Impulsivity & Anger: Don’t Believe Everything You Think

Cognitive/Emotional Impulsivity

Managing the gap between impulse and reaction,
on the way
to putting a lid on “Response Hyperactivity”

© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
Part of The Challenges Inventory™ Series

Driving Lessons

One of nine areas of concern measured by The Challenges Inventory™, the Impulsivity category measures impulse control, in many ways the indication of our ability to contain (or at least tolerate) the frustration of waiting.

In other words, the condition of our emotional brakes.

  • Individuals who are relatively balanced where impulsivity is concerned manage risk and drive behavior by weighing possible rewards against possible losses — which implies a brief moment of reflection between impulse and action.
  • Some individuals who say they prefer staying with what’s comfortably familiar, avoiding risks and risky behavior are ABLE to make that choice because they have what I like to call a relatively “low idle.”

In other words, activation takes more energy than the norm, so they often spend more time in the gap between impulse and action than the rest of us — the opposite end of the impulse control dynamic.

While I’m sure they’re grateful for small favors, avoiding a ready-fire-aim-oops situation, their lack of decisiveness costs them dearly in some arenas. Same tune, different verse.

  • At the other end of the impulsivity scale are individuals frequently described as “risk takers,” supposedly because they are strongly attracted to and excited by what’s new and different, lured into action by the call of the wild. These are the folks who are normally labeled IMPULSIVE!

I have observed that individuals who are repeatedly reckless have emotional brakes that have never been connected or, in the presence of the excitement of the moment, brakes that fail.

Good news/bad news

Impulsivity, while certainly a nuisance at times, is an important personality characteristic.

Giving in to impulse without pause for reflection can result in some fairly unfortunate outcomes, of course, but it would be just as unfortunate if that trait had been bred out of our species entirely.

We’d probably all be dead!

The trait of impulsivity is believed to have evolved as part of our fight or fight mechanism that kicks in automatically when our lives are in danger.

The survival of our genetic ancestors depended upon their biological ability to respond effectively to circumstances where strength and action needed to be marshaled immediately.

Since our cave ancestors who did not stop to reflect during life-threatening situations were the only ones left alive to pass their genes on to us, it would seem as if impulsivity is “hard-wired” into the human brain.

In appropriate doses and situations, it is actually a good thing. Not only does it help save our bacon when we find in ourselves dangerous situations, it’s what gives life those moments of spontaneity that make it fun to be alive.

Still, depending on its intensity, a tendency toward action with little to no thought or planning can get us in a heap of trouble. That’s usually when others refer to our behavior as impulsive – and it’s usually when life is suddenly not so much fun (for us or anyone around us!)

Impulsivity in the Emotional Arena

Most of us who have an impulsivity component to whatever else is going on with us have a pretty good idea of where our problems with impulsivity are likely to show up.  If not, we can always ask our loved ones – believe me, they know!

But the most troubling manifestations are internal – what we think about what’s going on around us.

A balanced degree of impulse control implies that we are ABLE to take a moment to control observable behavior, of course – and that we DO that – but there’s more to the story.

It also implies that we are able to monitor and moderate our thoughts and emotions with a moment of reflection between impulse and reaction.

That’s where things get tricky.

When our thoughts jump from item to item (often referred to as cognitive hyperactivity – a mind in overdrive or a “busy brain”), many of those thoughts quickly lead to emotional reactions.

As clinical psychologist Ari Tuckman, PsyD, and author of More Attention, Less Deficit: Successful Strategies for Adults with ADHD reminds everybody, some individuals  “tend to feel and express their emotions more strongly.”

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Emotional Incontinence

Impulsivity often hangs out with anxiety – but I’ll bet you’d be surprised to know that it can also be a factor in depression.

It can be part of the profile in any number of the Executive Functioning Disorders, which can make all emotions, positive and negative both, all that more difficult to control.

Challenges with short term memory, for example, can be overwhelming.

They complicate planning and time-tracking, switching gears to get back on track when interrupted, consistent monitoring to evaluate performance on everyday tasks, and general trouble with transitions,

No wonder negative emotions get triggered!

Related article: Predict it to Police It, Police it to PLAN it

Throw in the frustration of having to work twice as hard for half as much (as Dr. Edward Hallowell often says), it’s really no wonder that so many of us end up feeling more irritable and angry than individuals with more “vanilla” brain functioning (no mix-ins, like with the ice cream).

Intrusive EFD symptoms don’t exactly lend themselves to a relaxed disposition either.  This constant state of overwhelm just fuels the fire.

“Feeling chronically overwhelmed can certainly shorten someone’s fuse,” says Hallowell.

