The Dark Side of Impulsivity
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
This picture shows a chemical reaction. When you combine different chemical components, the reaction is instant- but you can never know how it will unfold exactly, what form it will take. It is the same with impulsivity... It means taking immediate action based on our emotional urge, but it can turn into an explosion that may sabotage our happiness and well-being.
We all act impulsively. Not all of our actions are planned and considered in advance, we automatically react to external stimuli. Being impulsive and spontaneous can be quite a positive trait, since it can mean that you are easily excited, you like to grab life as it comes to you and not to miss on opportunities, you are natural, authentic and unscripted.
On the other hand, impulsivity can also be really self-destructive, detrimental to close relationships, career, and personal progress. It is therefore important that we explore ways to manage it and bring it under control. Before doing this though, let’s explore the concept, its foundations and the different ways it manifests, in order to understand it better.
What is Impulsivity?
Impulsivity is defined as the tendency to take immediate and unplanned action as a response to internal or external stimuli. It is the failure to resist an urge to act according to what just ”feels” right in the moment, without being able to take the potential negative consequences to ourselves and/or others into consideration.
Impulsivity a personality dimension of non-pathological behaviour. Mental health exists on a continuum, with extreme levels of just about any personality trait suggesting a pathology.
Impulsivity is a psychopathological structural feature of several mental disorders, for example impulse control disorders (pathological gambling, kleptomania, pyromania, trichotillomania), anxiety disorders, personality disorders (especially borderline personality disorder, but also narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder) , manic episodes of bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, substance abuse disorders, eating disorders and psychosis.
Impulsivity is associated with the prefrontal cortex, that is the brain area responsible for cognitive planning, reasoning, judgement and evaluation. Therefore patients that suffered brain injury or have other (pre)frontal lesions are also prone to act impulsively.
Researchers have identified several aspects of impulsivity. For instance, Barratt (1994) and Nigg at al. (2005) suggested the following dimensions of impulsivity:
Motor activation (action without thinking)
Cognitive (quick cognitive decision-making)
Non-planning (decrease in orientation towards the future)
Inattentiveness (not focusing on the task at hand)
Impulsivity means failing to inhibit a potentially harmful impulse for yourself or others. It means acting solely on your emotions and “in the spur of the moment” rather than being able to contain your need for immediate gratification, often employing emotional reasoning and without thoroughly regarding the consequences of your actions. It is the opposite of thinking before you act.
The inability to compare the immediate and the future consequences of a behaviour is directly linked to an inability to delay immediate satisfaction. Impulsivity however is distinct from impaired judgement, since it also includes fast reaction without conscious judgement.
Several psychological processes may lead to impulsive behaviours, such as an inability to store and then assess multiple choices of action in our working memory, in order to evaluate them, thus causing a difficulty in foreseeing consequences of our actions in the moment.
Foundations of Impulsivity: Why?
Impulsivity can be explained by genetics, since brain lesions and brain injury in the prefrontal cortex can result in impaired judgment and impulsive behaviour.
Impulsivity is also regarded as a learned tendency that can be formed from the early years of childhood within the family. Children can learn to react immediately in order to get what they want, or perhaps they observe such behaviours from their primary caregivers.
Recent research shows that early trauma actually causes brain changes, as it affects the growth of the prefrontal cortex, which is central in impulse control. A great percentage of trauma survivors (e.g. sexual, physical and emotional abuse) are impulsive or later develop personality disorders such as Borderline Personality Disorder or other trauma-related disorders such as (Complex) Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, for which impulsivity is a defining aspect.
Are You Impulsive?
If you are unsure about whether you are impulsive, take a moment and consider the following examples and aspects of impulsivity.
You tend to easily get emotional and say things you don’t really mean or later regret
You may experience anger management problems
You tend to be easily aggressive
You indulge in immediate pleasures, for example promiscuous sexual behaviour, binge eating, drinking too much, shoplifting
You have some sort of addiction that you would like to stop but can't (e.g. smoking, alcohol, drugs)
You act in ways without carefully evaluating if there is substantial risk involved e.g. reckless driving, driving under the influence, unprotected sex etc.
You overall have difficulty with self-discipline
You may have unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with stress e.g. drugs and alcohol abuse, self-harming behaviours (e.g. self-mutilation), binge eating etc.
You tend to procrastinate and have difficulty finishing what you started
You find yourself often unable to keep intimate relationships or refrain from drama in your relationships
You have difficulty following through responsibilities such as work projects, educational courses, maintaining your household etc.
You have a need for frequent change e.g. you change jobs and houses often
You have difficulty being structured and organized in several areas of your life and prefer to take things as they come, in a “carpe diem” way
You may find it difficult to plan ahead (e.g. holidays, daily schedule) or follow through your to-do list
You may have difficulty with your spending habits e.g. you go shopping for one thing and end up with several items you did not plan for at all
Your mind seems to fly from one thought to the next
You get easily distracted
You have difficulty focusing on one task for too long
You are often absent-minded and forgetful
Potential Effects of Impulsivity
Since you are reading this article, it is quite possible that you have identified impulsivity as a behaviour you would like to change. It can have many damaging effects for your relationships, your physical health, your personal progress, and your career.
Close relationships are an area that can be directly affected by impulsivity.
