This I-can't-help-myself behavior is often labeled with two loaded words: addictive personality. But according to medical and addiction authorities, the whole idea of having an "addictive personality" is a big, misunderstood fallacy.
"Fundamentally, the idea of a general addictive personality is a myth when we’re talking about it in terms of addiction," says Samantha Arsenault, the Director of National Treatment Quality Initiatives for Shatterproof, a non-profit devoted to ending the devastation addiction causes families. People of every personality type can become an addict, Arsenault says, whether you're introverted, extroverted, shy, or something in between. "There’s no universal characteristic trait for people with addiction," she says.
So what are we really talking about when we can't resist that next episode, slice of pizza, and on, and on, and on? You're likely struggling with impulse control, says therapist Ruschelle Khanna, LCSW, who operates out of medical co-working space LINA. Impulse control as we're using it here—compared to the potentially more serious impulse control disorder—is defined as "the ability to manage behaviors," she says. Or, in board-certified psychiatrist Ellen Vora, MD's words, "the function that allows you to second guess what action you’re going to do."
This distinction might just seem like splitting hairs, but here's the thing: Changing the way you think about that I-can't-stop tendency could actually be the key to breaking the habit. When you label yourself as someone with an "addictive personality," the trait can feel core to your being, as unchangeable as your glass-half-full optimism or conscientiousness. But impulse control doesn't carry the emotional weight that comes with a personality trait, says Khanna—it's simply a behavior pattern. And unlike parts of your personality, behaviors are easier to change.
This is a good thing if you find that your impulsive behaviors are getting in the way of your day-to-day success (like that late-night binge-watching session making you miss your morning workout class or too tired to focus at work). Because impulse behaviors are generally caused by external factors—whether it's a sleepless night or a bad day at work—Khanna says that makes it easier for people to address them.
Why some people have good impulse control and others...don't
There are lots of possible reasons why some people have poor impulse control compared to others, says Paul Thomas, MD, author of The Addiction Spectrum, and a common one is that you're seeking a source of immediate satisfaction. "Repeatedly turning to something for comfort is typically rooted in serving some sort of purpose, such as relieving stress," he says. He's not just talking about that third glass of wine or fourth slice of pizza, either—exercising is a great way to relieve stress, but if you're working out multiple times a day to relieve that stress, you might have a more serious problem on your hands.
Khanna and Dr. Vora say that your existing happiness levels are also closely related to impulse control. "When I work with people with poor impulse control, I have them acknowledge in the moment that they are dissatisfied, because there's some level of dissatisfaction going on," Khanna says. Maybe your relationship with your partner has hit a rough spot, or you're miserable at your current job. Whatever is happening, Dr. Vora says, you're reaching for things that make you immediately happy in a temporary attempt to feel better.
Your level of impulse control can also vary day to day (or moment to moment) depending on your environment. If you didn't get a good night's sleep, for example, you're a lot more likely to overeat," Dr. Vora says. "Or if you've had two glasses of wine, your impulse control might not be what it normally is."
For some people, issues with impulse control can start in childhood. "The more that you have basic security and your needs are met, the less you [likely] feel a need to fill holes and [seek] instant gratification," Dr. Vora says. People with a history of abuse, early stress, or a lack of attachment when you were a child may also struggle with impulse control, adds Dr. Thomas—although that's definitely not the case for everyone in those situations.
Ways to develop good impulse control
When looking for the root cause of your impulse control issues, Khanna likes to borrow the acronym HALT from Alcoholics Anonymous: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. "The first one specifically applies to drinking; if you're hungry, maybe you should eat something instead of having that drink. But the other three really apply to any decision you're about to make," she says. (Say, you're angry and frustrated after a long day of work, and thus immediately reach for the box of Joe-Joe's while you wait for your takeout order to arrive.)
Using the HALT acronym, Khanna says, can help you identify what you're feeling in the moment to help you make better decisions—and understand why you're having a particular impulse. She recommends writing it down so you can try to connect it to the deeper issue at play. "Was [your behavior] after your mom called? You got home from work? What sparked it?" she asks. Once you've identified that feeling, you may choose to go another route in order to satisfy the fulfillment you crave. Or you may still choose to act the same way—but at least you'll take a step back and understand why you're doing it.
To this point, Dr. Vora also recommends developing a mindfulness practice. "It's easier said than done," she admits. "But any time we can cultivate awareness, that helps us make better choices... It's basically the Zack Morris effect from Saved by the Bell. You get to freeze time, evaluate what's happening, and then act." Meditation is not required if that's not your thing. Even small techniques, like focusing on your breath while waiting for the elevator, can help you more regularly get into that headspace, Dr. Vora says.
Having better impulse control doesn't mean that there's no longer room for fun or spontaneity, says Dr. Vora—it's more about understanding what's driving your behaviors, and choosing whether or not to act accordingly. "Maybe you had a glass of wine at home by yourself because you had a rough day and you stop to evaluate the situation and realize it's not in your best interest to have another one," she says. "But maybe you're over at your friend's house and she cooked dinner and opened a bottle of wine. And you decide having that second—or third—glass really is an act of self-love. That's okay!"
However, if there's a particular substance or activity that you continually struggle with, Dr. Vora recommends staying away from it completely—at least for a period of time. "I think for a lot of people, it’s actually important to abstain from the stuff that’s dragging you into an addictive cycle," she says. For some of her clients, this means cutting out processed foods. For others, it's deleting Instagram. "Some people can take off a month, six months, or a year from something and then come back to it and be in a place of freedom in their relationship to the problematic substance," she says. "Other people may never be able to come back to it."
Struggling with impulse control may seem overwhelming. But remember: It’s something you do, not part of who you are. Whether you’re meditating to focus your thoughts or journaling to bring awareness to your triggers, the key to changing your more problematic habits lies in taking back control of your behaviors. And that’s pretty empowering when you get down to it.
If you want to give the whole mindfulness thing a shot but aren't sure where to start, here's some tips on how to be mindful at work. Plus, tips for how to start meditating—even if you've tried a million times before.
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