“. . . people with [the EFD/ADD brain-style] may feel like they need to defend themselves or justify their actions too often and thereby react more angrily than they otherwise would.”


Individuals who are impulsive tend to have difficulty “inhibiting” their emotions, which means that they have difficulty quieting their emotions when they occur (i.e., “self-soothing”).  Individuals who are impulsive also have difficulty controlling the impulsive thinking habits that send them spiraling down emotionally, frequently leading to depression as well as anger and frustration.

But here’s the kicker: we ALL do that until we have developed thinking habits that lead us in the other direction.

  • Remember, the brain is, essentially, a pattern-matching organ.
  • Until we have built new pathways to more productive thoughts and behaviors, it will always take the easiest path – the one we have already developed.
  • For MOST of us, that means the ones we developed to keep us “safe” — as a result of negative experiences in our past.

Related article: Overcoming the bad to get to the GOOD

How to move away from anger & frustration

There are various cognitive behavioral techniques that help individuals with the ADD/EFD brain-style to resolve their anger problems and “lengthen their fuse.”

They work for everybody else just as effectively.

When I help clients create (and stick to) strategies and systems that let them stay on top of their respective games, a lot of things get better.

  • They find that they handle their responsibilities with a great deal more calm and resolve, primarily because they feel overwhelmed less often — so they are at the effect of the winds of the emotions of the moment far less often.
  • Their colleagues and loved ones report that they are a lot more pleasant to be around as well.

It’s also important to establish healthy lifestyle habits, such as getting enough sleep and making sure you are physically active on a regular basis to calm down baseline stress levels, so the threshold of anger is farther away.

Know your Triggers

To target anger directly, the most effective technique is to identify the situations that trigger anger most often. I brainstorm with my clients to help them come up with different interpretations for these events, giving them more “response options” instead of going down the same ole’ rabbit holes.

I usually have to keep reminding them NOT to believe everything they think!

When you’re working by yourself, get out your notebook (or, even better, your datebook) and make a list of alternate interpretations for common thoughts that rarely lead you down positive pathways.

As I’ve explained in former articles in the Executive Functioning Series, the act of bringing something to consciousness begins the process, and every time you use an alternate pathway it strengthens.

Eventually it becomes your brain’s easy pathway.

As a simple example:

Your partner keeps asking whether you took out the garbage, emptied the dishwasher, shut the garage door, or moved the wet clothes from the washer to the dryer.

Your automatic interpretation might be
that s/he thinks you are a flake, irresponsible, or that
s/he is trying to control you.

But there could be many other interpretations that have little to do with you.

Your partner’s short-term memory might be a tad kludgy and s/he might be trying to keep things on track personally, for example.

What you are perceiving as a tone of anger with you
could just as easily indicate frustration with him or herself.

By moving away from personalization, there is no need to defend yourself from perceived “accusations” — and it is so much easier to decide how to respond in a fashion that won’t lead to defensiveness and anger.

Refusing to Play

When you know your anger triggers, you can also choose to avoid situations that push your emotional buttons — like political discussions with people who hold different opinions and perspectives. If you don’t engage in conversations of that type, you don’t need to worry that you will “take the bait!”

A wonderfully graceful way to end political discussion without feeling like a wuss is to come up with a statement of agreement that disagrees at the same time — and memorize it. Something like the following:

“I’m sure we both want the same things,
we just have differing opinions of the best way to get there.”

Then change the subject or go to the bathroom!

The best use of anger

Once we have disconnected from our knee-jerk reactions, anger can become a very useful emotion, alerting us to situations where somebody is taking advantage of us or pushing our boundaries.

As Ari Tuckman reminds us,  “We don’t get into trouble by having feelings;
we get into trouble by how and when we express those feelings.”

Keep coming back — the “back-stage, under-the-hood” stuff is central to what I will explore with you in the rest of the Impulsivity articles, as I examine a great many questions raised by the points in this article. Those questions and others will be addressed in articles to come – so stay tuned.  Meanwhile, check out some of the linked articles above and below.

BY THE WAY, if you will let me know where your struggles with impulsivity lie (in the comments section below), even if I don’t have time to respond to your comment at length directly, I will make it a point to include suggestions targeted specifically for YOUR challenges  in the ongoing Series.

Get in touch if you’d like more personalized attention.
I still have a few openings in my schedule, and
I’d LOVE to be your coach!

© 2012, 2015, 2017, all rights reserved
(from my upcoming book, The Impulsivity Rundown
Check bottom of Home/New to find out the “sharing rules”
(reblogs always okay, and much appreciated)


There is still time to pop over for the final day of blogger/author/publisher Sally Cronin‘s virtual End of Summer BASH!

