Impulsive vs. Compulsive: The Difference And Frequently Asked Questions

impulsive vs compulsive

Do you ever wonder what the difference is between an impulsive and a compulsive person? An impulsive person will do something right away without thinking about it. A compulsive person thinks about their actions before they do them.

This article discusses how these two personality types can be defined and what they’re like in detail.

What Does Impulsive Mean?

Impulsive means being impatient and acting without thinking about the consequences. Immediate gratification is important to impulsive types, who often have difficulty delaying their own pleasures or desires.

An impulsive person is someone who acts or speaks immediately without considering the negative consequences. They tend to act first and think later.

A person with impulsive behaviors may ruin an important event by blurting out something they shouldn’t have said because they didn’t consider how it would affect the other people involved in the situation. They may say no to an invitation to an event but then change their mind soon after and go back on their decision. 

They often leave things lying around because they forget to put them away. These forms of impulsivity can be caused by a broad range of mental disorders such as ADHD, depression, emotional distress, bipolar disorder, psychiatric disorders, schizophrenia, stress anxieties, grief over a major loss (job/home/relationship), mania, drug or alcohol use, gambling disorder, and other medical conditions. 

Examples of Impulsive Behaviors

impulsive vs compulsive and impulsive examples

Impulsive types enjoy buying things on a whim and will become compulsive buyers who will often spend more money than they can afford. They think that the item they want is necessary to their happiness and purchase it even though it’s expensive and may have adverse consequences.

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    Eating food right out of the bag or jar instead of putting it away in a cupboard can be an impulsive behavior because you’re satisfying your desire to eat without thinking about whether you have other things in the fridge for later.

    Engaging in sexual activity with someone when you know you really shouldn’t is an example of impulsive sexual behavior because you’re not considering how your actions may affect your relationship, emotional health, or reputation.

    What Does Compulsive Mean?

    Compulsive means having an irrational desire to repeat actions over and over again. This behavior can be related to a wide range of disorders such as, OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), body dysmorphic disorder, an addiction, or someone who is emotionally dependent on another person.

    For example, an obsessive-compulsive symptom of a compulsive person repeats behaviors such as hand washing or checking locks to undo feelings of anxiety.

    Compulsive features often involve rituals that a person feels they must perform in response to something unpleasant; for example, obsessive hand-washing can help remove the feeling of having touched something “dirty” when the impulse was not acted upon.

    It may also include obsessive orderliness, repetitive behaviors, or thoughts in one’s head to undo disturbing ones which seem connected with their compulsion and could possibly lead to negative long-term consequences. 

    The main difference between an impulsive and compulsive type lies mainly in the planned thinking process – while the impulsive is more focused on the act itself, the compulsive prefers to plan it out in advance. 

    Examples of Compulsive Behaviours

    examples of compulsive behaviors vs impulsive behaviors

    Compulsions leave an emotional residue that can’t be undone. So when someone keeps washing their hands even though they’re visibly clean, they’re probably feeling anxious about germs and dirty things; sometimes, these anxieties are so intense that a person with OCD may spend hours of excessive cleaning everything around them until it’s perfect because there’s something inside them telling them to do so.

    Similarly, someone who constantly checks windows or doors multiple times before leaving might have an obsessive-compulsive disorder if their thoughts tell them something terrible will happen if they don’t check the door locks one more time. 

    People who are emotionally dependent on a dependent variable, such as parents or spouses, may compulsively check their phone to see if they’ve gotten a text back from that person. These repetitive actions are because they’re trying to avoid feeling anxious and upset by not knowing what’s going on with the other party in the situation.

    Compulsive activities that leave an emotional residue can also include things like repeatedly asking for reassurances that everything’s okay when you know it probably is or having to own every single item in a set of furniture before putting anything else in your house.

    The compulsive type has obsessive thoughts and feelings about their actions, so instead of just doing something impulsively, they typically plan out what they want to do and feel guilty if they deviate from this plan.

    The Similarities Between Impulsive And Compulsive Behaviors

    There are certain similarities between impulsive and compulsive behaviors:  

    1. Some common features are both impulsive and compulsive behaviors reflect underlying emotional problems that could be related to clinical disorders such as depression or an anxiety disorder. This is common in people who struggle with a mental disorder such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), borderline personality disorder, or bipolar disorder.

    2. Both can be related to addiction. For example, someone may be acting impulsive when they drink too much at a party because it makes them feel happy and socially included.

    But, after getting drunk one too many times, they might start feeling guilty about their actions the next day, which could lead to having compulsive urges to do things like swearing off alcohol for good even though there’s nothing terrible about social drinking.

    They might also engage in impulsive actions while under the influence of drugs and alcohol, such as driving while intoxicated, which can increase feelings of guilt and leave an emotional residue that causes compulsions; this is especially true if the person feels that they have to drink or use drugs again just to keep dealing with the emotional residue. 

    3. Both types of behaviors can be a way to cope with overwhelming emotions. This is especially true for people who have difficulty self-soothing and feel overwhelmed when faced with so much stress or anxiety that they don’t know how to deal with it.

