Is Being Impulsive Really Such a Bad Thing?

Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: Jorinde Berben

It’s the middle of summer vacation, a time when I usually fall out of my usual rhythm and my impulsivity is let loose a bit more. It can be fun but challenging at the same time.

When you have ADHD, being impulsive is often part of your psychological make-up. I can’t count the number of times I’ve started something and ended up in chaos for days on end. But impulsivity isn’t strictly limited to those of us with attention deficit disorder. There are others as well who tend toward being impulsive, and at several stages of our lives, we are all more prone to acting impulsively: when we’re toddlers, teenagers or have had a few beers. Impulsivity can take many forms, from buying something on a whim to blurting out something you end up regretting. It basically comes down to an inability to control your impulses. You tend to act before you think.

As someone who is impulsive by nature, and in many areas of my life, I can give you a myriad of downsides to being impulsive. Many projects never get finished because I started them on a whim without having enough time, or because I impulsively started something else. I’ve hurt many people by blurting things out to them without thinking about how they would land, though this was mostly when I was younger. Impulsivity is expensive and can make you unreliable when you blow off plans. But there are also benefits.

It can be really fun to follow your impulses and see where they take you. When I was a full-time substitute teacher, my impulsivity made it easier to teach a class without having time to prep. I can adapt quickly to new situations, but there is a caveat: being impulsive is fun as long as I’m the one being impulsive because as someone whose life is often unplanned and somewhat chaotic, I’m easily thrown off course when someone else decides to change the plans we did make.

See, we the impulsive, have a bit of a difficult relationship with our prefrontal cortex which curbs impulses: on the one hand, we need it to live a reasonably structured life (eat well, sleep regularly, hold any kind of job, raise kids and/or maintain relationships), and on the other hand, we often hate curbing those impulses because there is often a reward at the end of that impulse. The impulsive act is often something that seems like a good idea: it will solve a problem, make us feel good or get us something right now (instead of in a few months). Hence the impulsive grabbing of a cookie instead of a carrot.

I believe that limiting your own impulses completely can help make you feel rebellious, and might have an adverse effect in the long run. Letting your impulses control your life also won’t work, because you’ll end up getting nowhere with anything (believe me, I know! 90% of this blog was written while fighting the impulse to do something else, even if it is something I love to do.)

So perhaps what we can do is create a playing field for the part of us that wants to follow our own impulses. Those playing fields can be small: one night a week you just go order in and pick anything that fits your fancy. Or you go for something bigger: one weekend a year you set aside to go anywhere you might feel like going in that moment (obviously within reason). You can draw impulsively or have an ‘impulsive snack’ moment once a week. You could meditate and not watch your thoughts float by but instead follow them religiously to see where they will take you.

Setting time aside for these wild tangents will make sure that the part of you that enjoys being impulse gets to live a little, while you are still able to hold some kind of control over the rest of your time. If those around you know about it, they will better be able to prepare for the unpredictable (not a contradiction even if it sounds like one!). And as an added bonus, allowing your impulses to guide part of your life or time can be wonderful in nurturing your creativity. It leaves your mind and soul wide open to what the outside world and your inner world have to offer.

My partner and I have a couple of days coming up next week that we haven’t planned yet. We’ll be in Holland, probably, but have yet to figure out where we’ll go from there, what we’ll do, how we will travel… It’s kind of exciting, and we may end up wishing we’d planned ahead anyway, but that’ll be for another post…

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