Surviving Transition: Impulse Power


Touch a hot object. Get burned. Yank awayon impulse.

This is healthy. It sets a preconditioned response in the brain to avoid hot objects. A natural safety measure of the human mind. However, not all impulse reactions are useful.

photo by j4yx0r via Flickr (CC)

photo by j4yx0r via Flickr (CC)

Every time your boss hands out minor criticism you feel heat rush to your cheeks. It becomes difficult to think straight. Anger roils inside, suppressed (if you want to keep the job), pent up emotion and frustration cling for hours, or days, and you believe you hate your boss.

This is also a preconditioned response and since its long term application is likely to harm your ability to work and find happiness in what you do, it is an unhealthy one.

Was there a critical parent in the past? A teacher? A close friend, always mocking every minor misstep? Whomever it was, the experience of dealing with them created an impulse: Whenever someone close or in authority criticizes me, I become angry inside, but because they are “in charge” or “a friend,” I repress it.

It then lies there and eats away at happiness like a swarm of maggots on garbage. Vivid, yes, yet if this or something similar is familiar, then it is also accurate.

We all carry certain preconditioned responses based on our life experiences. Some come from childhood, a time when we lacked the coping mechanisms or life experience to manage events in a healthy manner. Others are based on unjustified opinions or unquantified stereotypes.

stereotypes by ojbyrne via Flickr (CC)

stereotypes by ojbyrne via Flickr (CC)

Blonde women are airheads. Men only want sex.

Neither of these statements is true, but I’d bet, depending on your gender, you agreed with at least one of them the instant you read it – and then a moment later corrected the thought. Wonder why?

When faced with information, events, and choices, our brains are hardwired to act on a hair-trigger – a preconditioned response happening in a fraction of a second, regardless of truth or usefulness. This is part of our survival instinct – think fast and the odds of survival are increased dramatically. However, we are no longer dodging into caves to avoid hungry pterodactyls (and if you are, tell me in comments because I’d love to hear your story).

In the modern world, impulse reactions not directly related to safety, (don’t touch hot without protection, get out of the way of moving trucks), are dangerous to our health and happiness.

When I was taking Bob Mayer’s Warrior Writer course he mentioned that he never responds to emails immediately. He reads them, saves them, and then comes back to respond at a later time. By doing this he avoids falling prey to impulse – giving the mind time to digest the information received and formulate a response.

Ever wanted to take back your words, spoken or written? Been caught in saying yes (or no) without thinking about the long term impact and coming later to regret the choice? We all have done these things, because when faced with a choice our minds feel a sense of immediacy – if I don’t do something Right This Second the pterodactyl will get me. *smile*

Here are three tips on how to gain power over unhealthy impulse reactions:

  1. A moment of pause saves a thousand apologies: Preconditioned responses happen in about .3 seconds, they cannot be consciously stopped. By taking a moment to breathe and let the initial burst of emotion pass, we gain the opportunity to respond intelligently, rather than by impulse. It is easier to give oneself a moment than it is to undo a hasty response.
  2. Seek Clarity: Perception, not knowledge, initiates impulse. Did your teen come home angry and yell at you without visible cause? Will yelling back help? Probably not. Give a moment to let the emotion pass then seek clarity: “Hey, I can see you are upset. Want to tell me about it?” Seeking clarity and understanding not only shows intelligence – it shows others you care, improves relationships,  and increases the odds of making successful choices.
  3. Learn your hot buttons. Does criticism make you angry every time? Seeing abandoned socks on the floor pisses you off? Rain always dampens your mood? Why? – this is a powerful question to ask. Once we understand what triggers an impulse response we then have the capability to replace it with a healthier one.

Have any other tips on handling impulse reactions? Ever find yourself thinking: “Why do I always react like this?” Had to run from a pterodactyl? *wink* I’d love to hear your thoughts.


About Gene Lempp

Gene Lempp is a writer blending elements of alternate history, the paranormal, fantasy, science fiction and horror for dark and delicious fun. He unearths stories by digging into history, archeology, myth and fable in his Designing from Bones blog series. “Only the moment is eternal and in a moment, everything will change,” sums the heart of his philosophy. You can find Gene at his Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, WANATribe, Google+, Pinterest and StumbleUpon.
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12 Responses to Surviving Transition: Impulse Power

  1. Boy, the hot thing with the boss scolding is totally me. But once he walks away, I can usually laugh about it. For instance, yesterday he scolded me for bringing in donuts that were “basically all alike” and “boring”. He said (with a straight face) that when we have guests, we need to have “pretty donuts”. That is SO going into a novel. At the time I got hot, but it was also funny. Now it’s just funny.

    So I guess what I’m saying is I still have that initial rush of reaction – but can usually jolly myself out of it, one way or another. Great post, Gene!

    • Gene Lempp says:

      The boss scolding is one I had to deal with as well, although maybe with a bit less humor for some years. Sat here laughing over the doughnut incident, for us it turned into Confection Wars, with everyone trying to out due the others – yummy way to wage war, but a bit ludicrous in hindsight – bit of novel material there.

