Before you start reading this, not the sidebar: A Mechanical Issue, Not A Moral Issue! Our impulses are just mechanical not a sign of weakness or stupidity.
THE BASIC RESPONSE, SIMPLIFIED
Use the question “is this a mandatory action that must be taken to solve an actual/real physical threat?”
If the answer is no, then you don’t have to obey the program/impulse/believed- need.
“If I don’t follow this impulse, will there be any real world consequences that I will suffer?”
If it is an "irresistible" impulse, then just practice delaying it for a set period that you can tolerate. Always, just start breathing calmly in the stomach. Those combined will likely help dissipate it or at least tend to moderate the intensity signals over time, from the "training effect" that is produced.
One cannot get what one wants out of life if one is being run by "orders" that are outdated and/or unworkable for your greater good. Your body will often automatically (from its "programs") have you do something it has evolved to do that which lead to better survival in the world 10,000 years ago, where there was extreme dangers that could kill us and where the circumstances were vastly different (the scarcity of a regular supply of food, for instance).
So, we have the choice:
Just go along to "get along" (passively default to the old programming)
To look to see what needs to be updated to adapt to this world and to having a better life.
If you don't do the latter, you cannot possibly (I repeat: "cannot possibly") have a great life.
NO FAULT, NO MORALITY ABOUT IT
"Oh, grow up!" is what we might say to an "out of control" young person...or to ourselves at times. Well, methinks, those people and ourselves "would do better if they knew better" - but they simply don't. They haven't been taught, or learned on their own, what to do and how to do it. could".
I think there is no one who intentionally wants to be the helpless dependent of impulses, which come from a lower brain, functioning more at the level of an animal. But that is the way we are born. It served us well for survival. Over time, however, we developed a higher brain which can do "higher thinking", where it can discriminate more about what is happening and what should be done. With the higher brain we can learn how to choose a "higher" want and/or a better behavior than the unthinking mechanistic impulse might tend to cause.
Certainly, nobody wants to be controlled by the lower unthinking brain. It is characterized, and "metaphorized" as "the monkey mind", Lennie (from "Of Mice And Men"), or Pokeyman (like a plump doughboy waiting around for circumstances or other people to "poke" us or stimulate us as we watch tv and eat junk food or take artificial mind altering substances).
IT IS SIMPLY AN ELECROCHEMICAL COMMUNICATION SYSTEM
The lower brain simply functions as an "association" machine, matching patterns held in the brain to anything that appears to be generally, unintelligently "similar" to something that might be relevant. The neuronal pattern, when accessed, can then trigger "emotions" and "behaviors" via electrical and chemical impulses.
Animals have such impulses and they simply follow out what the instructions (patterns) seems to say. They do not have a higher thinking brain that can further discriminate and ask questions, like "Do I really need to eat the whole pint of ice cream? Yes, I understand that in the savannah there was rarely good sources of sugar and that therefore it served me to eat all I could (which wasn't much, probably not even close to a pint). I understand that no "turn off" limit was installed, since it wasn't needed when I didn't have a big supply. Therefore, I choose to do what is healthier for me..."
The animals (and even us as babies) simply follow the impulses as if they were always to be followed, as if they are demands or commands. But they are not mandatories in most cases, those outside of truly threatening tigers or other real dangers that we MUST act on.
As a human I have the power to think and to choose what to do, instead of being the passive recipient of an impulse that is in control of what I do - and largely firing off "programs" that are outdated and do not serve present needs.
Impulses can of course be appropriate in that they serve our best interests. Of course, the impulse to eat is useful when we hunger tells us we need to eat to balance off our blood sugar and to have a fuel supply. On the other hand, I can also choose to delay my impulse, for, say, 10 or 20 minutes, and I'll be just fine - and if I am on a diet I might find that the strength of the impulse has faded by then, just as emotions (which are electrochemical pulses) only last about 90 seconds if they are not reinforced or reinstigated.
I prefer to use the term "impulse management" instead of "impulse control" because an "impulse" is something that happens instantaneously, so we cannot intervene in the middle! Once it is started we can't "control" it. It is strictly mechanical. But we can intervene afterwards once we are aware of the impulse and "think" about it, question it, and implement actions that we have learned work better than simply following the mechanical impulse.
