November 2, 2022

How to change our relationship with ADHD impulsivity

Understanding impulsivity may offer ways to prevent it and also build a better relationship with our impulses and ourselves

Maaya Hitomi

Maaya is an ADHD coach with a Master's in Psychology. They are the voice behind @StructuredSuccess

How to change our relationship with ADHD impulsivity

A lot of people with ADHD have a fraught relationship with impulsivity. At times, our spontaneity and free-spiritedness can bring new friends, grand adventures, and intense joy. At other times, our struggle to control this impulsivity can wreak absolute havoc on our social relationships, self-image, and health. This fraught relationship can lead to a great deal of guilt, shame, and embarrassment, but understanding how impulsivity works may just offer us an opportunity to build a better relationship with it and limit its most negative consequences.

How Impulsivity Works

Everyone experiences impulsivity sometimes. Our impulses drive us towards taking action and can be urges for just about anything. We can experience impulses to do healthy or important actions just as we can experience impulses towards dangerous or destructive ones. While there is a tendency to focus on the times when impulsivity has led to negative short-term or long-term consequences, the impulses themselves are morally neutral.

The impulses we experience are informed by our desires and goals, our past experiences and upbringing, or our social and physical environment. Regardless of the source of the impulse, once it occurs and we feel the urge to do something, our inhibition takes over, or at least it’s meant to. Inhibition basically serves as a check on our impulses: adaptive impulses get let through while maladaptive ones get stopped.

Because it would take a lot of energy to stop every impulse and specifically choose which to let through, the brain basically does the opposite. If we have an impulse and our inhibition doesn’t send a response telling us to stop, we assume everything is fine to proceed. Basically, it’s like sending a text to your partner saying “I’ll pick up pizza on the way home.” If you don’t get a response, you can follow through with the plan and pick up the pizza, but if your partner texts back to say they don’t actually want pizza tonight, you can stop and make a different choice.

For most people this works well enough, but for people with ADHD (and other conditions that impact impulse control) the response from our inhibition can be slower. This means that by the time we get a response from our inhibition telling us “maybe don’t do that”, we may have already built up momentum or committed to an action. You may be in the middle of ordering the pizza, so to speak, by the time your partner tells you they really, really don’t want pizza again.

The Impacts of ADHD Impulsivity

While the pizza dinner analogy is a low-stakes, cute, and completely unrealistic example, (I mean, honestly, who doesn’t want pizza!?) this same pattern can have dramatically worse consequences. If you have an impulse to make a nasty comment to your partner during a fight, for example, this delayed inhibition can mean that inhibition doesn’t stop you until the word is halfway out of your mouth, potentially harming your partner and/or your relationship.

Unfortunately, these negative consequences don’t end there. Because impulses can be just about anything, impulsivity can impact just about every part of our lives. It can mean clicking ‘Buy Now’ before inhibition reminds us that we don’t need it, impacting our finances. It can mean getting halfway to the cupboard before inhibition tells us we aren’t actually hungry, impacting our relationship with food. It can mean committing to a social event before realising we don’t have the energy or time for them, impacting our relationships.

Regardless of the situation, this pattern where we start doing something only for inhibition to tell us we shouldn’t after we’ve already started can profoundly impact our understanding of ourselves, what we want, and the type of person we believe ourselves to be. This can significantly impact our self-image and leave us feeling guilty, ashamed, or embarrassed of our impulses or our impulsive actions, thus reinforcing our negative relationship with impulsivity.

Building A Better Relationship With Impulsivity

Our relationship with impulsivity doesn’t have to be negative, though. Impulses are a natural part of life, and can encourage us to take healthy and adaptive action just as well as they can encourage us to take harmful and maladaptive ones. Our relationship with impulsivity doesn’t have to be all or nothing, meaning we don’t need to limit all impulsive actions or prevent all impulses.

Since people with ADHD are impulsive, at least in part, due to a delayed inhibition response, trying to shoehorn an alternative between our impulse and our action is unlikely to work. Actions like counting to five, writing down the pros and cons, talking yourself down, and others can sound appealing but ultimately rely on a timely inhibition response that most people with ADHD don’t have.

Instead, the strategies that are most likely to help us repair our relationship with impulsivity are those we can implement after starting to act on an impulse, or those that give us time for our inhibition response to catch up.

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After Starting to Act

It is very easy to assume that, if we’ve already started to act on an impulse, it’s already too late. In some cases, it may be, but this isn’t true all of the time. More often, starting to act on an impulse simply offers us a justification for continuing to act after inhibition tells us to stop. We can convince ourselves, for example, that we’ve already invested energy into the action, so we might as well see it through regardless of the consequences. Or we may convince ourselves that stopping midway through an action will be somehow more awkward or obvious than continuing. Neither of these are likely to be true.

Instead, we need to be willing to walk away from our impulses when inhibition tells us to. Essentially, if we’re walking the wrong way down the street, we have to be willing to stop and turn around, even though it might feel awkward. What this means in practice is going to look different based on the situation, but may involve developing scripts for when we interrupt, overcommit, or realise the thing we were about to say would be harmful. It can also mean being okay abandoning projects, leaving items in our cart, or stopping halfway to the cupboard and going in the other direction.

Whatever the specific situation, this ability to listen to our inhibition, even if we’ve already started to act, is an incredibly valuable skill and can spare us some of impulsivity’s most negative consequences.

Letting Inhibition Catch Up

If there are areas of your life where you feel like you are more likely to have impulses or act on those impulses in a way that’s harmful to you, building in time for inhibition to catch up can reduce the likelihood of acting impulsively. As I mentioned above, however, this can’t simply be shoehorning time between impulse and action by counting to 5, for example. Instead, we have to set up some outside structure that builds this time in for us.

The standard example of this type of approach is to leave credit cards at home, or freeze them in a block of ice so that it takes time to access them again. These are poignant examples, but also extreme ones. We don’t necessarily need to make acting on impulses impossible in order to make actually acting on them less likely. Instead, anything that adds a bit of friction or slows down our ability to act on an impulse is likely to help. Even something as small as adding a single extra click, tap, or decision can be enough friction to slow down the action and give inhibition a chance to catch up.

Casting Off Guilt and Shame

Being able to listen to our inhibition or build in time for it to catch up can help us avoid some of the negative consequences impulsivity can bring. However, building a better relationship with our impulses also means undoing the guilt, shame, and embarrassment that surrounds impulsivity in the first place. Ultimately, having impulses is a natural part of life and everyone acts on them on occasion (even to negative ends sometimes). Our goal can not and should not be to completely remove impulses or impulsivity from our lives. Instead, we need to recognize both the positives and negatives impulsivity brings, and reduce its most negative impacts, even in a minor way. This can help us build a better relationship with our impulses and with how we see ourselves, what we want, and the type of person we believe ourselves to be.

Maaya Hitomi is the ADHD Coach and Academic Strategist behind Structured Success, where they work with ADHD, autistic, and otherwise neurodivergent clients to develop strategies for better coping. They have their Master’s and undergraduate degrees in Psychology, and 4 years experience as an ADHD Coach. More importantly, they’re (probably) autistic, and definitely ADHD and dyslexic, and rely on their structures and strategies to support their own success. Connect with them & get in the conversation on impulsivity on Twitter!

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