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Take Control of Yourself

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5 psychological tricks to improve your impulse control

Ever heard of Dr Faustus? He was the chap who sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for twenty-four years of ultimate personal indulgence (1). He gets to kiss (and more) that ship-launching incomparable beauty Helen of Troy and do all kinds of things that you or I would probably quite like to do given half the chance and if no one was looking.

Imagine it: completely and utterly indulging every hedonistic whim, every pleasure that comes to mind and body. Having all you want, when you want; a lifetime, almost, of instant gratification and endless delights. Give me some of that. Yippee!

Oh, wait...

There's a price to pay.

For Dr Faustus, when it came time for the Devil to collect, he demanded (as had been the agreement) one earthly soul. You see, Madoff - er, I mean Faustus! - had come to really believe he could get away with it; that he'd never have to pay for satisfying all his appetites for so many years. And what a price to pay! Eternal damnation, punishment without end. Whoops!

Because whilst Dr F was living it up, having a ball, living the dream, and being all rock-and-roll, our favourite sell-out merchant hadn't given eternity a second thought. If only poor Dr Faustus had used a little impulse control. But we shouldn't judge him too harshly; after all, who hasn't given into impulse and had to face the consequences?

We're all Dr Faustus (potentially)

The Faustian pact. This pact with the 'Devil' isn't perhaps so much a story as an illustrative pattern of what happens all the time, in all places, within all types of people. Greed, lust, or merely the habitual giving in to impulse without reflecting on consequences can lead to wretchedness in all its forms - however deferred payback time might be.

Read the news today and I guarantee you'll find Dr Faustus in the guise of a sex-scandal-enmeshed politician or a drug-addled 'train wreck' celebrity. Or Dr Faustus might be posing as a financier recklessly bringing his or her (oh, let's be honest: 'his') bank to the brink of meltdown. Even whole cultures can be Dr Faustus: the banking crisis, sub-prime mortgages, global warming, mass obesity; the pattern is the same.

Enjoy now, pay later, then be shocked or outraged by just how much you have to pay. That's the classic pact with 'the devil' - that's Dr Faustus. So much 'bad luck' can really be accounted for by a lack of reigning in impulses from, sometimes, years before. So is all failure, decay, and upset caused by lame or non-existent personal impulse control?

The pitfalls of low impulse control

Of course not all misfortune is down to lack of self-control. Bad things happen to good people and people can experience hard financial times or poor health after making wise and judicious choices. To genuinely believe you can 100% control what happens to you is a simplistic ideology peddled by the kind of positive thinking gurus that give the rest of us a bad name.

But it's true that millions do arrive at a state of misery, despair, and pain because of issues that were left unaddressed, healthy decisions not made, opportunities missed, and impulses indulged. People do have to face their own personal Hell as a consequence of earlier decisions.

One problem is that the 'devil' may come in the form of that cheery friend who keeps offering you cigarettes even as you're trying to quit. Or the plausible loan shark. Or the endless sugary treats between meals that drive up body inflammation, making you fat. Yes, 'the devil' can be charming, attractive, seductive, and convincing. Just as Dr Faustus found.

And what's more, many of us have been fed a kind of 'if I want it, I should have it' mentality by the very society we live in. Thanks, Society!

The 'live now, pay later' culture

The recent 'if it feels good, do it' ideology that rides off the back of mass consumerism sure doesn't help. With the demise of religion and an increasing sense that 'now is all there is', some people have bought into the idea that personal pleasure and shortcuts to fragile and fleeting happiness are really all that count in life. Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse. I'm still not convinced by that idea. Have you ever seen a corpse? It's not a good look!

Okay, this might all be fine if doing what feels good and giving into self-indulgence really did produce happiness (rather than just a kind of emotional fleeting sugar high), but all the evidence shows that low impulse control tends to lead to greater unhappiness, poorer mental health, and increased lifestyle-induced illness and earlier death (2).

So how can you - yes, you - take the reins of your impulses and not always give in to urges that lead nowhere good?

1) Think about what impulses you want to control ahead of time

I hope I'm not the soulless (oh, the irony) über-sensible uptight person I may be misconstrued as from reading all this. Actually, impulsivity isn't always bad; of course it's not. It's great sometimes to be spontaneous, to not have to consider every little decision logically and analytically: "Fancy coming to the beach this afternoon?" "Yeah, why not? Let's do it!"