WE MUST LEARN, IN ORDER TO "SEE", AND TO "CHOOSE"
Anyway, impulse control is something that must be learned, as it is not a magically gifted trait we are born with. We must learn to see impulses for what they are: biochemical sensations based on neurological patterns in the brain - strictly mechanical and nothing more. We must also learn to see impulses for what they are not, as they are not commands/demands that must be followed - we can choose whether or not to follow them - and therein is where the "magic" lies in self control.
Of course, the reason we want to have impulse control is so that we have the ability to choose to do what is best for us and to create a truly great life and experience of life.
Although an impulse comes to us as a sort of sensation that we "feel", it also contains a form of a "belief", though one we might not be conscious of. Each impulse came to us courtesy of evolution: if we did the impulse we tended to have our DNA survive better. But an impulse that was positive for life 10,000 years ago may not serves us well today, such as the impulse to keep eating all the fat we can so that we will survive the next famine period. Because all these impulses come up that may not be good for use, we are left with a "sorting" problem: we must sort out what is nonsense and shouldn't be followed up on.
So, now, if one is impulsive, one still must control his attention long enough to learn some of the basics (of beliefs, of thoughts, of the behavior chain, how the body operates, and what actions are better choices). We tend to learn these randomly and some of us have good influences that help us do it more rightly but many of us do not. Note that whole thought disciplines (from Buddhism and Vipassana to ...) dedicate themselves to having one learn not to believe their thoughts (from the primitive lower mind) or react to their sensations, and to gain the composure/equanimity to be able to make choices that are good for oneself. In those, we learn to do "calming", "centering" breathing, so that our higher brain is more able to function to overrule some of the erroneous "thinking" of the lower brain. (But note that they are about truth and seeing it, not just breathing.) Given that there is alot to learning impulse control as part of self control, I am seeking herein to give you some perspective and understanding from which you can then choose to go further and to follow some of the paths I've set forth.
GENERALLY IT IS ABOUT INTELLIGENT CHOICE
Except for high emergency impulses and extreme needs, we can choose to listen to our impulses and see that they are not necessarily valid in today's world - though they were helpful in caveman days.
And I can then choose not to obey the impulses, asking "is it in my best interest to let that impulse determine my behavior?" Once you get into the habit of not obeying certain impulses it will be easy - and your life results will be dramatically better!
Know certain facts:
An emotion (electrochemical impulse) dissipates within 90 seconds (if not reinforced and restarted by repeating the thought behind it).
Note that hunger and the desire to eat will often disappear if one waits 12 minutes - and anyone can do that!
Go to the special section Willpower, Discipline, Habits Contents/Links to see how you actually build up a Psychological Energy Reserve and build up your lifestyle to support your feeling the energy and power to easily have the power to do that which is a higher action for your greater benefit.
With the "right answer" (strong statement of conviction) you can choose not to respond to the chemical messenger that is the source of the impulse. And, also, while in your higher brain, you can devise a new pattern to build in, one that is correct - and then install it to replace the original, unthinking pattern (see how the chemical mechanism for survival works, as discussed below, so you understand what is happening.)
WE "WANT" IT, YET WE...
We all want to masterfully control our lives to create what we want in life.
Yet, we allow ourselves to go ahead and do something that we know (or suspect) might do us harm.
But, really, what is actually going on? What is the mechanism that is operating?
We never do things for "no reason".
"Impulses are thoughts that inspire behavior" is one frequent explanation. Basically, as a human I am responding to some perceived need for action to solve a problem and I am using that which I am familiar with as a solution.
The body/mind seeks "survival". It matches patterns stored from past behavior on what worked and what didn't work and then it applies the proper motivator to get us to do what works to promote survival (procreate, fight/flight/freeze, eat, sleep, warmth) or stop doing what lowers survival (driving us to do something else, by having us "feel" bad). Mechanically we are driven to do what is right.
And the limbic system is what does this function. It is unable to express itself in verbal language (the method we, in our cortex, use to "understand" things), but is perfect in its mechanistic response using a chemical language/thought of sorts. (It is like our cortex/higherbrain speaks one native language while our limbic system speaks another language, but neither understands the other. Our objective here is to get the cortex to understand more of the limbic/body "language". The primitive limbic system, using our language translation, says "oh, damn, this is not getting us what we want [survival], we better correct this, right now!" It emits cortisol to make whatever you're doing unpleasant, to motivate you to do something else.
or "oh, there's a great opportunity to survive 'better', let's go for that". It emits dopamine in anticipation of the reward, "motivating" us to seek the reward.