There is still ONE more day to meet and mingle with an amazingly supportive blogging community, enjoy the music, download free books, get loaded on hangover-free virtual cocktails, and TinkerToy‘s favorite, SNACKS!

Sally has received so many music requests that she will be scheduling a couple of music posts later in the week for tracks that she could not feature over the three day party, including everyone’s links and books etc.

There’s still time for you to add your own into the final party post later today. So throw on your favorite virtual party duds or come as you are – meet and mingle with your new best friends.

In case you missed the first two days:

As always, if you want notification of new articles in the Impulsivity (or more general Challenges Inventory™) Series – or any new posts on this blog – give your email address to the nice form on the top of the skinny column to the right. (You only have to do this once, so if you’ve already asked for notification about a prior series, you’re covered for this one too). STRICT No Spam Policy

IN ANY CASE, stay tuned.
There’s a lot to know, a lot here already, and a lot more to come – in this Series and in others.
Get it here while it’s still free for the taking.

Want to work directly with me? If you’d like some one-on-one (couples or group) coaching help with anything that came up while you were reading this Series, click HERE for Brain-based Coaching with mgh, with a contact form at its end, or click the E-me link on the menubar at the top of every page. Fill out the form, submit, and an email SOS is on its way to me; we’ll schedule a call to talk about what you need. I’ll get back to you ASAP (accent on the “P”ossible!)

Related articles right here on
(in case you missed them above)

Related articles ’round the ‘net

BY THE WAY: Since is an Evergreen site, I revisit all my content periodically to update links — when you link back, like, follow or comment, you STAY on the page. When you do not, you run a high risk of getting replaced by a site with a more generous come-from.


About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

128 Responses to Impulsivity & Anger: Don’t Believe Everything You Think

  1. Pingback: ABOUT ADD Comorbidities | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  2. Wow.. Lots of great advice and info here to digest .. And enjoyed reading Madelyn.. 🙂 I chose this post as the title interested me.. We so easily can get caught within the trap of our thoughts that blow off steam all too readily..
    So this sentence of yours really jumped out at me..
    “Until we have built new pathways to more productive thoughts and behaviors, it will always take the easiest path – the one we have already developed.”

    I have seen this over and over again.. Working as I did once upon a time within the textile industry, people I came into contact with on a daily basis would soon blow a fuse.. And I was often asked how I kept cool and calm..

    Learning to see Anger, frustration and emotion, seeing the triggers and buttons people use in order to ignite another, I learnt early on as I studied the behaviours of people.

    When you break that pattern, and speak calmly, smile, and at time just not engage in their energy, it soon defuses their anger..

    Having to work with a hundred women on lines of production had a knock on affect.. To the point that those who would swear profusely at anything, anyone and everything, when they saw me coming I would often here the ring leaders say, Watch you mouth,, Sue’s about.. She doesn’t swear..

    Making a point that one doesn’t have to engage back in the verbal.. to get results.. 🙂 Not engaging meant they took a look at themselves.. all be it for a brief moment, to check their behaviour’s and alter it to be respectful..

    Always your posts so enlightening Madelyn.. Sorry I have not enough time to read more posts today.. I am catching up again.. in our never never world of never catching up.. ❤

    Love and Blessings and thank you for your Visit and comment.. really enjoy your company.. ❤


  3. Pingback: Impulsively and Anger – SEO

    • Thanks so much for the reblog!

      In my experience, the computer field attracts a lot of EF-type folks. The tend to manage using hyperfocus, and I know it’s got to be annoying to be interrupted when they’re desperately trying to solve a problem or fix a glitch. Even the normally quiet and even-tempered types can explode after a bit. Thanks for sharing this explanation with your readers.


  4. Wonderful. Thank you! Sorry, i myself got no reblog-button, had to use “Press this”! ,-) Michael

    Liked by 1 person

    • Whatever works, I’m grateful. Press this often works better even IF the reblog button is working – and many bloggers choose it for that reason. I’m not crazy about how WordPress truncates the post anyway.

      IN ANY CASE – thank you again for reblogging, especially for taking the time to use a work-around.