If you are impulsive, perhaps you often have sudden emotional outbursts or you just feel unable to withhold yourself from saying offending and often hurtful words to the ones that are close to you, once you get triggered or when you are emotionally volatile. You may find yourself unwillingly creating drama or contributing to the development of unnecessary arguments and conflicts that could have been avoided, when you reconsider and evaluate the situation with a “cool head”.
Maybe you are not impulsive directly towards your partner, but in other aspects of your life that indirectly affect your relationship. If you tend to have impulsive habits, such as overspending, reckless behaviour, overeating, substance abuse etc., this can indeed unwillingly damage your relationship and the reliability of yourself that you want to present to your partner. If you are impulsive with sexual-related behaviour, you may find yourself flirting with others or giving in to infidelity, something that understandably can have quite damaging effects to the relationship since it may constitute a breach of trust.
You may find yourself wondering why this happens, but a very human truth is that we tend to hurt the ones we love the most, since it is with them that we feel trust to be ourselves and show even our darkest aspects. Our boundaries of inhibition can often melt in the presence of loved ones, since we consider ourselves to be the safest when in their company. Another underlying issue is that we may unconsciously test their boundaries and examine whether they will still be around, even after we act recklessly.
A consequence of impulsivity in intimate relationships is the pull-and-push process that can occur between the two partners. Specifically, by being impulsive and potentially causing an argument and hurting your loved one, you actually push them away. What most often happens after you act impulsively, is that you regret it. You may be overridden with guilt and shame, and perhaps you start worrying that your partner may have gotten quite upset and disappointed with you. Perhaps even a fear of abandonment is activated, and you are now fearful that your partner may be fed up with you and might actually leave you. The logical next step is that you will try to pull them back close to you. You may be overly apologizing and try to find any possible way to make amends and ensure that you gain their trust and love once again.
While this process of pulling and pushing is completely normal and easy to understand, it is nevertheless very exhausting to both parties included and it does entail the risk of repeatedly crossing the boundaries of your partner, who may in turn eventually decide to leave the relationship.
Impulsivity may be harmful to your professional relationships and performance as well. In interactions with colleagues, for example, if you tend to be impulsive this can undoubtedly cause tension and resentment and thus disturb the balance and create a negative atmosphere in the workplace . You may often be misunderstood or have difficulty getting your point across when communicating. Alternatively, if your impulsivity causes you to make rash decisions or undertake responsibilities and projects that you later on find difficult to complete, or if you repeatedly miss deadlines because you impulsively decide to undertake another task while actively busy with the one at hand, this can result in you being regarded as non-accountable and unreliable- which may create obstacles for your professional development and even get you fired.
When the impulsive behaviour is directly related to your body rather than emotional and relational aspects of your life, the effects can be again quite destructive for you.
For example, if you tend to cope with distress with binge eating episodes or abusing alcohol and other substances, this may have a direct consequence to your body- such as weight gain, development of an addiction and general impairment of your physical health. This can consequently have direct effects on your emotional health and well-being too, as it can affect your self-esteem and increase levels of anxiety and depression.
Other more obvious examples of the detrimental effects of impulsivity on our physical health are associated with reckless driving, promiscuous sexual behaviour and self-mutilation. For instance, you may become victim of an accident if you drive recklessly or cross the street spontaneously and without paying much attention, or contract a sexually transmitted disease if you have unprotected sex with multiple partners. Moreover, self-mutilation can really become an addiction that holds the risk of cutting just a bit deeper every time, thus visibly harming your body or even risking severe injuries. The same applies for other impulse control compulsive behaviours, such as skin picking and trichotillomania. Impulsivity is positively associated with suicide, since lots of suicide attempts occur while on an emotional peak, and people that survive them often regret their decision.
Mental Health and Well-Being
Impulsive behaviour can severely affect your well-being and quality of life in multiple ways. You may end up having legal problems or find yourself in financial distress, and it may be detrimental to all sorts of relationships, slowly turning you into that person that others avoid or consider irreliable, erratic and hostile.
It comes without saying that this may lead you feeling lonely, unsupported, misunderstood, while it can increase your anxiety and depression levels and perpetuate more mental health concerns and symptoms.
Impulsivity is a behaviour that may sabotage your overall well-being, leaving you to wonder how did everything escalate the way it did. It can harbor feelings of confusion, alienation from yourself and others, shame, and guilt. Impulsive behaviour can leave you questioning your self-worth and undermining your true potential to become the Better Version of Yourself.
Perhaps you find yourself often ruminating about what you should have instead done and questioning your every move, a process that leaves you in a pit of self-doubt. As we discussed in a previous blog post, getting entangled into should statements does not help because it keeps you stuck to the Past. What is more substantial instead, is exploring how you will avoid the should-dilemmas in the future, by acting more and more as the better version of Yourself in the Future.
Awareness is the Start of Change
If you have recognized impulsivity as being a key aspect of your life that causes you concerns and undesired outcomes, that is a great start. Recognizing that there is a problem is always the very first step towards improving it and changing it. You are aware that the issue exists, now it is time to take active steps in overcoming it !
The very nature of impulsivity may make it seem a real challenge to work on it, since it may already feel to you as out of control. But nothing is impossible, although it can admittedly be a twisted journey until you get there…
Barratt, E. (1994). Impulsiveness and aggression. In J. Monahan & H. J. Steadman (Eds.), The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation series on mental health and development. Violence and mental disorder: Developments in risk assessment (pp. 61-79). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.