Stop telling me I 'think too much'!
Nowadays, we live in an emotion-phobic culture that encourages the silencing of feelings, especially the ‘negative’ ones. However, if you are someone who is naturally emotionally intense and sensitive, you may struggle to do what is considered the norm (‘normal’) - denying, brushing off, or dampening the intensity of feelings.
For example, you may find that when a worry sows its seed in your mind, you struggle to get rid of it. You may find yourself being left with no choice but to dwell in thoughts until the problem is solved. This can be a good thing - perhaps you are more than efficient in taking proactive actions when conflicts arise. Yet to others, you may appear neurotic or obsessive. Your friends and family may advise you to ‘not think too much’, to ‘sleep on it’, or to ‘go get a drink’ and distract yourself. These temporary strategies may work for them, but you continue to find yourself struggling to settle with peace.
Due to a different wiring of your brain and psyche, some people live much closer to the realm of true emotions. As Elaine Aron, author of the book Highly Sensitive Person suggested, ‘Being easily aroused and having strong emotional reactions are two facts of the sensitive person’s life’ (Aron, 2010, p.69). This is the result of a neurological differences, rather than some kind of defect. However, due to the lack of understanding, your emotional authenticity and aliveness can be ridiculed, and your ability to stay close to raw emotions is being mis-labelled as ‘over-dramatic’ or ‘oversensitive’.
Finding it challenging to evade your own waves of emotions is part of being an emotionally intense person.
What you can do then, is to become efficient when it comes to dealing with a wide array of feelings. In some spiritual traditions, this is known as the path of a ‘warrior’- instead of evading feelings, you befriend them, get skilled at dealing with them, and face them head on.
This does not mean having complete control or winning over your emotions. On the flip side, it is not desirable to completely dissociate from them to the point where you feel empty on the inside.
Baal Shem Tov, an eighteenth-century Jewish mystic, taught that in order to master the skill as an emotion warrior, we must learn to immerse in a wide array of feelings, yet not be completely ruled by it.
This is an art (and science!) that can be learned, and practised.
It is about courageously staying close to all emotions, attending to them without completely surrendering to their destructiveness, or being overwhelmed by them.
A healthy, emotionally intense individual would have learned to maintain a core sense of identity without it being swept by the moment-to-moment changes of their feelings.
By developing the strengths and skills to befriend with each emotions that come along, they will be able to circumvent the path of self-destructiveness, but be like an alchemist who turn their deep streams of feelings into somethings deep, beautiful, and poetic; a connective tissue to the wider humanity.
In many cases, the work with a therapist is about strengthening this emotional muscle. A trusted companion will help you become a skilled rider of the waves of emotions, including pain, anxiety, and obsessive thoughts.
Once an emotionally sensitive people have learned to live this way, they can be one of the most spiritually-attuned and fulfilled individuals there is.
A small actionable step:
Right here, right now: See if you can take a small step towards building your skills in working with difficult emotions, including anxiety.
The goal of such is to practise experiencing yourself and your life as it is, even when it is unpleasant.
Just for one moment, examine whatever physical sensation, or emotions that is within you right now - it may be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. You may struggle to find or feel anythingm- and that’s okay too - simply attend to that feeling of nothingness.
Let’s say you feel unpleasant sensation, or neutral feelings such as heat coming up from within you, see if you can label it (it may be ‘fear’,‘anger’, or ‘shame’). Anchor your mind with breathing and your physical sensations.
If it is unpleasant, pay attention also to your strong desire to run away from it.
If you are able to hang in there, you may find that the nature of emotions means it will change, and shift, in one way or another.
After you have done five minute of witnessing, congratulate yourself in having taken this time to strengthen your emotional muscles (much like going to the gym!), which would eventually lead to much resilience, presence and joy in your life.
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About Imi Pui Yin Lo
Imi is an award-winning mental health professional, accredited clinical psychotherapist (UKCP), art therapist (HCPC, BAAT), supervisor and trainer. She specialises in emotional intensity, sensitivity, and borderline personality traits. She is the founder of Eggshell Therapy Practise, based in London, UK.