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Why Did I Do That?

Johnny reaches for a beer after work. He longs for that warm numbing sensation that the first sip brings. It’s an impulse that doesn’t serve Johnny in the long run, as it hurts his health and his most important relationships.

Celeste insults her children, calling them lazy. Tired and in need of help, she is understandably angry when the kids don’t listen. The impulses of anger cause Celeste to lash out because she feels disrespected, insulted, and abandoned. Name calling doesn’t motivate her children to listen better or express gratitude for the work she does to care for them. But, it does damage her children's wellbeing and her relationships with them, which Celeste does not want.

Charly hugs everyone. Identifying as a non-binary person, who uses the plural pronoun they/them/theirs, Charly is naturally full of love and exuberance. They just assume that everyone loves hugs. But we know from Joe Biden’s infamous hug that many people don’t like being touched by strangers or even hugged at all. Charly needs to check this impulse so they don’t get rejected or make others uncomfortable.

The word emotion comes from the Latin word “emovere” meaning to “move out, remove, agitate.” From sprinting out of a burning building (fear), to slapping someone who insults us (anger, shame), to jumping into a teammate’s arms after hitting the winning grand slam (joy, excitement, pride, bonding), impulses compel us to act without thought, consciousness, or awareness. In other words, they are knee-jerk reactions.

Considering that impulses propel us to act in ways that undermine our connections (rifts), our values (stealing), ourselves (self-destructive compulsions), and our very existence (think war), we should learn more about them.

A few basics about impulses:

  • Emotions trigger psychological and physical reactions in your body leading to impulses.

  • Impulses happen whether you have emotional awareness or not.

  • Many problems in life can be helped by examining impulses.

  • Impulses can be noticed and curtailed without invalidating them.

  • Impulses can be redirected so we don’t explode or feel tense.

  • Impulses are not bad, they just are. But sometimes they don’t serve us.

  • Beating yourself up for lack of self-control rarely helps curtail an impulse.

  • Self-compassion, emotion education, and learning skills does help curtail impulses.

To master control of your impulses, a great first goal is to become familiar with them. This means getting comfortable sensing them in the body — without acting on them.

Want to try an experiment?

  1. You can use food for this experiment because food brings forth many impulses. Or, if food doesn’t move you, try the experiment next time you have an itch like from a mosquito bite. Read the experiment all the way through and then try it.

  2. Imagine, or even better, make one of your favorite foods and place it in front of you. I use chocolate chip cookies for this experiment. They smell so good!

  3. Once you recognize you want to eat the cookie, or other food that compels you, or scratch an itch, DON’T DO IT!! This is a quick experiment so know that your discomfort won’t last long.

  4. Now for about 30 seconds (look at a clock or set a timer if possible), don’t act on the impulse to eat or scratch. Instead breathe deeply and slowly in and out of your belly as you notice what the impulse feels like in your body. Try to describe the sensations to yourself. For example, if you feel pain, notice where in your body the pain is located, and say to yourself, “I feel pain under my ribs.” As for me, I feel an actual pulling sensation from my heart toward the cookie. An itch feels tingly to me. Just notice the pull, pain, or whatever you feel. There are no right or wrong ways to feel.Try to objectively notice the pain, longing, pulling, tingling, etc. Try to pull back from it. Try to imagine it as something separate from you.

  5. Say to yourself, “How interesting it is for me to sit with this impulse! It pulls for me to grab the cookie or scratch the itch. But I don’t have to eat it or scratch it. I can stay with the impulse a little longer noticing what it feels like.”

  6. For extra credit, wait another 30 seconds just noticing the sensations and how they change with more time. Notice if the impulse intensifies or diminishes with more time. What happens?

  7. Now, if you still want or need to, eat or scratch your itch. Ahhhhh…

  8. Pat yourself on the back for making space between your impulse and your action.

  9. Keep noticing your impulses on a daily basis by thinking about what you want to say and do BEFORE you do it.

Once we safely recognize our impulses and consider them, benefits happen. Instead of shoving them down or exploding them out, we become masterful, in control, and relaxed. We gain confidence. With an education in emotions and impulses, we gain power to stop undermining our relationships, our goals, and our values. We have choice and influence.

Keep practicing. Don’t give up. It’s worth it.

A+ for trying!


For an easy, accessible, and comprehensive read to understand and process emotions to thrive in life, pick up a copy of It's Not Always Depression.

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