you to make clear decisions for your own wellbeing.