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The Wisdom of Spontaneity (Part 3)

Would you rather be self-protective, impulsive, or spontaneous?

Source: auremar/123RF

On Those Who Are Neither Spontaneous Nor Impulsive

So far, I've talked about the many advantages of acting more spontaneously (see Part 1)--and the various disadvantages of behaving impulsively (see Part 2). But what about those who almost never respond either way?--those whose habit is to painstakingly ruminate over almost every act, every choice, every decision?

Such individuals, who might be seen generally as obsessive in their whole life orientation, fear the loss of control more than anything else. They're afraid of anything that could lead to failure or rejection--and the accompanying feelings of guilt, shame, or humiliation. Because, typically, they're so concerned about what others might think of them--for example, that they might be viewed as selfish, aggressive, or childish--that they're not likely to show much interpersonal initiative. They may play it safe to the point of delaying a response (or maybe not responding at all) in instances where some immediate action is called for, and may even be essential. In this regard, consider the following quotation: "If you wait to do everything until you're sure it's right, you'll probably never do much of anything" (Win Borden).

In my last post, I mentioned that people who feel free to act spontaneously do so because they have self-confidence and trust their judgment. But with people who are obsessive--or better, over-controlled--such self-confidence is typically lacking. The fear of making a mistake, and the negatively exaggerated significance attributed to making one, seriously undermines their ability to act in the moment. Whereas those who act spontaneously can do so because they trust their firmly rooted internal constraints to keep them from doing anything harmful or foolish, these repressed individuals--far less self-trusting--are also far more rigid and held-back. They can't allow themselves to act on the spur of the moment because they don't have sufficient faith in themselves to say or do the right thing. It's important to stress that spontaneity can only be "liberated" when an individual's anxiety has been adequately subdued. But with those individuals who are obsessive, it's a cautious, wary anxiety that dominates their thought process. And being vigilant--or "on guard"--like this destroys their freedom to be spontaneous.

Those who are neither impulsive nor spontaneous also have difficulty expressing vulnerable feelings. For again, they're anxious about how others might regard them. Living in self-protective mode, experiencing themselves (even if only unconsciously) as sensitive and exceptionally vulnerable, they're averse to taking risks and tend to avoid what's unknown or unpredictable. In characterizing the Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (an extreme example of this type), the Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (2006), expounds on the emotionally impoverished lives of such super-defended individuals: "They follow rules literally, get lost in details, and have trouble making decisions because they want to make the perfect one. They're scrupulous to a fault but because of all they suppress, they have trouble relaxing, joking, and being fully intimate."

In short, being neither impulsive nor spontaneous yields few benefits other than perceived safety--and in fact constricts expression in ways that can be almost dehumanizing. Certainly, living an existence so constricted that there's hardly any space to be one's "natural"self, or realize one's full potential, is hardly a life we'd wish to emulate. So such a life choice is hardly to be recommended as an "antidote" for excessive impulsivity. And, as in the next two posts I'll expand on, it doesn't begin to approach the rewards of living a life full of spontaneity.

Note1: Part 4 of this post will take up the profound relationship between spontaneity and creativity. Finally, part 5 will focus on crucial connections between spontaneity and the dynamics of happiness.

NOTE 2: If you could relate to this post and think others you know might also, kindlly consider forwarding them its link.

NOTE 3: To check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.

© 2009 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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