The “sixth commandment” of sound character development advises that we become master of our impulses. And to acquire good impulse control you simply have to cultivate the habit of thinking before acting. Now, I’m not talking about just any kind of thinking. Rather, I”m referring to the kind of reflective, pensive contemplation that prompts a proper assessment of the moral character and potential consequences of an act before we engage in it.
A professor I knew once said that a definition of maturity is the ability to feel, think, and then act—in that order. He humorously added that one could say the definition of adolescence is the predilection to feel, act, and then think. In many ways, the character-impaired among us never outgrew the adolescent mind set. So, they never developed good impulse control. People of mature character are mindful of both their decisions and their actions. They temper their urges with reason and foresight. They neither rush into action nor into judgment. Healthy characters think not only about what they’re about to do but also about the likely consequences of their choices.
Two Types of Disturbed Characters
In my work over the years with disturbed characters, I’ve encountered two groups. One consists of those who simply don’t take the time to think things through before they act. They’re like walking impulses. They simply act; and if they think about things at all, it is only after they act. They might even have after-the-fact regret for some of their actions. But because so many times the damage is already done, their regrets are rightfully regarded as too little, too late. The other group consists of those who actually do think about what they are doing, but their thinking is so distorted, self-deceptive, and reflective of their impaired social conscience that they let themselves do what most people would not.
Impulsive Thinking = Dire Consequences
Disturbed characters tend to think about things in an impulsive way. We call this “impulsive thinking.” They’re primarily concerned about what they want at any given moment, so they’re always thinking in a short-sighted manner. They don’t bother to think more long-range or about the likely eventual consequences of what they’re about to do. In fact, they don’t engage in very much thought, reflection, or contemplation at all before they act. And that’s why they don’t develop good impulse control.
Impulsive thinking necessarily leads to impulsive actions, and such actions almost always are a prescription for disaster. Some disordered characters who act first and think about what they’ve done later, do have some after-the-fact regret. But that doesn’t mean they won’t think and act impulsively again. And other disturbed characters never regret their impulsive acts, despite the negative fallout that typically accompanies them. But whether or not they know from past experience that they might end up regretting making an impulsive choice, it’s never really a serious consideration at the time they want something. They simply don’t spend time thinking about the potential impact of their behavior. They think only of what they want and how to get it.
One of the many benefits of correctly administered Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is that it can really help people develop better impulse control. This happens when people are confronted about the kinds of erroneous thinking patterns or cognitive distortions they engage in that keep them from engaging in sound, pro-social behavior. Impulsive thinking is one of the major thinking errors. So it must be confronted and alternate, healthier choices reinforced. Once a person has learned to correct their penchant for impulsive thinking they can to on to lead lives of greater self-discipline.
Character Matters will be a live program this Sunday at 7 pm EDT (6 pm CDT) so I can take your calls. The same will likely not be true for the next two Sundays as I’ll be traveling out of the country. Stay tuned.
Learn more about moral character development issues in other articles on this blog and in my books In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, The Judas Syndrome, and How Did We End Up Here? And look for a greatly expanded discussion on this all-important topic in my upcoming book with Dr. Kathy Armistead: The Ten Commandments of Character: How to Lead a Significant Life.