    For example, someone might impulsively shout at their friends in an argument even though they’re usually more composed around them, leading to feelings of guilt and having compulsive urges to apologize profusely.

    They may also start feeling tense when thinking about the recent fight that led to needing another one-on-one chat to resolve what happened and keep their thoughts from going back to it, which could create compulsive behaviors like calling their friends multiple times until someone finally answers.

    How Compulsive And Impulsive Behaviors Are Different

    how impulsive and compulsive behaviors are different

    1. Impulsive behaviors can be a way to distract yourself from your emotions, while compulsive behaviors may allow you to feel good at the moment but cause more problems in the long run.

    For example, an impulsive behavior might be going out and dancing with friends even though you have a ton of studying to do, or a compulsive behavior might be staying out all night partying when there’s something at home that needs your attention.

    2. Someone who struggles with compulsive behaviors may feel so overwhelmed with or ashamed of their emotions that they don’t let themselves feel them in any way.

    For example, when someone has a panic attack, they start feeling numb and detached from the world around them instead of crying for help because they’re too afraid of what others might think.

    3. Someone who struggles with impulsive disorders may struggle to stop impulses at the moment. In contrast, someone who struggles with compulsive behaviors may obsess over stopping their compulsions until they finally do when it feels like there’s no other choice.

    For example, someone might keep asking their friends if they looked okay before going out even though nobody says anything negative about their appearance. It makes everyone uncomfortable, leading to impulsive urges to leave because they can’t deal with their friends’ withdrawal any longer.

    Impulse Control Disorders

    An impulse control disorder is a type of mental illness that causes someone to have so much trouble controlling their impulses that it gets in the way of day-to-day life.

    For example, someone with impulsive disorders might feel like they can’t stop themselves from impulse buying things they don’t need or keep themselves from yelling at the people they care about most.

    This could be caused by low serotonin levels, which makes it hard for this person’s brain to tell the difference between something that seems appealing and something that will make them happy in the long run.

    Impulse-control disorders include pathological gamblers, compulsive gambling, compulsive shopping,  compulsive hair pulling (trichotillomania), compulsive skin picking (dermatillomania), and kleptomania.

    Compulsive Disorders

    Compulsive disorders are mental illnesses that cause people to feel like they can’t stop compulsively doing certain behaviors or thinking about specific thoughts.

    This is often characterized by obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which causes someone to spend too much time thinking about different worries and fears, leading to an urge to act out in ways that will calm these thoughts down.

    For example, someone may be afraid of germs or contamination, leading them to take extra long showers and rewash their hands every few minutes until the fear subsides. Compulsive disorders include skin picking, compulsive hoarding, trichotillomania, compulsive buying, and pathological gambling. 

    6 Tips To Control Your Impulsive Or Compulsive Behavior

    1. Set a timer on your phone for 20 minutes and when you hear the alarm going off, take a break from what you’re doing to do something relaxing or fun that helps you calm down.

    2. Take deep breaths when you feel your urges building up in order to keep yourself from acting impulsively.

    3. Tell a friend about how you’re feeling when it gets so strong that there’s no dealing with it by yourself, leading to them being able to help walk you through different mindfulness techniques when calm feels impossible.

    4. Give yourself 10 seconds before acting on any impulsive urge, which can give your brain time to re-evaluate the situation instead of jumping straight into whatever someone is trying to get out of doing.

    5. Get a “compulsive jar” and keep coins in it, leading to giving yourself one coin for every time you catch yourself engaging in compulsive behavior and putting that money towards going out with your friends or buying something you want at a store.

    6. Treat yourself, leading to rewarding yourself after staying committed to not letting impulsive urges sense of control your actions for a certain amount of time.

    Frequently Asked Questions:

    Why do people who struggle with compulsive or impulsive behavior feel that way?

    A: For someone who struggles with compulsive behaviors, it’s a combination of genetics and environment. Someone’s DNA makes them more likely to have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), leading to a pull towards engaging in compulsive behaviors.

    Their environment may be full of triggers that keep them stuck in a cycle where they need whatever relief they get from their compulsions just to feel okay for another day, leading to this person not having anyone helping them through the urges that are causing so much distress.

    What are ways that people cope with these urges?

    Many different things can be used as coping mechanisms for someone who struggles with compulsive behaviors. Someone might use meditation, deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and yoga to help calm themselves down.

    If they struggle with OCD, they might use exposure therapy techniques where their therapist will gradually take them through situations that trigger their compulsions slowly instead of pushing them into experiencing it at full force right away.

    For example, if someone has a fear of germs leading them to wash their hands until they’re raw every time they leave the house, their therapist might work with them to get them started on using the bathroom in public, which is an easier way for them to begin easing into that fear.

    What kinds of disorders are compulsive?

    Compulsive behavior is linked to different kinds of issues depending on who’s struggling with it. Someone may struggle with addictive disorders or alcohol abuse if they have trouble controlling impulses related to drinking whenever they feel stressed out.

    On the other hand, someone may have a compulsive disorder like OCD where they never feel satisfied until all of their tasks are checked off a list, and they’ve made sure everything in a room has been moved by millimeters from where they originally were placed.

