Impulse Control

This post summarises chapter 15 of Russ Harris’ “The Happiness Trap”

Urges are impulses to act and can be generated by every emotion. When you become aware of an urge, ask yourself: “If I act on this urge, will I be acting like the person I want to be? Will it help take my life in the direction I want to go?” If the urge isn’t consistent with who you want to be, don’t act on it.

To handle your urges effectively, consider the following:

  1. Acknowledge what you’re feeling: “I’m having the urge to ….”
  2. Check with your values: “Will acting on this urge help me be the person I want to be? Will it help me take my life in the direction I want?”
  3. If your values conflict with your urge, avoid the struggle. Struggling, resisting, controlling or suppressing an urge makes focusing on effective action difficult. Instead, make room for it. Give it enough time & space to expend its energy.



Urge surfing is a simple, effective technique that involves treating urges like waves and surfing them until they dissipate. Like waves, urges start off small and build before peaking and subsiding. Given room, urges, like waves subside harmlessly.

When acknowledging an urge, scan yourself from head to toe and identify the location of the associated sensation. For example, you might identify a sensation in your head or stomach. Once located, a useful distraction technique in keeping with this approach is to picture a balloon attached to it. As you attempt to make room for the urge, picture the balloon inflating as you breathe. The balloon cannot pop. It can inflate as much as it needs to.


Duck Diving (Felton, 2009)

A recent adaptation of this technique referred to as Duck Diving involves the use of imagery to cope with urges to act in unhelpful ways. It involves picturing yourself holding your breath beneath ocean waves (i.e., it is not easy). Beneath ‘waves’ you are not subjected to their force. You can avoid the struggle and observe them closely with ‘friendly scientist’ eyes.

Unlike surfing, this technique has the benefit of not being rendered ineffective by killer ‘waves’. Also, this technique does not simply involve waiting it out (which urge surfing can be seen as). Rather, it is being with the feeling/urge without judgment, noticing its qualities and, seeing how the urge is related to other internal and external events. By looking at it in this broader way, you will become more aware of how these processes work in your life and then be able to make better and wiser decisions based on knowing how things are related. This can become a very useful skill in “aware living” (Felton, 2009).

In a way, these strategies are specific examples of mindfulness – observing without reacting or judgment. With practice, these ideas can be used with problematic emotions, thoughts & reactions.

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