Impulsivity and Self-control: The Problem of Being of Two Minds

The Apostle James once wrote, “a double minded man is unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8). That being of two minds, or more literally of two souls (δίψυχος), creates an instability of the will that makes the task of overcoming impulsivity especially challenging. Part of us is utterly persuaded that addictive behavior is bad for us and part of us is completely convinced that it is good for us, and the self is at a loss to explain its actions, for as Saint Paul once put it, “The good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Romans 7:19). Commenting on this passage, … [Read more...]

Finding the Golden Mean Between Over-control and Being Out-of-control

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle described virtue not only as a mean between two extremes that are vices, but also as the means to a good and flourishing life. The cowardly and the brazen can know no real happiness, for those vices bring along other trials and tribulation. Only the courageous can face troubles and peace in a way that can be helpful for themselves and others. Proportion is everything. This Aristotelian teaching was also embraced by Church Fathers like Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, and Saint Dorotheos of Gaza to name but a few. For instance, Saint Basil … [Read more...]

Impulsivity, Self-Control, and Relying on Christ

Resisting temptation, ignoring unwanted thoughts, and altering one’s emotional state when under the onslaught of impulsivity may seem to some as a fool’s errand. Yet, holy men and women have achieved success at just such endeavors for more than two thousand years. They have done so, not because they had iron wills, fewer thoughts, or a permanent smile, though in time their wills did become more conformed to the will of God, their thoughts became more centered on their Savior, and their joy in Christ could no longer be contained. The secret to their success was very simple: they were victorious … [Read more...]

Using Your Mind to Rise Above Impulses

It has often been said that executive functioning is part of that which makes us uniquely human, separating us from the animal kingdom and allowing for freedom, creativity, and complex problem solving. It is executive functioning that helps us manage time, pay attention, plan, organize, remember details, and use experience as a guide for future action. But when impulsivity takes over, all these gifts inherent in executive functioning seem to vanish and the frontal lobe activity responsible for executive functioning appears to shut down almost completely. Impulsive behavior undercuts … [Read more...]

Impulsivity, our Relationship with God, and the Problem of Self-control

It is hard not to admire someone with self-control. It’s a virtue that emboldens the brave to face any foe and often prevail. The ancient Greek historian Thucydides recounting the exploits of the legendary heroes in the Peloponnesian war once remarked, “self-control is the chief element in self-respect and self-respect is the chief element in courage.” And certainly, the impulsive lack self-control, and with it self-respect and courage to face their problems as well. The vital question is whether the impulsive can gain self-control when they need it most. With our own best efforts, that … [Read more...]

The Healing of Impulsivity in the Light of our Understanding of Personality

Gordon Allport once spoke as follows about differences among people: “For some the world is a hostile place where men are evil and dangerous; for others it is a stage for fun and frolic. It may appear as a place to do one’s duty grimly; or a pasture for cultivating friendship and love” (Pattern and Growth in Personality). These differing outlooks and attitudes reflect something unique about how various individuals engage with the world that psychologists call personality. Of course, the fathers also recognized these differences. On this subject, Elder Joseph the Hesychast also wrote: “My … [Read more...]

Impulsivity and Asceticism

Daniel Akst in his 2011 book on self-control wrote, “Exercising self-restraint can be depleting, yet it can also be ennobling.” The ennobling quality of self-restraint is something the fathers knew quite well. The Greek word for self-control, ἐγκράτεια, means continence, temperance, or sobriety by containing, rather than releasing through impulsivity, whatever passes through one’s mind. Saint Basil the Great in his letter to Ourvikio, refers to self-control as “denial of the body and confession to God…, to yearn for nothing, to not be stirred to passion by what the eye sees and the ear hears.” … [Read more...]

Temptations and Impulsivity

Oscar Wilde famously wrote, “I can resist anything except temptation.” His humor underlines an important truth in the exploration of impulsivity. Impulsivity is not normally operative in all aspects of one’s behavior. In some areas of life, even impulsive people may demonstrate behavior that is commendably regulated and self-controlled. After all, we witness the impulsive gambler who is otherwise industrious in his work and family life or the one given over to drink who is kind and generous with others. In their research, Eli Tsukayama and Angela Lee Duckworth argue that common examples of … [Read more...]

Remembering Impulsivity

The American Philosopher John Dewey once remarked, “Time and memory are true artists; they remold reality nearer to the heart’s desire.” Unfortunately, in the case of pathological impulsivity, time and memory can become graffiti artists of the lowest caliber vandalizing the beauty of the soul in predictable, yet regrettable, ways. An impatient perception of time accounts only for part of the pull that the object of obsession has over the impulsive. Another significant portion of the attraction comes not from the object itself, but from the associative memory—“the countless images, imported … [Read more...]

Time, Patience, and the Impulsive

Tempus fugit, a phrase commonly inscribed on antique clocks, comes to us from the poet Virgil’s Georgics. In its original form, it served as an ode against sloth and procrastination. However, for the impulsive, time is something as fleeting as sand slipping through an hour glass. In an impulsive context, time is irretrievably connected to immediate gratification that must be seized before the moment is lost. The person shackled by impulsivity is constrained by the one variant of time that matters—the present. Deutsch and Strack posit that “impulsive processes are myopic and that it takes … [Read more...]