      Definitely writer material to be found in impulse response, both our own and other peoples – those pretty doughnuts are going to be provide sweet service for you 🙂

  2. Marcia says:

    My dad used to compare me to my sisters – ‘I should wear my hair like they do, I should trim my nails like they do, I should dress like they do.’ He tried to totally squash my individuality and control my behavior. And it continued until he passed away 6 yrs ago. All he did was make me angry with him and feel as though I wasn’t good enough. After that, whomever scolded me, shunned me or criticized me got a very emotional response from me. That is, until I matured and could repress my emotionality. My sister’s learned their critical behavior from my father and they still thrust it on me from time to time but I stopped taking their criticisms to heart a long time ago. Those barbs have little to do with me but more to do with their personality problems.
    Still, I have to stop and think before reacting. My husband loves to make life easy for me by doing everything for me. I used to translate that into, “he doesn’t think I’m capable”, which was the wrong impulsive thought. Now I just let him do things for me, with a smile, if that’s what make him happy. He really does know how capable I am…and so do I. That’s all that matters
    I guess maturity and experience, along with self awareness, help you move past those emotional impulses so we can strengthen our self images and train ourselves to react differently. As you said, Gene, taking a moment to consider our reaction can change the circumstances from negative to neutral.

  3. I never learned these tips until after I was in therapy. The first one is the most difficult to learn, and sometimes it takes the help of another knowledgeable person to know your hot spots. Sometimes fear that turns to anger can be turned appropriately, and every once in a while a person has to blow it off, like a teapot of boiling water. I found a collection of old, clay pots perfect for the job. You have to throw them hard and they make lots of noise when they break—and there’s plenty of time for considering why while you clean up the mess.

  4. Like Karen I never learned these tips until therapy. I think another pervasive one for me is “Be Sure You Are Rightt.” I hear that in many permutations, even in the blogosphere from writing gurus telling us to write faster, write more, be better. The subtext there is that if you don’t do it THIS way, you are doing it the WRONG way. That’s the one I have to fight. I have always had to be right, but there is no right way when it comes to writing. We all have our own voices, our own stories, and our own lives that need to be balanced with our writing lives. This has been tough for me. When I feel like I’m doing it “wrong,” I feel anxious. Thank goodness for people like Marcia Richards and you and Jami Gold and Amber West who remind me it’s okay to take it slow. There is no race. Not really. Only in my head.

  5. susielindau says:

    Ritalin…. 🙂 Impulsivity varies among adults. This is great advice except when blind sided. Then we just have to do our best to keep our emotions under control and nod our heads and let it out later….. in the parking lot or in the shower or in the car! Hahaha! I am a pretty happy person that has pretty wide parameters, but no one is in control all of the time.

  6. “Once we understand what triggers the impulse . . . ” Yes, that’s the hard part.

    I like the idea of taking a step back (a pause) and looking for some deeper meaning from either the perpetrator, or within myself, before offering some kind of response. It’s easier said than done, but I’m getting better at it. Ten years of marriage is starting to improve that ability. (ha)

    But, I still want to smack those screeching kids in public. No amount of analyzation is going to reprogram my trigger response to that annoyance.

    Thanks for the thoughts to ponder.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Marcia: Sadly, there are many parents out there that feel it is their duty to crush individuality as a “favor” to their children. Often (and I have talked to many people on this subject) they feel it is a way of keeping the child from the disappointment of trying and failing at things “above their reach.” Sometimes though – they are just being jerks (typed that three times as stronger words…). I’m happy that you found a “good man” that has helped to heal the pain and show you the love we all deserve. As for your sisters, well, have a few family like them, we don’t speak anymore – the best impulse control of all is silence 🙂

      Karen: Clay pots are a fun idea – those little ones are fairly inexpensive at Home Depot. When I was younger, I used to go hiking and find a big stick then use it to knock the dead branches off of trees – call it therapeutic pruning 🙂

      Renee: There IS only one way to write – your way. Let me point you towards Alexandra Sokoloff who often says that exact thing. The only wrong way to write is to decide not to write at all. Be the Best Renee you can be – Write the Best that Best Renee can write: That is the Right Way, for you 🙂

      Susie: LOL! Impulsivity does indeed vary and there is nothing wrong with venting steam in a healthy manner. I have found though, for those of use who tend to be more impulsive, that understanding the source of the impulse helps to cut down long term stress and improve happiness. Thanks for the smile 🙂

      Patricia: Indeed, it is both hard to change the trigger and to delve inside to find it. However, it is well worth the effort. Have to say that marriage, and raising daughters, has helped tremendously in learning to control impulsive reactions. When drama surrounds you, adding to it as the only guy is generally a bad idea – although uncontrolled children in public bugs the heck out of me too. Thanks for the great comment 🙂

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  8. Jenny Hansen says:

    Understanding your hot buttons (and your spouse’s!) goes a long way toward happiness, in my humble opinion. I’m a flash and burn temper if I’m irritated and a silent stewer when I’m REALLY mad. I tend to suck in that first impulsive response when I’m angry because I know it will be vile.

    Reading or taking a walk or chatting with girlfriends all helps. When I’m really angry, I’ve even been known to clean until the feeling passes enough for me to not be vile. 🙂

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Hi Jen! You are I are similar, I believe – big surprise Wonder Twin *grins* I tend to have a fast temper, but a chew back the first response to give myself time to think and consider the best course, not to spare someone else. Tough love advocate here, but that does not equate to dragon’s fire unless required.

      I tend to read and indulge in a bit of gaming, both of which help. Funny that you clean, my wife does the same. Thanks for the great comment 🙂

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