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Managing Impulses

Wedding cupcakesSometimes people who care and want to help the Emotionally Sensitive tell them to  “Just get over it,” or “there’s no reason to be that upset,” or  “think before you act.”  Though they don’t intend to invalidate the emotionally sensitive person, they are.

They probably don’t realize how many skills are necessary to not act on intense emotions. To manage emotional responses and use effective problem-solving strategies takes a lot of energy.

Most everyone has a natural tendency to prefer short-term gratification over long-term goals. Yet we often delude ourselves and believe that in the future we will be able to put our long-term goals first. Somehow we are sure we will have more self-control tomorrow, next week, or next month.

Given a future choice of two cookies on Tuesday versus six cookies four days later, most everyone would choose the six cookies four days later. But if we have to choose right now? Research shows we’ll take the two cookies rather than wait for six.

We have a tendency to believe that in the future we will make better choices than we are making today. That’s how we justify eating cheesecake today–we’ll start our diet tomorrow, when that more in-control self is around. Or on Monday. The problem is that in the moment, we tend to choose immediate pleasure over long term gain. And that definitely interferes with our ability to set goals and solve problems.

There’s a famous study of children trying to resist eating one marshmallow now so they can have two marshmallows later. This study has been redone by Dr. David Walsh (watch HERE).

Self-control is even more difficult when the long-term goal is uncertain. Eating cheesecake now versus having a lower cholesterol level in three months would be a big challenge for most. Even going to school now for the possibility of a better job four to six years later is difficult. Emotionally sensitive people, driven by their emotions, can be naturally impulsive and have particular difficulty with self-controling their impulses.

Not only is self-control difficult when there’s immediate gratification available, the amount of self-control we have is limited. If you say no to donuts at breakfast, you are more likely to give in to having cake at lunch. We have to continually replenish and strengthen our self-control in order to be successful.  It’s the same for self-control of emotions.

Self-control is about not being impulsive and managing our emotional urges. It’s about doing the yoga class instead of watching television because you know that in three months you will be in better physical shape if you do the yoga. Most of us want to be more fit, but the lure of  pleasure in the here and now is hard to overcome.

In the moment, the long-term goal loses its power.  What we can have in the moment, or expressing our feelings in the moment, can seem so right at the time. Emotions can take over. Later we remember the importance of  the long-term goal and often regret our impulsive responses.

For people who are emotionally sensitive the issue of short-term satisfaction over long-term goals can be a challenge. When emotions are strong, people tend to need resolution quickly. Waiting to see if a book proposal is accepted or if a first date is going to call can be intolerable.

Even if you’ve had limited self-control for most of your life, you can still strengthen it.  Scientists used to believe that when a person reached adulthood, their brain stopped developing. Now we know that the brain continues to change and adapt even when we are older.

When you practice new skills, your brain is making changes that allow you to access these new behaviors more easily. It’s much like when someone is learning to play a song on the piano. At first he has to think carefully about where the notes are and concentrate on each chord. Over time, playing the song becomes automatic. With lots of practice of new behaviors, the skills become more automatic and replace old habits.

When your emotions are intense, self control can be more difficult and you may act impulsively more frequently. Practice becomes even more important for the emotionally sensitive.

As Jim Randel noted in The Skinny on Willpower, some experts believe that self-control is like a muscle that can be strengthened through exercising it. These experts say you should gradually build up your ability to resist temptation.

For example, if you have made a goal to not drink soda, then cut your soda consumption down. Gradually keep decreasing the number your drink. Other experts disagree. They say that the all-or-nothing approach is best. If you don’t want to drink soda, then decide make a decision and stick to it.  My experience is that making a decision and sticking to it may work, but there may be frequent relapses. Those relapses require a new commitment. That seems like a type of practice.

To develop more emotional control, practicing over and over is key. There are strategies for helping you practice emotional control and there are ways to build up your overall ability to control your impulses.  We’ll talk about those strategies in a future post.


photo credit: katielou33Creative Commons License

Managing Impulses

Karyn Hall, PhD

Karyn Hall, Ph.D. is the owner/director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center in Houston, a DBT-Linehan Board of Certification, Certified Clinician, a RO DBT Approved Supervisor and Trainer and owner of, an online educational program. She is a trainer/consultant as well as a therapist and certified coach, author of The Emotionally Sensitive Person, SAVVY, Mindfulness Exercises for DBT Therapists, and co-author of The Power of Validation. Her podcast, The Emotionally Sensitive Person, is available on iTunes.

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APA Reference
Hall, K. (2012). Managing Impulses. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 23, 2019, from


Last updated: 18 Apr 2012
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