    These compulsions can even lead to binge eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia if someone is wasting away in the pursuit of compulsive actions.

    What kinds of treatment are available?

    A variety of different treatments can be used to help people who struggle with compulsive and impulsive behaviors. They might use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to talk about situations that trigger these urges and then retrain their brain into thinking differently when they’re in those situations again. They might also use medications such as antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and mood stabilizers

    Someone who struggles with impulsivity might use dialectical behavior therapy to identify triggers and find healthy ways to cope with them instead of resorting to destructive impulses. They may also practice mindfulness to help them stay in the present moment without giving in to impulses.

    What's the difference between compulsion and addiction?

    A: Someone might say, “Oh, I can’t wait to drink after work,” but someone who struggles with an alcohol addiction makes it out to be a problem when they drink, even though they know they enjoy it. That same person may feel guilty for drinking because of these outside pressures instead of listening to their own feelings about what happens at a bar or restaurant.

    For people coping with compulsive behaviors or addictions, these urges just get stronger if someone tries not to do something that gives them pleasure. Instead of stopping themselves from going through their addictive behavior, they have to keep on going, and their brain starts craving it more and more as time goes on.

    Can you have impulsive-compulsive disorders?

    This is a common question among mental health experts because this disorder is not well known. The short answer is no, and someone cannot be both impulsive and compulsive at the same time.

    However, certain disorders can make it seem like a person exhibits symptoms of impulsivity and compulsiveness at the same time. Therefore, it is important to understand the symptoms of impulsivity and compulsiveness to understand better if someone can be both impulsive and compulsive at the same time.

    What is an impulsive person like?

    An impulsive person might make a hasty decision without considering all possible outcomes of said choice, leading to poor choices. They might also find it difficult to control their behavior around certain triggers, such as drugs or alcohol. For example, an impulsive person might make a quick decision at the grocery store by buying something they do not need because they are tempted by it.

    Impulsive vs. spontaneous

    Spontaneous is often associated with impulsive. Spontaneous means the person acts without thinking (impulsive), but spontaneous people are intellectually curious and thrive on excitement. Impulsive people can be intellectual, but they act before thinking of the consequences, while spontaneous people sometimes make sudden decisions after careful consideration.

    What's the difference between disinhibition and impulsivity?

    Someone with disinhibition or behavioral disinhibition may not be able to hold themselves back from doing things that they know they shouldn’t do.

    For example, a person might keep trying to grab something off of a high shelf because they want it and don’t think about how unsafe it might be for them to reach so high or how it might make other people feel uncomfortable.

    Someone with measures of impulsivity struggles with resisting impulses before acting on those. Facets of Impulsivity often lead to harmful situations and violent behavior. Thus, someone with disinhibition may feel anxious due to their impulses and impulsive behavior. However, they still maintain the ability to be aware and understand what is going on around them.

    What's the difference between impulsivity and irresponsibility?

    Impulsivity can lead to irresponsible actions, but this isn’t necessarily always the case. For example, someone who is irresponsible does not care about their responsibilities, while someone impulsive may not think about their actions before doing them.

    What's the difference between impulsivity and sensation-seeking?

    Impulsivity can lead to misbehaving, but so can people who are thrill-seekers. The difference comes in with how much control someone has over their decisions to act on impulses or seek thrills.

    Someone impulsive does not always have control over their behavior when resisting certain impulses that please them. In contrast, sensation seekers deliberately choose to partake in dangerous activities because they enjoy the/thrill-seeking/thrill-chasing lifestyle.

    Is it normal to be impulsive?

    Some people only show impulsivity in certain situations, such as when they drink alcohol or do drugs.

    For example, a person might go through phases where they struggle with being overly impulsive when surrounded by other people but have no problems controlling themselves when they are alone or in an environment where there are not many triggers.

    Impulsivity isn’t considered abnormal until it significantly affects a person’s quality of life because it can lead to unsafe situations that endanger one’s well-being.

    Can someone be impulsive and compulsive at the same time?

    Someone can be both impulsive and compulsive, but this isn’t common. For example, a person might feel tempted by their impulses to take bodybuilding supplements even though they know that steroids are harmful to their health.

    They may feel compelled to spend money impulsively when shopping because they act on every urge without thinking about consequences. Someone impulsive does not always think through their actions before acting, while someone who is compulsive will follow certain rules in order to control themselves.

    People with Impulsive-compulsive spectrum disorders struggle with following rules or completing tasks to achieve goals because they act on impulses/urges/desires without thinking about the consequences of their actions.

    What's the difference between impulsivity and novelty seeking?

    Impulsivity can cause a person to act in ways that they might regret, but this isn’t always the case for someone who is a novelty seeker. A novelty seeker seeks out new experiences because it excites them and provides them with pleasure.

    In contrast, impulsive people don’t necessarily make decisions based on what would satisfy them.

    What are the signs of impulsivity in men vs. women?

    People generally view men as more impulsive than women, although statistics have shown that women struggle just as much when acting on impulses. Another common mistake that people make regarding impulsivity is assuming that men are more inclined towards violence than women.

    However, there does not seem to be a clear difference between the sexes regarding aspects of impulsivity outside of this stereotype.