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If you were to look in a thesaurus, you would probably find the words spontaneity and impulsivity listed as synonyms for each other. Both states are unplanned,unconstrained, and governed by natural impulses. To be impulsive or spontaneous is to be flexible, able to bend in a new direction at a moment’s notice. However, they really aren’t the same when examined more closely. Impulsivity is actually the evil twin of spontanaeity.
It’s a sunny day and your best friend calls you in the morning to see if you can take the day off to go on a picnic. If you’re spontaneous, you consider the offer, take stock of what work is mission critical, and decide if your co-workers can cover for you. If all of these variables check out, then you clear it with your boss and you enjoy the day. On the other hand, if you are impulsive, you say “yes” immediately, call in sick, and head off for a day of fun giving no consideration to the long range consequences or who is affected by your actions, including yourself.
Impulsivity is seldom a good thing. It is one of the variables that lead people toward high risk behavior. It sabotages follow-through and leaves good ideas unfinished. It is rash, erratic, and unpredictable. It is frequently present in individuals who have had damage to the pre-frontal cortex area of the brain by way of head injury or stroke. However even without a neurological event, impulsivity is commonly seen in children, adolescents and many adults. There are impulsive shoppers (compulsive shoppers are driven by a different psychological force), people who say whatever comes to mind, or those who find it difficult to stay on task when a new possibility presents itself . Just because one has reached a certain age does not guarantee that impulse control has been mastered. Impulse control takes physical maturity, self-awareness, and often strategies to bring it under control. The brain develops in response to the demands one places upon it. For some, this is requires great effort but the pay-off is well worth it.
Spontaneity, on the other hand, is a good thing. It is enjoying the moment as it unfolds or experiencing something unexpected with open arms. Spontaneity is agile, adaptable, and responsive to new information. It is a willingness to go in a new direction at a moment’s notice. It is a creative burst of energy. However, it’s not completely without restraint. Someone who is spontaneous tends to take a quick inventory of the big picture before deciding to proceed. If this step is skipped, one has entered the realm of impulsivity.
How do I know impulsivity is the evil twin of spontaneity? After working over 2 decades with neurologically impaired individuals, I have never once seen “spontaneity” flagged as a cause for concern in a medical chart. In contrast, impulsivity appears repeatedly as a contributing factor in poor follow-through, inadequate problem solving, poor judgment or the cause of an injury or neurological event itself! We speak of impulse shoppers but not spontaneous shoppers. It’s impulsivity that can cause someone to speak without restraint, hurting someone’s feelings or instigating a fight. If a college student leave a pile of homework to go to the bar with his friends the second they stop by, that’s impulsive! Meeting friends at the bar later when the work is done is a spontaneous reward for a night of hard work. To successfully arrive at that choice takes a degree of discipline, self-awareness, and impulse control.
As a matter of fact, there are certain personality types that are more susceptible to the forces of whim, particularly those that have “E” and “P’ in their type codes (i.e., ENFP, ESFP, ENTP, ESTP). That is because the dominant function in these types is an extraverted perceiving function (S or N), so the dominant function is energized when new external stimuli enter it’s realm. Left unchecked by the auxiliary judging functions of feeling or thinking, the individual will continue to seek more stimuli but never slow down enough to discern if it is a worthwhile pursuit or if following through on other more important activities must trump this new possibility. As a side note, those with dominant judging functions have the opposite developmental goal: learning how to take in more information (increasing cognitive flexibility) to avoid pre-judging thus refining dominant feeling or thinking… but that’s a topic for another blog. However,I am not surprised that the development of the auxiliary function according to type theory occurs around age 15, roughly corresponding to the emergence of pre-frontal cortex skills that also start around age 15 and continue to approximately age 25. You can access that factoid along with many others at the following website called “Cool Brain Facts” . It’s well worth a visit.
So, how does one remain spontaneous but not impulsive? Here are a few general suggestions:
1. When an impulse hits, use a scale of 1-10 to assess how compelling it is to follow through on that impulse. One is “not worth it” and 10 is “gotta have it now!”
2. Have a loosely constructed To Do list that leaves room for some spontaneity but also sets concrete goals for the day.
3. Take time to assess what you did “on impulse” and evaluate the costs and benefits of your actions. Write it down so you give it due consideration.
4. Know your triggers. Identify the tempters and temptresses in your life. Who and what tends to lead you astray?
5. Identify what you personally value so that your actions are consistent with that activity.
6. Have a delay before acting. Count to 10 for the every day stuff. Wait minutes, days or longer if the decision is big.
If you wait to do everything until you’re sure it’s right, you’ll probably never do much of anything. As a self-proclaimed free spirit (ENFP), I have gotten the most pleasure out of events as they unfold rather than trying to be planful at every moment. Still, successful type development and full cognitive maturity do call for an individual to develop some sort of discernment when it comes to following the new just because it’s new. Having a balance of open-minded flexible thinking together with good choices and follow through is a cognitive powerhouse indeed!