Just Can't Stop Yourself?

by Andrea M. Darcy
Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

Tend to do things before you think about the consequences? And does it cause you problems with your relationships, career, or otherwise?

You might have a problem with impulsive behaviour.

What is impulsive behaviour?

When it comes to psychology, a definition of impulsive behaviour, or 'impulsivity', is that it is an aspect of your personality that sees you:

  • follow whims
  • act first, think later
  • speak before you know what you are saying
  • not consider consequences
  • take risks you didn’t need to
  • make last-minute decisions and not plan
  • give up on things before others would
  • be out of control with your emotions
  • forget to take into account how your actions affect others.
The end result of impulsivity can be regret, upsetting people you love, sabotaging success and long-term goals, and sometimes even physical injuries or incarceration.

Is impulsivity always bad?

Like all things, impulsive behaviour can come in different levels of severity, and can have both positives and negatives.

If you have a tendency to be impulsive you might be seen as fun and exciting, have adventures others only wish they did, and end up taking risks that sometimes actually lead to opportunities or short-term gain.

But if impulsive behaviour is leaving you lonely, exhausted, and unwell, or in trouble with the law, then it’s time to seek support.

It might be that your impulsive decisions are actually connected to other behaviours that mean you have a mental health disorder.

Impulsive behaviour and mental health disorders and conditions

The following disorders and issues are connected to impulsivity:

Adult ADHD

Impulsivity is a key trait in adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This can look like jumping into relationships, taking on a task when there is a more important deadline looming, and saying things without thinking that upset those around you.

Borderline personality disorder (BPD)

BPD means you are impulsive about relating. You will throw yourself headlong into intense, dramatic, and short-lived relationships, where you are overemotional, with big highs and lows. When upset or when worried you might be abandoned or rejected, you can say mean things without thinking.

Bipolar disorder

One side of bipolar is depression, but the other side is mania. When manic your behaviour can be dangerously impulsive as you feel invincible. It can include things like unprotected sex, buying big-ticket items you can't afford, or going out all night when you have to work the next day.

Antisocial personality disorder

Your impulsive behaviours will be agressive or even violent, with no respect for others or the law, and can land you in jail.

Substance abuse

Addictions lead to lack of self-control around your drug of choice, and can also mean you impulsively lash out at others or do things you regret.

Why do I have a problem with impulsive behaviour?

Like most psychological issues, impulsivity is a combination of genetics and environment. You might be born with a genetic propensity toward being impulsive. How impulsive you become depends on environments you lived through.

If, for example, you were born with a genetic tendency, but had parents who modelled self-restraint, and taught you to have self-control to reach long-term goals? You’d likely be less impulsive that a child with a similar tendency who had very impulsive parents.

And things like childhood trauma can cause brain changes that leave you more impulsive (a very high percentage of those with BPD suffered child sexual abuse).

Can therapy help me with impulsivity?

Yes. What type of therapy depends on whether your impulsive behaviour is related to a personality disorder, or other issue such as sexual abuse.

But in general, therapy helps you identify what drives your impulsive behaviours and sees you try new ways of thinking and being.

Time to get control over your impulsive behaviour and stop letting it sabotage your life? Find a therapist that's right for you now and get talking.

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