Impulse Control Problems
Impulse control problems are epidemic in our times. Some folks can’t seem to refrain from eating too much or the wrong thing. Others can’t keep from drinking too much. Some folks say horrible things to their child or spouse. They know they shouldn’t. But they just can’t seem to stop themselves. So they say it, and live with the consequences. Some folks seem to have no control over their anger or rage. The result of that can be devastating to a relationship, even fatal.
Many folks get goaded into therapy simply because they haven’t learned to control themselves. And, sadly, the helping professions aren’t generally good at providing these individuals the right kind of interventions. Moreover, all too often the focus is on quick, inadequate fixes. It’s rare when interventions provide the secrets to genuine self-mastery.
A Misguided Approach
These days, it’s popular to see impulse control problems as a form of brain dysfunction. And depending on how you see it, it’s a good or bad things that we have medicines that can address that. To be sure, medicine is sometimes really necessary. Our brain chemistry can get way out of whack, through no one’s fault. When that happens, people can truly loose their ability to control themselves. Such is the case when someone suffers from a true psychosis. An example would be the manic phase of a true Bipolar Disorder.
There’s plenty of evidence that conditions like Bipolar Disorder are over-diagnosed these days. The reasons for that are too many to address in this article. But the medicines used to treat this very real condition can indeed improve a person’s impulse control ability. So, physicians routinely prescribe them to folks who simply don’t manage themselves well. But relying on medicine to do the work character was always meant to do is misguided. It can foster dependency. Moreover, it deprives a person of the precious gift of self-mastery.
Learning Self-Control and Management
There’s a secret to self-mastery therapists don’t teach often enough. And the secret lies at the core of the cognitive-behavioral paradigm. (For more on this see: A Primer on Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. See also: The Mechanics of Genuine CBT.) Years of research and experience have taught us that our thinking greatly influences our actions. Moreover, it’s our behavior can easily get out of control when we don’t take the time to ponder our intended actions. And therein lies a big part of the secret: thinking before we act.
Now, merely thinking before acting is insufficient for good impulse control. That’s because what we’re thinking and how we’re thinking (i.e. our attitudes) about things makes a big difference in what we’re likely to do. So it’s not just important to think before we act. What’s really important is to think rightly before we act.
Too many people these days don’t think much at all about what they do. They’re not very mindful. In fact, I’ve met hundreds who always doing first and only maybe thinking about what they’d done afterward. By then, of course, it was too late, anyway. And if they don’t think rightly about what they let themselves do and why, they’re quite likely to repeat the same mistake. (See also the discussion on impulsive thinking in Character Disturbance.)
We’ve come to realize how important mindfulness is to our overall psychological health. It’s crucial to our emotional health. And it’s a big part of our spiritual health, too. (See: The Judas Syndrome.) As a result, it plays a pivotal role in our character formation.
There are many methods available that can help us enhance our mindfulness. Sadly, these methods aren’t taught or advanced very much in the therapeutic settings. But anyone can learn them. And they’re invaluable to the process of forging solid character.
The sixth “commandment” of sound character development is all about rightly thinking before acting. It’s about cultivating mindfulness. The commandment goes hand-in-hand with mastering one’s appetites and aversions. It also goes along with cultivating a properly principled will. (See also: Self-Mastery over Appetites and Aversions.) (See also: Thinking First, Impulse Control, and Mindfulness; Self-Mastery Requires Mindfulness.) And I’ll be talking more about the ways to facilitate mindfulness in the coming weeks.