  5. Lucy Brazier says:

    SO interesting and helpful, as ever. Your posts always make me think about not only my own reactions and responses to the world around me, but also remind me that other people are wired up differently to me. I just love the phrase – ‘same tune, different verse’, it just says it all, perfect.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. dgkaye says:

    Sorry I’m a bit behind in visiting M, I’m frantically trying to get my book ready for beta reading in a week or so. This was just another fabulously informative post. And I’m so glad I don’t fit into that impulsive category. I’m still in charge of using my own brakes, thus far! 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Christy B says:

    Our brains are so complex, Madelyn! One moment we are cool and calm, the next moment anger is in full force… those triggers require us to be ready to “see” them and willing to work on response options for them.. Thank goodness for therapy to help us through it. Another quality post, dear friend!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Bernadette says:

    Madelyn, thank you again for an amazingly helpful post. My husband has been doing the reminder thing and I have been reacting in classic fashion – getting aggravated! Hopefully I will remember what I read here and just move along.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Bernadette. My Dad was my training ground for that one. Once when I was a teen he was aggravated because I wasn’t rolling my long hair “right” – and the man wore a crew cut for his entire life. 🙂 🙂

      Sad to admit that I was WELL into adulthood before I realized that all his “reminding” and “nagging” was simply his way of “protecting” me – offered in love. Once I donned my Dad-translator- helmet and “made him right” he actually eased off. AMAZING how that works.


  9. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    Madelyn Griffith-Haynie takes us on another trip into our minds and behaviour.. by trip I mean a good one, as it helps us identify whether we are impulsive or the other end of the scale which is slow to act.. Madelyn shares that this is part of our fight or flight mechanism and that if Cavemen and women had not had this in abundance to deal with their dangerous existence, mankind is unlikely to still be here..But in our modern world how is this manifecting itself? If you constantly feel frustrated and angry it could be that you need to examine where in the spectrum you are and find strategies to dismantle the resulting anger. #recommended.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. A lovely article, Madelyn. I have shared to my sisters on Facebook. It is amazing to me how I can be calm and collected and have that moment of reflection with impulsive behaviour in all areas of my life except, recently, in dealing with Greg. His is a bit of a sulky teenager and I often leap before I look resulting in a run-in.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not amazing to ME, Robbie (and thanks for sharing and for the comment). MOST parents tend to develop pretty short fuses by the time their kids become teens – did you know that? And most of those are parents of neurotypical kids. Teens are tough.

      Don’t be so hard on yourself, my friend. I’m sure you are as amazing with Greg as you are with Michael – as quick to a mend fences as you seem to believe you trample them. The 24/7 job of parenting is just plain challenging PERIOD – and yours truly is the only perfect parent I know (the one with the imaginary kids!).

      Are you familiar with Winnecott’s concept of “the good enough mother?” A few oopses help your kids develop their own coping strategies – which they will need throughout their lives.

      The phrase “good enough mother” was first coined in 1953 by Donald Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst. Winnicott observed thousands of babies and their mothers, and he came to realize that babies and children actually benefit when their mothers fail them in manageable ways.
      ~ From “The Gift of the Good Enough Mother.” Check it out.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Such good advice!! And so true. Thank you! 💓💓💓

    Liked by 1 person

  12. paulandruss says:

    Dear Madelyn, I always feel using the word post does not do your work justice, they are (I was doing to say chapters but I am going to amend that to chapters in a Repair and Maintenance Manual for the most important vehicle we have Ourselves. There is so much in a single article that you effortlessly string together (moving seamlessly from one subject to another) that resonated with me.

    When I headed a team I expected my staff to talk about me behind my back. I was the boss. I made unpopular decisions. It wasn’t personal they were letting off steam. And I far preferred it behind my back because we all say unreasonable crap we don’t really mean about people at various times. Another was about being overwhelmed and letting anxiety get on top of you. Although it is hard we can change anything if we just concentrate on the first step instead of thinking about the whole journey ahead. So great words of wisdom! Paul X

    Liked by 2 people

    • Paul, I am SO touched. I don’t believe I have ever received a nicer compliment. I am going to print it out and hanging it on the wall of my office for “those days” when I wonder if I’m making much of a difference at all with my words.

      Some day I do hope to get it together to turn posts to chapters in a published book (or ten 🙂 ) – and BOY do I know who I’m going to ask to write the editorial!!! (no worries – not likely to happen any too soon – lol – ADD here, remember)

      Liked by 2 people

      • paulandruss says:

        Dear Madelyn here is something else to pin under it. I am a terrible old cynic but every time I read one of your articles I come away feeling refreshed and hopeful for the world.

        We are educated in everything: Maths, History (pick a subject any subject) but the one thing formal education neglects is self awareness and socialistion- we are expected to pick that up as we go along. Yet it is the most complex subject of all.

        You prove time after time a lot of it isn’t rocket science and small changes make big differences. There are attitudes and techniques we can learn to get through life easier and be better to those around us- love a little more, hate a little less, be a little less paranoid (Steady on there! Learn to walk before you run!).

