First off, a digital high five for those who get the title reference. If you don’t, no hard feelings; like a recently harvested Middle Eastern palm tree, it’s rather outdated.
Anyway, impulse control is a common challenge for both people on the spectrum and those with OCD, and it’s something I haven’t really talked about on this blog yet. It’s kind of hard to describe for those who don’t experience it, but for those who do, resisting our impulses can be kind of like trying not to smile, move, or laugh when you’re being tickled, or trying to hold back a sneeze.
Sometimes the impulse can be blatantly illogical or just plain silly. For instance, when I was a kid I used to lock the door when I was travelling by car because otherwise my brain would start going, “how easy it would be to fall out of the car, all you’d have to do was unbuckle you seatbelt, and step out the door”. It wasn’t that I wanted to hurt myself, just that my brain would fixate on a thought, no matter how absurd, and the urge to act on it would kick in like the urge to scratch an itch. Now, I’m sure I never would have actually jumped out of a moving car, but still, locking the door made me feel safer.
Excessive handwashing is another common one, and something I still struggle with to this day. I’m also not proud to say that sometimes these impulses have compelled me to act in hurtful ways, many of which I still deeply regret.
So, how can we tackle these impulses? For me, the most important step is metacognition; to consciously make myself stop and analyse the thought process itself, and see how ludicrous it is. This doesn’t eliminate the impulse, but it does help in two key ways. Firstly, while resisting an impulse can be very difficult, every time I do so I’m showing myself that I can, and over time it gets easier. Secondly, impulses can be a short-lived compulsion, and by stalling, I give it time to die down, making it easier to overcome. The first few seconds are the hardest; if I can resist it that long, the worst is over.
Like anxiety, impulse control can be an ongoing battle, but I’ve found it’s a bit like asthma; it might not be permanently curable, but it can be managed to the point where it’s impact on my life is relatively minimal.