Low Impulse Control? Isn’t There an App for That?



We probably all know one or two people who tend to speak without thinking (to be polite about it) or, to be less sensitive, to blurt out things before the frontal lobe becomes engaged.


We have been treated to this nightly as we watch Donald Trump pursue the nomination for the Republican party.  Of less importance, perhaps, but no less indicative of this condition is the former NDP candidate in Southern Alberta who tweeted about the Ft. McMurray fire being an example of karma for the oil patch workers.


Twitter accounts are open graves for Low Impulse Control (LIC) people – open spaces inviting them to hurl themselves down so the rest of us can hurl dirt on top of them.


Impulsivity has two main characteristics: rapid, unplanned reactions and reduced concern for the consequences of actions.


Most of us are taught to control our impulses when we are quite young which allows us as adults to behave in a socially responsible way.   Young children have to be taught not to run into the street after a rolling ball, to not grab the last cookie until everyone has had a chance to have one, and to deny short term satisfaction that would damage getting a longer term goal.  If this is control is NOT taught to children, then not only do they tend to become disagreeable adolescents but adults who are chronologically 40 and emotionally 4.


Some types of personality disorders are characterized by a lack of impulse control – anti-social personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and the whole range of compulsives disorders such as kleptomania, sexual addiction, intermittent explosive disorder etc.  These types of psychiatric conditions generally require professional help.


A healthy personality will be somewhere in the middle between low impulse control and over control of impulses – neither of which is a desirable since s/he will neither make thoughtless, risky decisions without care of consequences, or never take risks at all.    That is, the mentally fit person will exhibit suitable will power.  An article from Psychology Today on will power states: “There is significant debate in science as to whether or not willpower is a finite resource.  Studies demonstrate that exercising willpower makes heavy demands on mental energy, notably on reserves of glucose, the brain’s preferred fuel, creating ego depletion. It’s one reason we’re more apt to reach for that chocolate chip cookie when we’re feeling stressed than when we’re feeling on top of the world.  In other words, it isn’t easy.


Let’s look at just one aspect of LCI – that of blurting out comments, some of which might be totally inappropriate. Do you need to work on this?   Well, have people referred to you as overly blunt, or tactless?  Do they chuckle half-heartedly and say things like: “At least you know where you stand with him/her)?  Do you find that people have their feelings hurt by what you say (or do you even notice?)  Can you remember a time in your life where you stopped to think of consequences BEFORE you said something?  is there any way that this condition can be managed?


The first step is for the person who is a LIC person is to recognize that this behaviour is problematic for him/her and that change is both necessary and possible.   I doubt very much if The Donald sees himself as belonging to this category nor would he, at his age and financial success see it as limiting him in any way.  However, since most of us are not gazillionaires, and may find ourselves in far more trouble than we ever intended, some change might be beneficial.


The second step is to engage the assistance of a friend who will help monitor change in behaviour.  Set a specific, realistic, concrete goal.  Perhaps it will be to “be the third person to talk in a meeting” (rather than the first person).  Meet with that person after the meeting and get some feedback about your comments.


Step three is to wear a rubber band on your wrist, and before you say anything, give it a short snap to remind yourself to think about how others might react to what you are about to say.


Step four is to take a stress ball or some other small, squeezable object into meetings, and, with your hands out of sight, squeeze the ball.  For some reason this simple technique has proved to be very effective for people.  Give it 5 squeezes before you make any comments.


Step five is to keep track of your successes – the times when you felt like blurting something out but managed to remain calm until you had time to think it through first.  When you have the occasional lapse into old behaviour, analyze the situation – how did you feel before you made the comment?  Anxious?  Angry?  Impatient?  Excited?  If you know the triggers for you then you will be in a better position to prepare and manage the habit of blurting things out.