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From Impulsive to Intentional

Mindfulness can help us do many things. Making wiser choices is one of them.

Have you ever said or done something in a fit of anger that you later regretted? Do you often say you’re going to cut back on your drinking or smoking, only to soon find yourself waking up hung over and disappointed with yourself? Have you succumbed to the urge to eat an entire cake, knowing all the while the stomach ache that awaits you after the last bite? If any of these scenarios sound familiar to you, I’m not surprised. You’re human, after all. And like all humans, you experience impulses, or urges to act in a particular way. But while impulses are a normal part of being human, acting on those impulses isn’t always a good idea. Getting an impulse to scream, “This is so boring!!!!” in a meeting at work is completely normal. But actually doing it is something else entirely. If you want to keep your job, your best bet is to manage the impulse and control how you respond to it. For some people, that will be much harder to do than for others.

That’s because we all vary in terms of our ability to manage or control our impulses. Impulse control is the ability to experience an impulse without acting on it. According to the research on the subject, people with a high degree of impulse control tend to be academically and professionally successful, physically fit, socially competent, and psychologically well-adjusted. Poor impulse control, on the other hand, is associated with dangerous sexual behavior, excessive risk taking, substance abuse, and binge eating.

To live in the modern world as a human being is to be flooded with stimuli all the time. There’s a multiverse inside of you, made up of all the thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations you experience as you encounter the world. At any moment, an impulse to act may be produced—one that, if followed, may have a detrimental outcome. The degree to which it’s dangerous to give in to an impulse varies widely, of course. For instance, giving in to the urge to have a cookie after dinner is far less harmful than succumbing to the impulse to physically injure another person. But whatever kinds of impulses we might have, we’ll always benefit from learning to respond to them more mindfully.

A basic mindfulness practice serves as a useful foundation for becoming less impulsive, as it involves centering your attention in the here-and-now, experiencing the present moment as it’s happening. Here are some further considerations for managing even the most intense and seemingly intractable impulses.

Build a practice of going slowly — If you want to be able to act differently when an impulse strikes, you have to be moving slowly enough to catch it. You have to recognize the impulse for what it is and think through what you want to do about it. Since impulsivity is all about immediacy, the trick to changing the impulsive behavior is to give yourself enough time to act differently—or not act at all, as the case may be. As with any new skill you want to develop, the ability to move slowly will come about through systematic and intentional practice. Practice going slowly all the time. As often as you can, be mindful of what you’re doing as you’re doing it; notice what you’re feeling as you’re feeling it. The more you do this, the better you’ll be at recognizing and managing the impulses that spontaneously arise within you.

Pay attention — Our attention is one of the greatest tools we possess. Whatever we pay attention to in a particular moment will shape our experience in that moment. If I’m paying attention to my breath in meditation, for example, all of my experience is distilled in the breath—all of my awareness is centered in each inhale and exhale. If the impulse you’d like to stop giving in to is, say, smoking a cigarette after each meal, you could start by paying attention to what you’re sensing throughout the meal, especially as you take your final bites. Notice the thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations that pass through you just before you reach for your pack and lighter. Once you start paying attention in this way, you’ll become more familiar with your impulses, which will help you respond to them differently. Maybe you’ll notice that you start thinking about the cigarette about halfway through your meal. You can practice shifting your attention to the sensation of chewing and swallowing your food, getting absorbed in the moment and giving yourself a greater chance of resisting the urge and avoiding the cigarette.

Break it down — An impulse is just a thought, an emotion, a physical sensation, or a combination of the three. When you can see an impulse for what it is, you’ve got a better chance of pausing to examine it and let it go instead of giving in to it. Meditation is one way to help you do this. Through the practice of meditation, you can observe your internal experience and recognize that thoughts, feelings, and sensations will pass if you do nothing to them. Like the waves of the ocean, they’ll roll up and then recede, all on their own. If you can experience the sinking feeling in your chest for exactly what it is—a tightening of certain muscles, rather than a command to send another text when she hasn’t respond to the first 16—you have a better chance of acting in a way that’s more consistent with a favorable outcome.

Find the sweet spot — Managing your impulses doesn’t mean suppressing or denying what you’re experiencing. It’s not about limiting your options. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Learning to manage your impulses is all about improving your ability to choose and expanding your options for what to do when the impulse arises. Instead of automatically giving in to the urge to pour a second glass of wine, you can acknowledge the urge, sit with it, and thoughtfully decide what you want to do about it. Sometimes you may consider your options and decide that, in fact, you do want to have the second glass. That wouldn’t be cause for beating yourself up; it would actually be a cause for celebration, because making a clear, well-reasoned decision is essentially the opposite of mindlessly acting on impulse. There’s a balance point—or sweet spot, if you will—between rigid self-control and recklessness. Finding it will help you make healthier choices without restricting yourself unrealistically.

Become a goal-setter — Create goals and come up with small, measurable steps to take along the way to achieving them. This will help you practice staying focused and delaying gratification. It will build your tolerance for discomfort and improve your ability to deal with challenges. The more practiced you are at working toward something when there’s no immediate reward for your efforts, the better you’ll be at managing your impulses. The beautiful thing about our brains is that they change according to how we use them. The more you practice delaying gratification—by setting goals and rewarding yourself only after you’ve accomplished them—the more your brain will adapt, making it easier for you to do it.

Like learning to play the piano, learning to manage your impulses takes practice. It requires patience, awareness, discipline, and effort. And just as it is with the piano, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Whether you want to get healthier, improve your marriage, save money, or curb a bad habit, you’ll do well to start getting intentional about impulse control.

More from Denise Fournier Ph.D.
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