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Posted on Sat, 02 June, 2018

Impulsivity is defined in psychology as a “tendency to act on a whim, displaying behavior characterized by little or no forethought, reflection, or consideration of the consequences.” Through unnecessary risk, usually inappropriate and poorly thought out, impulsivity results mostly in negative consequences.  I work with a lot of adults with ADHD, which impulsivity is a major component of.  Impulsivity is also a major piece of personality disorders and substance use to name a few.  But impulsivity doesn’t only live in the realm of mental illness, pop culture and current events give numerous examples of the impact of impulsivity.


Impulsivity in the News

It feels like you can’t open a news feed, especially anything relating to politics without glaring impulsivity – ahem, Donald Trump.  Although men are far more representative of this, women are certainly not immune.

Rosanne Barr’s latest problem is interesting to me as she has used impulsivity to communicate her racism. I’m torn about how to respond to her explanation for her stupid, insensitivity. The feminist in me is expecting equal anger and reaction against her but she seems to be taking more heat than the men accused of similar (or worse!) things.  The humanist in me says it’s about time as a culture we collectively expect better behavior from each other.  We should absolutely hold each other to a higher standard of behavior and integrity.  I think may begin with a long hard look at our impulsivity.

Clever response to impulsivity

The maker of Ambien, Sanofi, released this statement in the aftermath of Barr’s tweet


Her tweet storm is probably indicative of an underlying issue like Bipolar Disorder.  That lack of self-control enabling the reflexive responses, something that made her famous originally, has rebounded now. That may be a pass to every celebrity or leader with a twitter account but honestly, engaging in social media is a choice and only a choice.  The fact that we even have such a term as tweet storm is frustrating.  People are able to control  themselves unless they have pervasive developmental problems, Borderline or Narcissistic personalities, Bipolar Disorder or an active addiction.  There should be no storm under normal conditions. There should be a thoughtful accounting of what you hear, feel, need and do to act on things. I see less evidence of impulse control as the years tick on.

As if on cue, Samantha Bee feel into this trap as well.  Astonishing acts and statements get ratings, and certainly comedians say what people are feeling but afraid to say.  It’s clear people agree with her perspective, but it’s also clear that allowing it run rampant without editorializing the approach is doing more harm than good.  It’s hurting people on both sides, hurting our ability to relate to each other and manage basic behaviors society has strict rules for.


Withholding and Regurgitation

Not everything has to be said.  Not every feeling you have in the moment should or needs to be expressed.  We are all guilty of this, as the art of communication deteriorates with the need to have everything faster, easier and barrage people to get our views across or defend ourselves.  I don’t see enough people really thinking through their responses, editing comments to reduce oversharing or inaccuracy.  It’s way too much stream of consciousness.  Perhaps this is all the effect of the baby boomers doing too many drugs in the ’70’s, encouraging stream of consciousness. Kidding.

Regurgitating everything we feel in the moment has no benefit to our society as a whole. It’s rather dangerous actually. Sadly, our president is a prime example of that.  Growing up and currently living in one of the least diverse and wealthy places in the country, Marin County, I have rarely experienced discrimination.  Either for my gender or my Jewish religion.  Since Trump took office I have experienced a marked increase in both, and it is unmistakable he is responsible for it.  It is against our best interest as a society to speak everything we feel in any given moment.  Emotions are notoriously confusing, influential and impulsive.  Especially the negative ones.

Negative feelings trigger anger, which is meant to solve the problem facing us.  Our primitive lizard brain is the area responsible for fight or flight, the survival mechanism our biology holds to respond to life threatening situations.  Somehow, without any of us really aware of the shift, we have begun to see too many things as life threatening.  You can see it in the form of tweet storms as rebukes for perceived slights or verbal vomit of any idiotic thought you have is the work of unchecked impulsivity.


Impact on Relationships

In session this week, a 17 year-old junior at a local high school stated emphatically that social media was at the root of all relational problems in her generation.  She doesn’t engage it herself, which makes her a kind of an anomaly, but observes the effects on her peers. “Especially when the older generations try to talk to us,” she says, “the kids have no idea to respond.”  The kids her age have no idea how to hold conversations in real life because they offer up everything they have in the virtual world without regard for it’s consequences.  When I look at the content of that virtual world I hold very little hope for our future.  It’s meaningless dribble focused on ridiculous celebrity behavior or bullying disguised as the importance of imparting their opinion on everything.

When you are in a fight with someone you care about, if you haven’t given thought to how the issues affect you but your emotions are high and teetering out of your control, you will say things you later regret.  This is impulsivity.  One of the simplest and most well received tools I give people when dealing with anger management is to write it down.  Like authors, journalists, etc. make a first draft.  Make it intense and then walk away from it.  After you’ve expelled the feelings and you’re calmer, return to it and see if it’s still what you want to say.  Ask if you are prepared to accept the consequences of those feelings/statements.  If you’re a Narcissist you are always right and no one else’s feelings really matter anyway so this exercise is a moot point for you.  If you’re sane and reasonable, you’ll be glad you edited it the second or third time.



When Impulsivity Works

Sometimes impulsivity gets things going that need to be corrected: #blacklivesmatter, #enough, #metoo, March for Our Lives, the Women’s Marches, etc.  Social justice is often borne from great wrongs triggering “impulsive”, reflexive acts to correct them.  Since these issues take time to build, they are only impulsive in the intensity with which the actions take.

Developmentally, adolescence is known by any parent or clinician to encompass the hallmarks of impulsivity – recklessness, inflated ego, thoughtlessness, etc.  There is a certain amount of normal risk and impulsivity required to complete the individuation required of adolescence.  It gets complicated when you add accessibility to everything online, social media and family with little ability or desire to hold kids accountable for their behavior.  When impulsivity is mirrored in the culture where is the incentive to internalize self-control and restraint?


Jodi Klugman-Rabb is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Marin and Napa Counties.  She specializes in connecting with clients on a humorous and practical level, helpful when specializing in Parental Identity Discovery™, ADHD and trauma.  She uses EMDR to treat traumas and fears of all types. She is a wife of 18+ years and the mom of two funny and awesome kids. Connect with Jodi on her website or Facebook.

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A blog written by a hip, sometimes irreverent shrink who’s been around the block and calls it like it is

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