A behavior is compulsive when you have the urge to do it repeatedly — until a feeling of anxiety or unease goes away.
A behavior is impulsive when you do it without forethought and without considering the consequences.
Examples of Compulsive Behaviors
Compulsive behaviors, also known as compulsions, are typically found in people who have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Examples can include:
- Checking the door repeatedly to make sure it’s locked
- Counting the people you walk by on the street
- Cleaning something that doesn’t actually need to be cleaned, typically in your home
- Rearranging things until they feel just right
- Checking the oven to make sure it’s off before leaving home
Examples of Impulsive Behaviors
Impulsive behaviors are not so closely linked with any specific disorder. In fact, we all do them at times. Examples can include:
- Engaging in sexual activity with someone we wouldn’t if we stopped to think things through
- Buying something expensive that we don’t really need or can’t really afford, without having planned it
- Drinking alcohol in situations when we hadn’t planned to, or would otherwise not want to do
- Taking a fun unplanned vacation out of state, starting today
- Yelling at someone when we’re angry
- Hugging or expressing affection toward someone you care about
- Giving money to someone in need or to a charity
- Eating junk food instead of a meal
We all act on impulses at times. From a mental health perspective, impulsive behavior is not inherently problematic — unless the consequences are problematic. For example, if you impulsively stop for fast food on the way home, the consequences will not greatly impact your life. On the other hand, if you impulsively call your boss to tell him what you really think about him, the consequences might be significant.
Impulsive behavior can be problematic in the context of mental health problems including substance abuse disorders, borderline personality disorder, pathological gambling, and bipolar disorder.
Quiz: Are These Examples of Compulsive or Impulsive Behavior?
Someone texts their ex-boyfriend when drunk, despite having vowed never to do so. This is impulsive because it was not repeated and was not done to relieve a sense of anxiety or unease.
A woman makes a habit out of counting how many peas are in her spoon before she eats them. One day she tries to break the habit but finds it surprisingly difficult. This is compulsive because it’s repeated and difficult to stop.
A man feels the need to eat an Oreo cookie whenever the time ends with the number “6.” This is compulsive because it’s repeated and as such not an impulsive spur-of-the-moment decision when it happens.
We hope this been helpful in understanding the difference between behavior that’s compulsive vs. impulsive.
If you need help addressing either compulsive or impulsive behavior, we invite you to contact us.