Impulse, Control, Balance, Etc.:

Psychologists now talk about people with impulse control problems or people with addictive personalities. We all know people who fit these descriptions, and we ourselves may have this problem, at least at times.

You can have impulse control problems with any urge: the urge to eat, to have sex, to buy something, to hurt someone verbally or physically, or whatever. Some of these urges, if we give into them, can lead to serious trouble for ourselves, our loved ones, and/or for strangers.

It is hard enough to know what to do about our own impulse problems, so maybe, those of us who do have them should start there instead of worrying about the problems of others.

What exactly is an impulse problem, an impulse control problem, and is there anything we can do about it? This is a very complex question (involving, among other things, the concepts of attachment and identification and inspiration), and here we will just touch on one little piece of the puzzle. I will begin by saying that It seems to me that, often (though not always), the problem isn't with the impulse (or urge), and the problem isn't with self-control either.

[What is an impulse? What is it to act on an impulse? In my mind impulses lie somewhere between reflexes (like the automatic knee-jerk reaction or the reflex to breathe) and premeditated actions. If you have acted on an impulse, there is a disjointed feeling: You remember you had an urge earlier, and now you realize you must have given in to it, but you don't remember giving in; there is gap of unconsciousness between when you had the urge and where you are now. The gap may be a few seconds or many years.]

[What follows is a discussion of urges to eat. Obviously what follows is aimed at people who not only have enough food available, but who have more than enough.] —

The desire to eat is not a problem. Even the desire to eat "bad" things such as sweets is common to almost everyone. — True, some people may have something missing in their brains that short circuits the "I've had enough" button, but this isn't most people.

Controlling yourself can be an answer for some, but, for many, it isn't. If it works, great, but the problem with trying to control yourself is that, even if it works, it rarely works for long: You try and try and try to control yourself and succeed and succeed and succeed, but then, all of a sudden, an impulse surges up like a tidal wave, and you're swept away. Once you're swept away, not only do you give into this current impulse, but you throw off all attempts to control, and you even get angry and rebel and keep on going even though the urge passed long ago and you might even be making yourself sick — It's like a dam has broken, all will power is gone, and there's a soothing joy in doing just what you want, when you want it: "No one's going to tell me what to do (not even myself)."

After a while this gets old and boring, and the stage after that is when you go back to thinking you need to control yourself and you feel the power in and will in yourself to do it and you start trying again, trying to "get a hold of yourself," and the circle starts again. You feel pride in your ability to control yourself; you feel unlimited optimism to control yourself forever; you feel unlimited power; and you feel you have mastered your impulses.

For people locked in such a cycle, it is can be more useful to conceive of the problem as a balance problem rather than as a control problem. See from this perspective, the desire to control and the attempts to control can even get in the way of becoming more balanced.

What is balance?

Before getting to this, we should mention that sometimes, for some of us, it is necessary to give in to strong — and even extreme impulses — in ourselves; to allow ourselves something and as much as we want of it; not because this is good, but because then we may possibly catch a glimpse of real reasons why we shouldn't, say, eat too much (assuming there are real reasons). We find out for ourselves, and this can be important for those who don't just believe everything people tell them. And reason and logic doesn't work with urges.

For example, if you have been trying to control yourself for years with your eating — trying and succeeding for a while and then failing and then trying again — and you allow yourself to eat whatever you want, whenever you want, and how much you want, you may find yourself soon getting sick, and you may feel, on your own, without anyone saying a word, you want to cut back. You don't want to get burned again; it's not a matter of giving yourself a health lecture or of trying to do anything.

How might a person arrive at a balanced position? An experiment some (though certainly not everyone) might find useful: Maybe you allow yourself to eat whatever you want, whenever you want, and how much you want but only on two days a week; then, on the other days, you do the opposite and eat only what you consider to be healthy foods, perhaps carrots and oranges and so on and, even these, only in moderation.

So now you've divided the days into two types, but here there is a problem in that you still can get sick on the few days you choose to eat whatever you want, and your overeating urges build up on the other days: You feel you are getting too much on some days and too little on others. And, from one angle, this doesn't seem fair — for you; it is not balanced right for you; you're always feeling a little off, either sick with gastritis or acid reflux or some other problem of digestion, or you feel deprived. Maybe you will find it better for you — maybe you'll feel better, more balanced — if you add a little of the bad on the good days and some good on the bad days; and this would be a move towards balance.

This is still artificial. Eventually, after much experimentation (which involves work — the work can be interesting and even fun, but this doesn't mean it is easy), it may be possible to find a balance in each meal: Less of this, more of that. Controlling yourself is treating yourself as a criminal; it is replaced by an approach aimed at making yourself feel good, not just now, in the present moment, but also in the future.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about, what he called, the Golden Mean that exists between any two extremes. Using eating as our example, one extreme is constantly overeating, and the other extreme is constantly undereating, and there are people stuck at each extreme. Aristotle seems to be discussing what we now call "Impulse Control" issues or the problem of Addictive Personalities.