Impulsivity can help you open up to opportunities you'd sometimes miss if you hadn't acted on impulse. Sometimes we need to trust our snap decisions and intuitions.

But if your impulse control is weak in areas that lead to long- or even mid-term bad consequences (and you know that if you're honest), then you need to be prepared before those impulses arise so you can effectively deal with them when they show up. Write down the impulses you want to control and conquer before you have them. Do that now, even whilst the impulse to deal with your impulses lasts.

Be sure in your own mind just which impulses are leading you to eternal damnation - sorry, I meant are not healthy (that Faustus legend has really gotten to me!).

2) Before the impulse takes hold, think where the consequences may lead

If Dr Faustus had sat down and really thought hard about what selling his soul forever just for the sake of a few years of pleasure would actually entail, he may have been less tempted to sign on the Devil's dotted line.

We know not to jump out of high buildings, even though falling through the air might be fun, because we all know the consequences of landing. We know the price to pay - and there's always a price. That's what stops us: a real awareness of the consequences.

So whether it's smoking, risky sexual behaviour, gambling, or impulsively insulting people at every opportunity, sit down and really think about all the possible - even likely - long- or short-term consequences of these actions. In this way, you can exercise the most sophisticated and recent (in evolutionary terms) development in your brain: the pre-frontal lobes, which are there in part for long-term advantage and bigger-picture thinking. And for Heaven's sake (as Faustus might have said), don't pussyfoot around your own impulses.

3) Don't make excuses for your impulsiveness

Smoking 'just one' cigarette or gobbling 'just one' jam doughnut or taking 'just one' Ecstasy pill seems harmless because it's 'just one'. Know that it isn't just one, but it's one on top of many others. And it only takes one to tip the balance and cause catastrophic consequences.

Think about it. Cancer might grow over time (one in two long-term smokers get lung cancer), but even before the first cancerous cells develop, the smoker's body will:

  • Become more vulnerable.
  • Reach a stage where cancer may or may not start.
  • Then, wham! That 'one more' cigarette tips the whole balance.

Forget 'just one' and think 'one final straw that broke the camel's back', because that one takes you nearer to or even into the consequences that await. Making excuses as to why it's really okay can amount to lying to yourself, which Dr Faustus did when dealing with the Devil in the first place.

4) Don't lie to yourself

When we are consumed with greed or feel in other ways emotionally compelled to follow an impulse, we'll often try to justify it by making up reasons why it's really okay to give in to it. We lie to ourselves.

Be honest. If you really can't resist that belly-fat-inducing treat, then rather than telling yourself you are 'just being polite' by accepting yet another 'death by chocolate cake', try some refreshing honesty: "Okay, I'm going to have this because of short-term enjoyment and because getting trim and keeping my health obviously doesn't really matter to me!"

There now, at least you know who you are in this situation. And with clarity comes the possibility of some kind of potential 'salvation' (since I'm on this Faustian theme).

5) Step out of the impulse

Imagine the impulse striking you, just about to take hold and grip you, but... before it does, you are out of it and free! Impulses are 'hypnotic', in that they narrow and focus, then totally direct our attention and can make us forget all other thoughts, feelings, or considerations.

The story of Dr Faustus aside, the call to rein in your impulses isn't moralistic as much as functional. You become more efficient, effective, and happy when you master or at least have some control over unruly impulses that seek to wreck long-term plans. Ultimately, you have to decide whether you want to live being able to control your impulses or whether you want to be a slave to them.

Dr Faustus and the millions of us who have fallen into the same trap relent the deal was ever made, whether that deal was smoking, eating terrible 'food', or spending recklessly. Risks can pay off, but blind impulse tends to banish proper calculation from risk assessment. Unlike poor Dr Faustus, you and I still have time... hopefully.

References

  1. The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, 1604. This was based on an earlier story simply entitled Faust that had been inspired by a shadowy true-life figure, Dr Johan Faust.
  2. For example, having the capacity to delay gratification, as tested by researchers in the famous 'marshmallow test', in which four-year-olds were given a marshmallow and promised another, but only if they could wait 20 minutes before eating the first one. Some children could wait and others could not. The researchers then followed the progress of each child into adolescence and demonstrated that those with the ability to wait were better adjusted, healthier, and more dependable and happier.
Published by Mark Tyrrell - in Emotional Intelligence