Impulsiveness: my emotional junk food

23 Jun
Impulsiveness: my emotional junk food


I’ve just come to the conclusion that I tend to be impulsive. That trait seems to characterise many of my behaviours, some of which I’m not very happy with.

One day I will sever the link...

So what is impulsiveness?

Great difficulty resisting offers of instant pleasure or gratification, at the cost of long-term problems. My problematic foci of impulsiveness include:

  1. Food
  2. Attention
  3. Praise

Here are some things I do that are impulsive:

  • Check facebook 25 times a day even though there’s rarely anything interesting on it
  • Search Google within 5 seconds of having any question to which I don’t have a ready answer
  • Rapidly fill out the rest of the Sudoku board when I think I’ve got it, and invariably I mess it up!
  • Say a joke as soon as it comes in my head. I’ve become better at restraining myself over the years, but I still blurt them out and get rather embarrassed sometimes.
  • Click on an Internet link if it looks interesting

Two important features of problematic impulsive behaviours:

  • Lack of premeditation
  • A general awareness that the behaviour is harmful in the long term

Does that sound like you? Many people struggle with what they call “food addiction”, “pathological gambling” or “compulsive gaming”. When we decide to do something about it, we typically target the behaviour itself, removing triggers (e.g. stop buying junk food, uninstall games from the computer etc.), or setting goals for behaviour reduction.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t address the impulsiveness underlying these behavioural patterns. Once you overcome one behaviour, you are likely to be attracted to another quick-fix, instantly gratifying behaviour.

An analogy

Let’s compare impulsive behaviours with snacking on junk food. The impulsive person is looking for pleasurable emotions that are easily obtained, so we can call these “emotional junk food”. Just like physical junk food, emotional junk food gives you a quick boost, but has little nutritional value. If you’re used to snacking on emotional junk food all day, stopping suddenly will leave you feeling under-stimulated and emotionally peckish.

Just like physical junk food, emotional junk food prevents you from appreciating a full, nutritious meal. Never feeling truly hungry, you are never really aware of your emotional needs, and are never satisfied after a snack. You are also less motivated to engage in truly satisfying activities that really fulfil your needs. Have you ever noticed that when you’re eating junk food, you don’t really feel like eating healthy? Conversely, when I eat healthily for a while, I tend to feel less attracted by junk food.

I'm sure there's a carrot stick in there somewhere...

A remedy?

So, what is the remedy for emotional snacking? Having regular nutritious emotional feasts! Don’t worry too much about the impulsive behaviours, instead make sure you know what is emotional nutritious and satisfying, and have plenty of it. Do things you know you’re good at, but make sure they’re in harmony with your values. Otherwise it’s junk food for you (although it might be fine for someone else).

In practical terms, for me this might mean doing any of the following:

  • Write more often: I find it very satisfying, it helps me to organise my thoughts and give meaning to my emotions.
  • Play badminton or table tennis more often: the feeling of mastery and physical activity is invigorating, both emotionally and physically.
  • Listen to classical music: I get some very powerful emotions when I listen to uplifting music, and it helps me to detach myself from the frantic pace of daily life.
  • Eat nutritious food: Since food is part of the things I’m impulsive with, I should apply this part of the analogy directly
What are some things you can do to stop snacking on emotional junk food, and have real feasts every day?

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5 responses to “Impulsiveness: my emotional junk food

  1. morningstarrambles

    June 26, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    I like your analogy! For me, I need to really invest in my friendships to feel emotionally healthy. I can’t just leave a nice comment on someone’s wall or something. I’m trying to develop the habit of praying specifically to know who I might help today or ask to spend some time with someone. Nothing replaces actually being with a friend face to face. Facebook friendship is “fast food” friendship. You might feel a momentary high from someone “liking” your status or commenting, but that passes quickly.


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