Aristotle also noted when a person who is stuck at one extreme gets tired of it and wants to go towards the Mean, it isn't an easy, smooth, one step process: In aiming at the mean, the person is bound to overshoot and wind up towards the other extreme. They may stay there for a while and then realize that they aren't at the Mean, and then they turn around and aim back at the Mean. But, again, they are bound to overshoot it going back in the other direction. It is only by going back and forth, back and forth, overshooting each time — but overshooting less and less each time; you go back and forth, each oscillation getting shorter, until you finally wind on the Golden Mean. This is not an easy, straightforward, clean, orderly, rational process, and each swing of the pendulum can be accompanied by great emotion and even real danger to self and others.

We accept Aristotle's view and see it as a practical approach for some who suffer from their impulses.

Another point about balance: If you fast (-100 = not enough food) and binge (+100 = way too much food), over a period of a few days or a week or a month or a year, and you add up all your scores, your eating might average out with Zero, which is a kind of balance. Maybe you go 95, 83, -95, -83, and so on which equals, overall, Zero. But there is another way to shoot for the balance point, the Zero point, which is to shoot for getting an overall Zero at each meal (I suppose this can be thought of as binging on a few bites and then pausing for a while, and so on).

Balance, for it to be meaningful and healthy, ultimately has to be assessed on a moment to moment basis. The present is a teeter-totter, and both extremes are weights; each weight has to go up far enough but not too far and down enough but not too far. It is an ongoing work, but many children enjoy the work of teeter-tottering.

An important point about problems with impulses:

If you have a problem with an urge, it is normal and natural not to think of it as a problem. If everyone keeps telling you you have a problem, this often makes things worse, not better. What happens here, often, is that the person in denial (as psychologists put it), see the problem in other people very clearly while, simultaneously, thinking the problem in oneself, though it may be there potentially, is not there actually. In psychology, this is called Projection, and it is a fascinating phenomenon. We see in others what we aren't yet able to see in ourselves.

Finally, the Impulse to Balance seems to be just one more impulse:

There is an idea both in some circles of traditional Judaism and of traditional Christianity that, to put it simply, "the Devil must be given its due." There is, for example, the practice of leaving a small amount of food in an out of the way place for the Devil to keep him busy and satisfied, so he will not interfere with our plans and actions. This same recognition of nature and human nature probably lies behind the Dionysian mystery cult of the ancient Greeks.

This idea or impulse makes common sense and probably needs to be understood as the opposite of our idea or impulse of Balance and the Golden Mean. There probably is no real balance in nature, no true Mean, as there is a kind of devilish urge always ready and willing to upset any balance that is carefully and artfully achieved. Perhaps the traditional religious view can help us here in allowing us not to get too upset if and when the "upsetting" parts of our natures take over from time to time, more or less, and grab us up and make us forget all our beautiful goals and achievements. On one dimension, this can be understood as the struggle between consciousness and unconsciousness, and the mid-point between them is neither consciousness nor unconsciousness. To put it another way, Balance is not the mid-point between Balance and Imbalance.

We are left to hope (and pray) that any extremes to which we will inevitably be giving in — as individuals, as nations, as religions, and so on — will not be something that, when we wake up later, afterwards, in a more sober, meditative, and reflective mood, we will regret too much and of which we will be too much ashamed.

Another point:

Self-control and finding a balance are not the only two solutions to impulse problems. Sometimes, for example, there is some major shift in the personality, a transformation of the person, to a point where the whole system of urges that tortured the person before, does not feel as intense and all-consuming; it becomes just one more thing among many and loses its hold on us and its power. There can be a shift of interest that requires a time commitment, or there may be a change in biology that comes, say, with aging where the need system is dampened (sexual need can diminish with age as can the desire to eat), or there may arise in a person a desire to do good for others and the focus on ones own desires falls into the background. Such a shift can be permanent or temporary.


To be clear and to state what is certain, obvious, and important, there are situations where we should control ourselves or even turn ourselves over to others for help even before we feel our self-control slipping away. If you are diabetic and feel compelled to eat sugar, you can die from it, and you should think seriously about putting yourself into some program or other. If you are alcoholic, even one drink can lead to the destruction of a life, and Alcoholic's Anonymous or a similar program should be considered. If you have impulses to kill people (yourself included), and it is more than a more or less normal idle thought, you should go to good friend or a good doctor or therapist or church authority or even to the police and ask for help in restraining yourself and getting rid of the urge — not only for yourself but also for moral reasons.

I hope it is clear that I don't have a method for mastering my own urges that I can recommend to family, friends, patients, or others; in fact, I hope it is clear that I don't have a method at all that really works on an ongoing basis and that has made life easy for me. If you see humans as like the earth, there is no easy answer for the dangers of our volcanoes, hurricanes, avalanches, earthquakes, and sun flares, and these are only the most obvious and visible dramas that have effects. And we are all humans.