Raychelle Cassada Lohmann Ph.D.

Teen Angst

The Blessings and Curses of Impulsiveness

Striking the right balance between functional and dysfunctional impulsiveness.

Posted Oct 10, 2015

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You have probably done it before, fired off an offensive response to an email, said something you later regretted, or did something to you wish you wouldn’t have. Yes, you, like many others have probably fallen victim to impulsivity. There may have been times your impulsive actions paid off. Yet, there are those times where your impulsive behavior may have left you asking “What was I thinking?” There is no doubt about it, the complexity of impulsiveness can be a blessing on one hand and a curse on the other.  

The Blessings

Let’s face it: impulsivity often gets a bad rap and that is not fair because it can be a motivating force behind artistic genius. For example, some really great art, books, and music have come out of an impulsive action. Impulsivity can boost and even enhance creative moments. If you’ve experienced the upside of impulsivity, then you are no stranger to the gnawing urge to spontaneously act out on a whim. Sometimes your impromptu actions can serve a good purpose. They allow you, the decision-maker, to act swiftly and seize an opportunity that might otherwise pass you by. This type of fruitful and positive impulsiveness has been referred to as “functional impulsivity” and one could call it a blessing in disguise.

The Curses

There are times that acting too hastily can lead to big trouble. You can probably think of a time that your impulsivity had you later regretting what you did or said. This type of behavior is known as “dysfunctional impulsivity” and the name says it all.  When you constantly act on impulse, you appear out of control, your behavior is erratic and your life may feel unstable. It’s comparable to letting a reckless driver take control of your life.  You allow your urges and desires to steer you down a path of destruction. Impulsivity can become a curse when spur-of-the-moment decisions are not moderated by forethought and logic.

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Strike the Right Balance

How can you deal with impulsive urges and desires and not let a good opportunity pass you by? The answer lies in striking the right balance. You have to learn to temper and tame your impulsive actions. The steps below can help you regain control and hop back into the driver’s seat of your life.

1. Increase your self-awareness

Become aware of situations that result in impulsivity. Ask yourself “What needs and desires am I trying to meet when I act this way?” Knowing and understanding your triggers will help you identify the situations that often result in impulsive behaviors.

2. Take a self-imposed time out

Odds are if you're not in a life or death situation, you can bide your time. Sure, there will be situations that force you to act on a whim, but in most cases your decision can wait. Putting some space between you and the event can help the gut gnawing urge diminish. Try this --Take some deep breaths and relax your body and mind. If it’s impossible to escape, then take a mental break. Get away by thinking of something soothing, like running on a familiar trail, treating yourself to a latte at your favorite cafe, or escaping to a place that holds fond memories. Allow yourself to zone out momentarily. Taking a mental break will help you get away from the situation when you can’t physically get away.

3. Find a Balancing Partner

Rely on a trusted friend or partner who can help curb your spur-of-the-moment decisions. Bounce your ideas off of this person and get a different perspective on the situation. Often having a fresh point-of-view can help you see things more clearly.

4. Put Alternative Strategies in Place

Do you blurt out answers in class or interrupt during meetings? Does your impulsivity cause problems in your everyday encounters? If so, find a way to tame your behavior by substituting it with another - more acceptable one. For example, if you frequently talk out of turn, carry around a small notebook and jot down your thoughts or if you’re technologically proficient download a notes app and type your thoughts. Putting small steps in place to change your behavior can keep you from taking a leap into the unknown.

5.  Learn to Relax through Mindfulness

Practice living in the moment and observe what is happening around you. Recognize your impulsive thoughts for what they are: a thought, nothing more, and nothing less. A thought in and of itself is not harmful; it is the action that follows that can become problematic. Mindfulness helps you to observe your thoughts from a distance and allow them to freely come and go. Yoga and meditation are great ways to teach you how to stop, breathe and live for today.

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And there you have it, the advantages and disadvantages of impulsiveness along with ways to strike the right balance between the two. So, the next time you feel the desire to act on a whim, put some space between your thoughts and actions and ask yourself whether your impulsive desire is a blessing or a curse.