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Why It's Hard To 'Just Stop' Impulsive Behavior

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Something I don’t talk about much is how I used to be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. In fact, I don’t think I’ve even disclosed it on The Mighty before — a support network full of people who wouldn’t judge me for that. Because for some reason, there’s a lot of shame that comes with having that diagnosis for me, so I like to pretend my teenage years and early-20s never happened. But they did. And during them, I was the most impulsive person I knew.

And by impulsive, I don’t mean mild things, like blurting out an answer without raising my hand. I mean, I would make up full-blown stories to paint myself as a better person than I was. I would also make up stories to fit in. I lied a lot, I cried more times than I can count when I got caught, I self-harmed, and I even attempted suicide — not because I was depressed, just because I felt like it.

Impulsivity and borderline personality disorder go hand in hand, and a lot of people don’t really understand it. Their advice is, “Well, just stop doing that,” which isn’t all too helpful. Even some of the therapists I saw had the solution of, “Well, just stop. Put suicide off the table. Put self-harm off the table. Just put all those unhealthy skills off the table.” It seemed like no one understood that I literally couldn’t. My brain wasn’t wired that way.

For example, when I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, I would tell a lie to make me fit in with a certain crowd before I even realized it was coming out of my mouth. And once the lie was out, I was too prideful to admit it was a flat-out lie. Even worse, half the time, I didn’t even know why I was lying. At the time, I just wanted everyone to like me and be proud of me.

And it took a lot of therapy for me to begin recognizing, “I just told a lie.” Which, I know, sounds ridiculous because how can someone not know when they’re lying, but with borderline personality disorder, sometimes I honestly didn’t.

Other times, I’d be in the shower and self-harming without thinking twice about it. I knew other people claimed it was bad for me, but I didn’t care. Something in my mind told me I had to do it. There wasn’t a choice.

And the big one — suicide. That one took a long time for me to let go. I’ve attempted suicide three times in my life, and every single time it was impulsive and not planned out beforehand. Something in my mind would get triggered, and it’d cause me to decide to end my life. Sometimes, I was already depressed, sometimes I was shaking with anxiety, but at least one of those times, I just wanted help that I wasn’t getting, and in my unstable mind, the quickest way to get that help was by trying to kill myself. I thought maybe people would take me more seriously if I did.

Because I think what many people don’t realize about impulsive behavior, is that it’s usually a result of not having the communication skills to cope in a healthy way. Back then, impulsive behavior was the only way I knew how to get my needs met. For example, looking back, during that impulsive suicide attempt, it would have been so much easier to just tell someone, “I don’t feel safe and I need help immediately,” but at that time in my life, no one had taught me how to verbalize that in a healthy way. So, I resorted to drastic measures.

And in my experience, I’m not alone in that. I’ve found it’s similar to other diagnoses too. Bipolar episodes can worsen due to not having the communication skills to reach out to a doctor. ADHD symptoms can increase from not having the communication skills to ask for a break or take a walk. In my opinion, almost all impulsive behavior can be the result of not having the appropriate communication skills in one way or another.

So, what’s really helped me to combat impulsivity is learning those skills. I had to slowly learn how to verbalize my emotions in order to find a new way to express what I was trying to get out of that impulsive behavior. Which is a lot harder than it might sound.

When I told those massive stories that were full of lies or self-harmed yet again in the moment without thinking about the repercussions, I had to really start reflecting on the why. Why was I doing that? What was the purpose of that behavior? And how could I get that purpose met in a new way?

For example, now, instead of telling lies to fit in with everyone, I’ve learned how to accept that everyone doesn’t have to like me. I can express how I really feel and what my true interests are, and if people don’t like me after, that’s on them. And learning to accept that and how to verbalize my true interests has had a significant impact on my happiness. Now, I have friends with mutual interests that I can be authentically myself around. That’s powerful.

Likewise, with self-harm, I had to learn how to verbalize the emotions I didn’t want to feel. Even just last week, I had to communicate to my spouse that, “I feel really angry at the world right now and it makes me want to hurt myself.” Putting that out into the world allows people to help me through it and make sure I don’t do anything to hurt myself.

It’s not easy. Learning how to communicate is actually one of the hardest things I’ve had to learn throughout my years of therapy. But it does help curb impulsive behavior, and it does help me maintain healthy relationships, control my mood disorder, and be more successful in life overall.

So, yes. Communicating can still be one of my biggest challenges, even today. But communicating also saves me from doing impulsive things that I’d later likely regret. And I think that’s worth the struggle.

Header image via Liana Monica Bordei/Getty Images

Originally published: September 10, 2020
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