A Piece of Your Mind

Impulsive reactions do more harm than you know

When Mariah arrived at her desk that fateful Wednesday morning, the email was waiting in her Inbox. That was the last thing she wanted to see.

As she continued to read the email that Mike had sent overnight, she got increasingly agitated. With every word, her level of anger climbed a little higher.

Mike should have known better.  How dare he send me such a note?!

By the time she was done reading, the explosions in her head had reached astronomical proportions. She couldn’t contain herself. She was officially pissed.  And she wanted Mike to know how she felt.

I’ll show him who’s the boss!

She hit the Reply button and started pounding away furiously at her keyboard. She kept pouring out all the thoughts flowing through her mind with all the accompanying emotions. She told Mike where to stuff his email and where to jump into. She definitely gave him a piece of her mind. When she was done, she looked at her screen. SHE HAD WRITTEN IN CAPITAL LETTERS, in bold, and changed the font color to red. There was a multitude of exclamation points scattered all over the email. She hit Send.

Mariah’s behavior shows what can happen when emotional impulses are not held in check. Such impulses can rage like a wild fire for a brief moment and then dies. But they usually leave a trail of destruction in their wake. Regret is what follows. Ruined lives and careers may result.

People like Mariah have a very low level of Impulse Control. They’re what you would call “hot-headed” or “tempestuous”. Low levels of impulse control manifest themselves as explosive behaviors, impulsiveness, anger control problems and abusiveness, just to name a few.

What is Impulse Control? In their book, The EQ Edge, Steven Stein and Howard Book defined it as “the ability to delay an impulse, drive or temptation to act”. It involves “avoiding rash behaviors and decision-making, being composed and being able to put the brakes on angry, aggressive, hostile and irresponsible behaviors”. It is a component of Emotional Intelligence (EI).

People with effective impulse control have the capacity to think first, before acting. They consider all the options, which make them more likely to make better decisions and behave in a more responsible manner.

Others like Mariah don’t seem to act in their own best interests. More importantly, this impulsive tendency shows up in every area of their lives. They make poor decisions when under pressure, spend money unwisely and generally have a very low tolerance for frustration.

A few years ago, my connecting flight at Denver International Airport was cancelled. It was the last flight of the day for the airline into San Francisco. As I was pondering my options, one guy (I’ll call him Joe) walked angrily to the airline agent who just announced the cancellation. He started berating her, telling her how important it was for him to get into San Francisco that night. He was completely out of control, cursing and threatening fire and brimstone.

At the end, Joe stormed off to look for a hotel in which he would spend the night. Those of us who remained calm were eventually re-booked on other airlines. We were able to make it into San Francisco later that night. But not Joe; he spent the night in Denver, probably still cursing under his breath as he slept.

In most instances, lacking effective impulse control is an ill wind that blows no good. You throw tantrums and lash out because you're frustrated. In the end, you still don’t have your way. In fact, you end up losing most of the time.

Because of the unprintable things that Mariah sent to Mike, she lost her job after Mike took her email to Human Resources. The company had zero tolerance policy on such things, especially for those who lead teams.

What about you? How do you respond to frustrating and stressful situations? An old Jewish proverb says that “a fool’s displeasure is known at once, but whoever ignores an insult is sensible”. How effective are you at controlling your impulses?

Like most components of Emotional Intelligence, impulse control can be improved with coaching and guided practice. Reach out for help before it’s too late.

A lot in your future may depend on it.