The Key to Impulse Control

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The key to impulse control is a strong and disciplined will, and an unwillingness or inability to delay gratification, forego pleasure, or endure pain is a great predictor of dysfunction.

In many respects, Freud had it right: most of our lives are primarily governed by the pleasure principle. That is, we tend to seek and do the things that bring us pleasure and avoid the things that are painful in some way. But a mature, psychologically healthy life is one in which the cause of life itself is given preeminence and the pleasure principle is willingly subordinated to this greater cause. Accomplishing that task takes a lot of courage, a sound moral compass, and perhaps most especially, a lot of willpower.

In my years of experience as a therapist, perhaps there’s nothing I’ve found as predictive of dysfunction in an individual than their unwillingness or inability to delay gratification, forego pleasure, or endure pain in service to the greater cause of life. Mounds of research also supports this notion. The ability to delay gratification and exercise mindful control over our impulses appears absolutely crucial to our psychological and social well-being. Teaching oneself how to do this is one of the toughest challenges of our character development. It’s one of the “10 commandments” of sound character formation I discuss in Character Disturbance. How exactly do we accomplish this critical task? What does it take to develop a strong and well disciplined will that is guided by principle?

Several years before I began my graduate training in clinical psychology, I stumbled upon the work of an Austrian born American psychiatrist named Abraham A. Low, who was (although inadvertently) a very early pioneer of what would later become the cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) revolution. While he was never afforded much recognition and probably didn’t appreciate his pioneer status at the time or the revolution he was helping to spawn, this seasoned clinician, who worked primarily with patients whose anxieties had reached a point that they required hospitalization (antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication being unavailable at the time), introduced me to a concept that has proven its soundness many times over during my years of work with impaired characters. Healthy and responsible adult behavior, he insisted, is not driven by one’s wants, needs, desires, or most especially, one’s impulses, but rather guided by one’s will. It’s our will that imposes a “yes” or “no” verdict on the things we contemplate doing. It’s the mental executive in charge of our choices. More importantly than that, he asserted that like any other human capacity a person’s will can be developed and strengthened over time through the time honored behavioral principles of rehearsal and reinforcement. Intuitively, I knew he was on to something scientifically that our parents and grandparents had probably always known from experience.

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Some folks have a harder time developing self-control than others. Constitutional factors play a role in this. A child who naturally tends to be anxious and apprehensive is more inclined to “look” before they “leap,” as it were, whereas a child who is naturally more adventure-seeking and is somewhat lacking in what psychologists call “adaptive fearfulness” might very well leap before looking. Nevertheless, a strong and rightly guided will is key to learning how to temper our impulses — and despite how challenging the task is for some folks, with the right amounts of rehearsal (i.e., practice) and reinforcement, we can all learn to be masters of our appetites (see “The ‘Ten Commandments’ of Character Development, Number Five”).

In my work over the years with youngsters struggling with character development issues, perhaps the biggest failure I witnessed among parents was in recognizing and reinforcing their children for willful efforts they made to do the right (and often most difficult) thing. They got chastised all right when they did wrong. But right conduct seemed to be expected of them and was rarely acknowledged and rewarded. Recognizing and reinforcing even the smallest efforts to appropriately handle a situation has a profound effect on a child’s willpower development. It’s not just a child’s successes that need reinforcing. It’s the effort they put forth that really counts, because effort is born of will. It’s in our right exercise of will — our principled efforts — that real “merit” lies. Meritorious behavior, no matter how small, is always worthy of reinforcing. We know from years of behavioral science research that if we want a behavior to increase in frequency we have to reinforce its occurrence. It’s a simple formula with powerful results. Just as it’s true for strength training of our muscles, no will can get stronger unless even the smallest efforts at rightly exercising it are reinforced. Children need such reinforcement delivered externally by their parents and other caretakers. Adults can do the same thing for themselves, using principles I’ve written about in “Becoming a Better Person: Covert Self-Monitoring and Self-Reinforcement”.

In our character disturbed age, perhaps nothing is as important as helping the many among us whose lives are a shipwreck because of their lack of self discipline and who as a result often bring pain and hardship into the lives of others. How we go about addressing the problem is equally important, and that’s what I’ll be speaking to in some future articles.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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