In the past week, I’ve had two conversations with people about how they can manage their impulses better. In the first situation, Dee shared with me her struggles with GoFundMe campaigns. “The ones with the animals get me every time. They are incredible, and they pull at my heartstrings so much! So I send some money and then at the end of the month, I’m like — whoops, I shouldn’t have done that. How am I going to eat now?”
In the second conversation, someone in the Wounded Birds Ministry group on Facebook posted about a common hypomanic symptom:
Going through a moment of I can’t stop spending money. Didn’t have a plan for this except to put away my cards but I realized I have my card on PayPal and Amazon…Any suggestions/advice. I know the “just don’t” rule, but it doesn’t seem to be working here.
Both of these situations stem from a single issue: Impulse control.
When we have impulse control challenges, common sense and our logical brains cease to participate in our decision making. Unfortunately, society tells us that losing our impulse control is a moral failing, when it may have a more serious source. ADD/ADHD, Executive Functioning Disorder, and bipolar disorder are all examples of brain disorders that dramatically magnify impulse control issues. Even when we don’t have a diagnosable disorder, simple stress can cause significant challenges with impulse control.
At its core, it’s simply about knowing ourselves and planning ways to say “yes” in our most challenging moments.
In fact most of us with impulse control challenges face incredible urgency when the impulse strikes. This is not helped by the savvy marketers who tell us that this deal is only “available for a limited time” or to “buy now before supplies run out.” Even when it’s not an urgency issue, we often want to act immediately “or I will forget.” (Not that I’ve ever done that.)
If you’re like me, your brain instantly goes into justification mode, finding all the reasons this purchase makes sense and how we absolutely can afford it. Suddenly, that $20 I saved on my electric bill this month? I can absolutely use it toward a $50 contribution, and I’m totally confident I can squeeze the other $30 out of the grocery budget. Which is great, until I find out my favorite author just released a new book and it’s on sale for $7.99! One-click buy and my Kindle is calling my name all over again.
The reality is that our brains are amazing creatures when it comes to help us find ways to get the things that we want. When it goes into rationalization mode, we are convinced that we are thinking logically and stop discounting what it tells us.
Planning for impulse control challenges helps me weather them better, acknowledge my own challenges and limitations, and create space for my humanity and self-compassion.
But here’s the good news: Acknowledging that we have an issue with impulse control and allowing it to rule our lives are two different points. Even when our impulse control challenges are part of how we are designed, we can still learn a few tricks to manage them.
For many of us, the goal of impulse control is to deny the impulse altogether. For some reason, we view this extreme form of willpower as the only “appropriate” response, regardless of the superhuman strength it requires — and the overwhelming psychological evidence that willpower alone is unreliable to help us. (Check out Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit as a good primer on this topic.)
Rather than take an all-or-nothing approach to our impulse control with simple pass/fail results, I find that planning for impulse control challenges helps me weather them better. In doing so, I acknowledge my own challenges and limitations and create space for my humanity and self-compassion.
I start by seeking a pattern. For example, I’m pretty good with money until I hit a hypomanic episode, so that’s an area I have to address. For others, it may be a stress response, which is great information to have.
For Dee, she knows that she has a soft spot for animals and people in her community. When she hears about a dog that needs a small surgery to save its life — and that the dog will live happily many years after “if it just gets the surgery!”— her impulse control disappears. Similarly, if someone within her blogging community is the sole income provider for their family and gets ill, it is not a question of “if” she contributes, but “how much.”
Once we know our patterns, we put ourselves in a position to plan for them, and that’s the next step. What’s one thing we can do to help ease the urgency of the moment when an impulse is calling?
When we have impulse control challenges, common sense and our logical brains cease to participate in our decision making.
For me, I usually don’t know I’m hypomanic until I’ve already started spending money, so it’s not as simple for me as “put away the credit cards.” Instead, I keep a little slush fund on the side, contributing to it monthly. Once I know I’m in a spending spree, I transfer from my slush fund to my checking the amount I’ve already spent outside the budget and then the balance of the slush fund is available for me to spend as needed. This way, I don’t put myself or my family at risk when I’m in a phase where impulse control is shot.
Additionally, knowing that I have a defined amount of money to spend helps me make wiser choices. It helps me remember that I have control over my decisions and that I have space between my experiences and my reactions. Before I purchase that super-expensive pair of headphones, I instead ask myself if I’d rather have the option to purchase several little things across the cycle — which gives me more of a buffer to ride it out. Usually, I pick the second option, but not always.
For Dee, we talked about her setting aside a flat amount of money every month. Then, if she saw a campaign she wanted to contribute to, she could decide how much of the money she wanted to donate. Or, she could decide to hold on to the funds and roll them over to the next month, allowing her to give in a bigger way than she otherwise might. Dee saw this approach as empowering and comforting at the same time. “I know I can easily set aside $25 every month and not put my rent or my ability to eat at risk,” she noted. “I have more control this way, and I think I will make wiser decisions.”
I think she will, too, because she won’t be fighting herself on it. Instead, she embraces who she is, her priorities, and puts herself in a position to act on them safely.
As counter-intuitive as it may seem to plan for impulse-control challenges, I’ve seen over and over how empowering it becomes. It reduces the urgency of the impulse and makes it safe to act. Other people I’ve shared this approach with have told me that it’s helped them, too. It seems that the simple act of planning helps us gain more control.
At its core, it’s simply about knowing ourselves and planning ways to say “yes” in our most challenging moments. And then, when we goof up (because we are still human!), it’s a matter of adjusting the plan, not beating ourselves up for failing. In the process, we shift the focus away from willpower and into self-love, self-care, and self-compassion.
What’s one way you manage your impulses? I would love to hear in the comments below!
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