On Being Impulsive

Impulsiveness – action without thought – must surely be a part of our lives to some extent. It would be tough and even undesirable to ponder over our every action. Being impulsive may even be a delightful quality, for example, if you impulsively kiss your child or hug a friend. Being impulsive is part of living life to the full, unselfconsciously engaged with life and humanity. Who wouldn’t want some of that?

While we no doubt appreciate many of our impulsive behaviours, there are others that bring us too much grief, especially around food, of course. Too often we overeat impulsively – without thought – and regret it afterward. A fair bit of research indicates a strong link between impulsivity and obesity, in that obese people, in general, are found to be significantly more impulsive than lean people. (1)

In a couple of studies of obese children, those who tested (in questionnaires and brain scans) as the most impulsive were the most overweight and lost less weight after one year, following a course of treatment. The study authors concluded that:

“impulsivity appears to contribute to the difference between succeeding or failing in attempts to lose weight” and “impulsivity is a personality characteristic that potentially has crucial consequences for the development and maintenance, as well as treatment of obesity.” (2)

So impulsivity is an important concept for us to consider. If you identify with it as a major problem in your relationship with food, do you think that this is just the way you are, and that nothing can be done about it? That’s not true; it’s just that some amount of effort is required in order to intervene and gain control. It’s when you don’t make the effort that you overeat impulsively.

The crucial point is, what sort of intervention do you make? Whenever you notice that you are overeating, do you then fall into self-blame and accusation, along the lines of, “don’t you dare have any more” or “there you go again, you stupid, fat, greedy pig”? (I’m quoting from clients here, by the way, not making these judgments about you myself!)

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