Impulse Control Can Work Against You

When “I shouldn't” turns into “I can’t”

Posted Feb 19, 2015

Impulse control, or self-regulation, serves a number of purposes. On a personal level, it keeps us out of trouble. On a larger scale, it prevents the social fabric from unraveling any more than it’s inclined to already. When “I shouldn’t” becomes “I can’t,” however, we can end up creating obstacles for ourselves that interfere, not only with our self-development, but with our basic happiness.

John was a vice-president of marketing at Unilever. He initially came to speak with me because he was stalled creatively and it was affecting his numbers. By all standard measures, he was quite successful: senior executive at a major corporation in his mid-thirties; beautiful wife who was equally successful professionally; two great kids; a big house and sharp little sports car as counterpoint to the inevitable minivan.

As we spoke, it became more and more apparent that his success, as measured by societal standards, did not offset his fundamental unhappiness. He wasn’t depressed. He was in conflict. What was happening for him is what happens for so many of us: he was doing what he felt he “should” be doing, while ignoring what it was that would feed him physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. There it is again: mind, body, spirit…balance.

What he really wanted to do was move to the Outer Banks and open a tackle shop. The conflict for him was that the big job, the big house and the big brainwashing were interfering with his ability to make that choice. His “I shouldn’t” had migrated over to “I can’t,” and had started coming out sideways.

When we think about impulse control, we often envision staving off something very large and very naughty, like having an affair or staying sober or stealing from our employer. In fact, impulse control is something much more subtle and intimate. It means not having that second helping of mashed potatoes or not yelling at the dog when she’s barking and we’re on the phone.

As that subtle restraint begins to bleed into our socialization and acculturation, something remarkably troubling happens. We stop dreaming. We stop believing in the impossible for ourselves. We dig in, instead of digging deep, and become draped in the straightjacket of our self-created “can’ts.”

By and large, our self-regulation is motivated by our desire to achieve some positive outcome, both in the short and the long term. An examination of those motivations gives rise to the question of whether we are actually getting the outcomes we desire, particularly in contrast to the social blueprint. In John’s case—as is the case for most of us—the answer is both yes and no, which leads us to a second question: Is the ‘yes’ gratifying, and is the ‘no’ a sacrifice?

The lesson here, in terms of our self-development, is about making an effort to balance the demands of the blueprint against the drive of our intrinsic needs. This requires us to develop a certain amount of self-awareness, learning to recognize the tension between the “shoulds” and “wants” that lead us to the “can’ts,” as well as paying attention to the sideways drift, whatever that looks like for each of us, individually.

John was eventually able to unpack his conflict, releasing his creativity, diffusing the resentment he had begun feeling toward his wife and allowing him to be more emotionally available to his children. Last I heard he had a lovely little shop somewhere on the stretch of the East Coast known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Some would say that’s a fitting juxtaposition for someone who had shed his straightjacket and resurrected his dreams.

© 2015 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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