        If I had my way I would abolish all religious education across the world and have people like you teach (let’s call it) HUMANITY to kids from the first moment they entered school. (Did I mention my meglomania?)

        We have tried the old tricks for thousands of years and we still have prejudice hate and war. Isn’t it time to try something new?

        Never doubt you make a difference!

        And of behalf of the rest of humanity….THANKS!
        mgh added white space (double returns between paragraphs) to help with readability for those who struggle with longer strings of text; words unchanged

        Liked by 1 person

  13. John Fioravanti says:

    Reblogged this on Words To Captivate ~ by John Fioravanti and commented:
    Madelyn Griffith-Haynie gifts us with a clear explanation of the link between impulsivity and our emotional responses to events in our lives. Please, read on…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks again – and always – John, for your help spreading the word.

      I didn’t see your name among Sally’s party guests – so jump over and leave a link to one of your articles on her Day 3 Post – and/or add to one of the others, which are still online (all three linked above at the end of the post).

      A lot of Sally’s followers are amazingly supportive writers. I know you know SOME of them already, but I’m not sure you know them all (nor they you).

      Liked by 1 person

  14. updownflight says:

    I liked your advice. Some of it has actually worked well for me, but it took quite a while to put such advice into working action.

    I have bipolar disorder with a fairly stronger leaning towards mania than many people with this illness, so I certainly know impulsivity. but even well medicated I have my impulsive times. I wonder sometimes where the illness ends and my general personality begins.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for ringing in here, underscoring the reality that the best that ANY of us can do sometimes leaves us struggling from time to time. I admire you greatly for doing whatever works to mitigate impulsivity’s challenges – a central feature of your disorder, as I’m sure I don’t have to tell you!

      I have a friend who also struggles mightily with manic episodes, despite being religious about meds, so I know a little about how difficult it is to manage bipolar swings. She was once undertaking an advanced degree to be a research neuroscientist until she could no longer keep up and catch up between hospitalizations.

      I want to underscore my strong belief that YOU BOTH are far more than your personality or your behaviors (as the result of your dx or anything else!)

      Liked by 2 people

      • updownflight says:

        Thanks so much for that, mgh. I appreciate it, especially on a day when my own hubby accused me of being hypomanic when I swear I am FINALLY stable. I couldn’t even do anything spur of the moment romantic without him being worried and suspicious.

        Liked by 2 people

        • You are most welcome. My friend complains of the same thing. Sometimes, she says, she’s almost afraid to be happy, lest she worries everyone around her that she’s about to go over the edge.

          YOU know best whether you are stable (congrats, btw) – hang on to that feeling so you can judge when you are starting to wobble so that you can take actions before you do.

          Liked by 2 people

  15. So much truth in the point of balancing between our impulses and that of good choices. I know it took me awhile to develop thinking habits to control my impulses. I’m proof it can be learned. Great post Madelyn, so much to chew on throughout today.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. -Eugenia says:

    Reblogged this on BrewNSpew and commented:
    Sharing excellent read by Madelyn.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. -Eugenia says:

    Excellent post, Madelyn. Reblogging.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. This is a very informative and cogent article. One has always believed mastering emotional impulses is one of the keys to not only self-mastery, but the ultimate achievement of one’s life goals and realizing self-actualization.


  19. depatridge says:

    Reblogged this on Matthews' Blog and commented:
    A very rich piece I dare say, Madelyn.

    Liked by 2 people

  20. A fabulous and well meaning post, Madelyn and for sure anger and anxiety are part and parcel of our lives and in today’s world everyone is a short fuse but you have rightly said one has to get out and do something that will take the mind away from all these negative things and do what one likes. Thanks for the inspiring and encouraging share. Great post.

    Liked by 2 people

  21. that is the post for me… my brakes are out of order since many moons…and I crash in every wall with full speed ;o)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Tink can get a bit impulsive when people give him attention when we are out. We’re practicing self-control – but it may take quite a bit more time – lol.

      Drop by Sal’s later today (links at the bottom of this post) and leave a link or two of your own. TONS of great bloggers over there, and lots of comment interaction.

      Liked by 1 person

  22. Don’t know about you guys. I am there dancing Flamenco.
    Madelyn, “Change the topic or go to the bathroom” is my standard advice – how did you know?
    Altogether, this is another great article, but I’d like to add that people who are unable to prioritize, can’t sort out their emotions either, and thus become overwhelmed. That’s when going to the bathroom is the best solution!

    Liked by 2 people

  23. Mr. Militant Negro says:

    Reblogged this on The Militant Negro™.

    Liked by 2 people

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