Life for Sarah (not her real name) had been about “living in the moment,” doing whatever felt good, whenever it felt good. In early high school this had meant eating whatever she wanted, staying up late, and acting crazy with friends. As she advanced in school it meant getting drunk, doing drugs, and having sex. At the time that I met her life had become unmanageable and her reckless behavior was destroying her world. Her impulsivity had been a major factor in her sinful choices. Yet, what characterized Sarah’s journey to addiction is not so different from what characterizes many of us. Impulsivity is a character trait in us all.
Impulsivity is the tendency to act on a whim, “displaying behavior characterized by little or no forethought, reflection, or consideration of the consequences.” It’s responding to that urge to say that hurtful thing without regard for another’s feelings or potential consequences. It’s the surrender to the desire to eat that extra piece of pie simply because we want it now. It’s the “impulse buy,” or the “impulse move.” The desire for pleasure in the impulsive heart can over-rule self-control.
Impulsivity occurs early in the process of addiction. At this stage escape from pain, pursuit of pleasure, indulgence in desire is all that matters. Impulsivity will eventually turn into compulsion, but within the early stages it appears as a harmless self-indulgence, or as “just having fun.” As the consequences become more serious the lack of self-discipline will become a debilitating factor leading to full-blown addiction.
Many of us know about these responses and attitudes. We know what it is to be ruled by our desires to such a degree that they determine our behaviors. We know what it is to disregard consequences and choose in spite of our better judgment. This feature of our common personality is one of the leading characteristics of an addict. While we may not all be inclined to drink away our sorrows, or abuse substances for a good time, we know what it is like to give in to our desires without much hesitation or self-control. We know what it is to be impulsive. In fact, some of us are so impulsive now that while we aren’t presently addicts we are not too far from the path. In fact, we may be addicted to all kinds of other things that are more socially acceptable: food, television, shopping, social media, etc. There is an addict in all of us, and our common impulsivity is evidence of our potential for similar sins.
We can all be impulsive. A pattern of impulsivity exposes us to the potential to develop an addiction, but even if we don’t it is important to observe our similarities with our brothers and sisters. We are all addicts at one level, and our impulsive behaviors are reminders of this common temptation.