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The Link Between Impulsiveness and Addiction

At our addiction treatment centre, we encourage clients to become the author of their lives. We know from research that taking responsibility for one’s life (e.g. being the author of your life) is a key factor in living a great life, drug-free.

Many ways of living do not allow people with addictions to feel they are the authors of their lives. For example, people with addictions are famously labelled as “impulsive”. This doesn’t apply to all, but there are many who seem to do things on a whim, hunch, or half-formed thought. Studies have shown that those with addiction problems will choose an immediate reward of lesser value, rather than wait for a greater reward later. For example, they will take $10 right now, rather than wait a few days and receive $50.

People with alcohol or substance use issues appear to give in easily to temptation or peer pressure. When we ask family members or members of the public how they make sense of this impulsiveness, they often say that persons with addiction are “weak-willed”. Outsiders believe that the brains of impulsive people have short-circuited. It looks as if impulsive people are unable to make a good decision based on analyzing the situation, predicting consequences of actions, and so on. The disease model of addiction plays into this idea, saying that drugs hijack users’ thinking part of the brain, so they can’t make good decisions. Indeed, the disease model tells us that the brain is “hijacked” by the drug, leaving people powerless over addiction.

Such a position misses the deep psychological factors at work in those who are impulsive. It’s too simplistic just to blame chemicals floating about in the brain. Many psychologists and psychiatrists, such as David Shapiro, are not overly impressed with the disease model. Shapiro says that the idea that an impulsive person does not “think” about their behaviour is wrong-headed. When one works with impulsive people, it becomes very clear that they are not helplessly immobilized by their whims. Rather, they often act with great competency. Just think of the creativity required to get drugs when one has no money!

How can we understand this competency? How can we make sense of behaviour in a way that doesn’t reduce a person to being powerless? It turns out that a great deal of impulsive behaviour in people with addictions can be explained by a lack of meaningful living.

Life is Fragmented and Unconstant

Impulsive people act according to whims, to what catches their immediate attention. Shapiro says impulsive people have a special way of making sense of themselves and their world, which promotes this sort of behaviour. One of the important things to understand about an impulsive style of living is that these types of people does not reflect deliberately and actively on their life. They do not see their life in the context of past, present, and future or think deeply about the consequences of their decisions. It’s interesting that most of the public generally believes that “impulsivity” is the reason why people with addictions do not make long-term, considered decisions and, instead, react on a whim.

But suggesting that impulsivity is the reason for addictive behaviours isn’t really an explanation at all. Therapists have commented that one of the things they’ve noticed about impulsive people is that they have no outside interests that capture their attention. Most good clinicians soon realize that impulsive people believe the world has little progression and is not very constant. For them, the world is merely a “series of opportunities, temptations, frustrations, sensuous experiences, and fragmented impressions.”

In other words, impulsive people make decisions because they see the world as merely a series of discontinuous events. Because they see the world in this particular way, decisions are usually made on a whim.

Lack of Long-Term Planning

Because impulsive people do not reflect actively and deliberately on decisions, it follows that they would be highly unlikely to take a long-range view of their lives.

Typically, we hear a client with an impulsive style of living say that “I know I shouldn’t have had that first drink because it always leads to disaster,” but he drank anyway. The fact that he had this thought—that potential for disaster—shows that he was/is aware of consequences, but the important point is that he doesn’t pay much attention to the thought. He had no deep reflection on this idea and its outcomes.

Compare this with happy people who are not impulsive. They usually don’t just act on a whim. Happy people generally have a bigger picture of their lives and see themselves on a journey, growing as a person. For happy people, the world is not merely a random series of isolated opportunities or frustrations like it is for impulsive people. For happy people, the whim or hunch is considered against the backdrop of the bigger picture of their lives. This provides them with a sort of stability. This stability demands that they focus and concentrate on the potential consequences of their behaviour.

Looking back on impulsive people, it appears they don’t to do this sort of thinking. They realize that taking a drink could be disastrous, but they don’t really seem to think very deeply about the consequences. They don’t engage in that active, searching, or critical thinking of their lives.

Concrete and Present-Oriented

A typical example of the impulsive person who does not engage in active, searching, or critical thinking before taking action is the person in addiction recovery who decides to take a drink. They do not play the tape out to the end and recognize the negative consequences that might happen from that drink. It follows that if they don’t really think about the future consequences, they are likely to make decisions based on what is immediately present. Their thinking is, inevitably, dominated by the present.

Present-thinking like this is almost always concrete. This is why many impulsive people see the immediate possibilities in a situation, rather than take a measured and realistic view of it. The person in recovery who takes a drink is seeing the immediate effects of drinking (e.g. relief, reduced anxiety, etc.), but pays little attention to consequences because that’s not right now, it’s in the future.

Impulsiveness is a Problem of Meaning

We’ve been examining how impulsive people make sense of their world. Their world is a series of temptations, opportunities, frustrations, fragmented impressions, and so on. Impulsive people tend to decide and act on half-formed ideas and hunches, rather than reflect actively and deliberately on decisions and their potential consequences.

As Shapiro points out, impulsive people deal with life passively. They are not the authors of their lives. Rather, they react to the immediate situation, without regard for long-term consequences.

We argue that taking control of your life is the key to recovery. Taking control of one’s life means paying attention to what one truly wants and acting upon those values. Impulsive people don’t do this. In a way, they are like pinballs; bouncing off things in life that confront them in the moment.

One of the struggles for people in recovery is expanding their view of their lives and taking into account that they have a past, a future, goals, and a purpose to live out. The whims, hunches, or half-formed ideas can then be put in the context of the bigger picture of their lives. Put another way, they have to begin to pay attention to what they truly want out of life.

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