So, all "impulses" are really the body/mind system attempting to impel us to act to get the good chemicals (and the good feelings from them) or avoid the bad chemicals (and the bad feelings). Simple. Mechanical. (Note that there are no mysterious forces or little gremlins inside us. Human beings tend to want to explain things so they 'fill in the blanks', often with nonsensical 'made-ups'. (Read The Believing Brain and Reality Versus The Made Up World.)
So, as a human being, you simply get a chemical as an impulse - but you do not need to obey the impulse. You can overrule it - IF you have a routine and/or concrete statement to make to yourself at the time, one that is immediately available! You can have a "talking to" yourself session, from your "higher being", in a sense.
Or you can rebuild the whole pattern, as below, by developing a whole new sequence and practicing it - called a 'habit'.
Learning what is the right thing to do is part of building accumulated wisdom. But that wisdom does us no good if we are still inclined to do what we know is not good for us.
I, myself, have experienced this in many ways. I've known it isn't a good idea to eat that carton of ice cream (or even to buy it), but somehow my "impulse" has me do it, as if I am a slave to something that I desperately somehow need for "right now". Somehow I still believe the false programming message from my brain. [Since writing this, I have investigated willpower, etc., alot more and am now icecreamless.]
But my thinking center is aware that this is not right. So, the question is, for this piece, "How do I heed the higher brain and stop acting on the lower brain?"
BUILDING A NEW "HABIT"
A big part of the answer lies in exercising a muscle of "impulse control." [Before my further investigations into willpower, I thought that it was just a matter of "toughing it out", but now I know there are other factors that help me strengthen my ability to do what is right.]
We get into a habit of going with our impulses, after which we typically feel "weak-minded" besides suffering the consequences of the errant impulse.
A solution lies in developing the muscle of "postponing gratification" (though it isn't true gratification). It takes repetition to do this.
The process is simply doing this as often as possible, building the postponement muscle:
1. I get an impulse. (To eat ice cream).
2. I, obviously, notice the impulse.
3. I then label it ("mindfully") as something I know is not good for me.
4. I then implement the "postponement" strategy:
I do "The Pause" for as long as I can do it. (Start at one or so minutes and then start expanding from there.)
Then I decide what to do, preferably not doing the harmful behavior (or at least
cut it down or limit it in some way)
This is not something to do once in a while. It is a practice to consistently engage in, for the rest of your life.
The wise person has an alternative with which to fill up the space. If there is no alternative action to choose from, then the default thought or action will persist, much to our detriment - as life will compound against our greater good.
WHY YOU MUST DO THIS
In a relationship, if you act on impulse, I guarantee you will not have a good relationship. There will always be lots of erroneous brain messages (that haven't yet been corrected), some with patterns that are very harmful - and which should never be acted upon. You "know" these, as they are related to anger and fear - you should never proceed on those without first pausing and then answering "is this good for the relationship?" or the general power question "is this the right thing to do?".
Until you learn this and can have confidence that you will implement the interference and and the pause to think, you should not enter a relationship, for you do not have what it takes to make it work - and it'll only bring you more suffering and disillusionment.
Your health and the quality of your life are at stake, also. You can't afford to keep on letting erroneous brain messages dictate your behavior, as if you were a thought-free bozo with no brains with which to make a reasoned choice.
TO DO THIS, YOU MUST LEARN AND BE AWARE OF THIS
A key underlying concept is that you must know that the brain sends out messages that are not revised properly and are often erroneous. If you believe these untrue messages are "the truth", then you have a major misunderstanding that will have you be run by the matched, but random and/or erroneous, content from a recording in the brain.
It is essential that you know that IT IS ONLY A RECORDING, NOT A TRUTH OR AN IMPERATIVE.
USE THE 80/20 PRINCIPLE
Since it is proven that we get most of our satisfaction from the first 20% or so of what we consume, you can minimize the impact of sweets or coffee or whatever else is not good for you, by promising to limit yourself to no more than a maximum limited amount:
Just a taste of it
Go small to minimize the impact
USE PARKINSON'S LAW
Quick, fill yourself up with something else, to displace what else you might be tempted to insert into the same space. Drink a lot of water (or even a skim milk) before engaging in anything that might not be good for you. (See Parkinson's Law.))
Have a substitute easily ready for you to consume or do. (Have a list of alternative activities and/or foods, being sure the latter is on hand.)