The gifts of being emotionally intense
Emotional intensity is a form of neurodiversity that is most often misunderstood by our culture.
It is characterised by heightened and intense feelings, a constant stream of both positive and negative feelings - pain, distress, despair, fear, excitement, love, sadness or happiness - sometimes a mixture of many at the same time. Sometimes, feelings can become so powerful and compelling that the person would feel out of control, losing the ability to think straight, or to the point where it feels unbearable.
Emotionally intense people have a capacity for compassion, empathy, and sensitivity in relationships, they show strong emotional attachments to people, places, and things. They may identify with or absorb other's emotions, and be overwhelmed by what they see and perceive in the social world. Many also experience existential depression and feeling grief over the meaninglessness of life, death, and loneliness.
Emotionally intense people are often acutely aware of their internal world, which can manifest as incessant internal dialogue, obsessive thought patterns, or even self-judgement. Other manifestations of emotional intensity include physical responses as symptoms such as migraine headaches, nausea or skin allergies.
A lot of people who first approach therapy are worried that they will be attached with some kind of clinical label, or be deemed as so ‘ill’ that they will have to be in therapy for years. Yes, on one end of the spectrum someone can experience emotional intensity in a way that constitutes a clinical diagnosis such as borderline personality disorder (which has been suggested to be more accurately described by the term emotional intensity disorder), bipolar disorder or ADHD. Your experience may or may not find its roots in developmental and attachment trauma.
However, there are many healthy and functioning individuals who are tremendously resourceful and managed to find a way to manifest their intensity and creativity in ways that are congruent with who they are. These individuals may still experience the stab of intensity-dysregulation at certain times, but through developing self-knowledge and awareness as well as having a healthy relationship with their intense emotions, they realise that they do not have to be ruled by them. They can live with and ride the waves of life with both passion and peace.
Most people are not aware that people with higher than average intelligence (gifted) often struggle with emotional regulation. In the field of giftedness psychology, this is known as ‘emotional over-excitability’. Over-excitabilities are extreme intensities or sensitivities that affect the ways in which an individual experiences the world.
The Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski identified five types of “over-excitability” that he believed connected strongly to giftedness: intellectual, psychomotor, imaginative, sensual, and emotional. In particular, an emotional over-excitability is marked by an intensified level of interpersonal relations to people, things, and places, and compassionate feelings for others. It manifests as extreme and often complex feelings, deep empathy, and sometimes fears and existential anxieties. In recent research, Beduna and Perrone-McGovern found that intellectual over-excitability and emotional over-excitability are positively co-related.
Traditionally, giftedness was narrowly and insufficiently defined by the IQ score. However, the real definition and scope of giftedness is much wider and far more complex than that. Gifted adults are usually a more global and sophisticated thinker. They do not only have a greater capacity and thirst for knowledge and discovery, but they also experience enhanced sensual experience, and they feel the fullest range of emotions to an immensely deep level.
As a result, many gifted adults experience ‘mood swings’ that resemble a BPD symptom— e.g. swinging from feeling sad to being angry in the blink of an eye, and at times to joy, with the same level of intensity.
Many gifted adults do not realise or acknowledge that they are gifted, and are therefore not aware of the impact of their over-excitabilities. When a person goes through life feeling out of place without knowing why they can easily draw the conclusion that ‘something is wrong with me’. This can mark the beginning of a vicious, depressive cycle, and escalate to a point where the natural tendency to feel things intensely really become a ‘clinical disorder’.
No matter what the origin of your emotional intensity is, or the group (empathy, highly sensitive person, gifted, thin-skinned, introvert) that you identify with, emotional intensity is not something to be fixed or cured but to be accepted, appreciated and mastered. It would be a terrible insult to try and suppress something that is so core and intrinsic to your being.
Emotional intensity in itself is not a pathology. Whether or not you identify as being gifted, it is a trait that comes with its own gifts.
The following is a list of capacity, ability or virtues that are associated with emotional intensity, you may identify with one or all of them.
Capacity for emotional depth
You have a powerful ‘internal processor’, that allows you to experience life with depth, complexity and intensity. This sometimes translates to a high level of emotional expressiveness. You are naturally more excitable and passionate, even if you don’t show it on the outside.
You feel a constant stream of both positive and negative feelings, you may feel them together, or you go from one extreme to another in a short period of time. You know the meaning of rapture as well as of despair, this can make you feel extremely alive, sometimes painfully so. Your emotional expansiveness can be misunderstood as pathologies or emotional immaturity, rather than evidence of a profoundly deep capacity to feel into the world. But remember, you are highly, not overly, sensitive and perceptive.
Complex thinking and creativity
Your powerful intuition, speedy thought process and perceptual abilities allow you to absorb and surge through information very quickly. Having a heightened sensory system also means that you are extremely responsive to situations and your surroundings. With an ability to process information with speed and depth from a young age, you live with an existential angst, a sense of urgency, an impulse to move forward, a constant need to learn and to advance your life path. You may have a constant stream of creative visions, sometimes so many that you feel you cannot keep up with it.
Powerful perceptivity and intuition
You are highly aware of what is going on around you, and you see a deeper layer of reality that is beyond the surface. You may be shockingly perceptive and accurate in noting the social nuances and relational dynamics. Even this overwhelms you sometimes, you cannot ‘un-see’ things, and you cannot stand inauthentic people and situations. Your ability to ‘see through’ facades does not necessarily make life easy, as your powerful intuition and perceptiveness may seem intimidating to some people.
Readiness for truth
You are a natural truth seeker. You are bothered by hypocrisies and unfairness, and you may have a powerful sense of justice. You cannot help but be the one who sees, or points out the ‘elephant in the room’.
In a group situation, you are like the canary in a coal mine. The canaries are birds that miners send into the coal mine in order to detect dangerous gases. The miners are warned to exit if the gas kills the canary.
Your distress provides ‘early warning’ for any 'dis-ease' in the system.
In a family situation, you may be scapegoated to be the one who carries the painful truth that is unsaid in the seemingly ‘normal’ family system. You are labelled the ‘sensitive one’, or the ‘problematic one’. Often, this is an unconscious strategy used by some family members to evade their own emotional pain and sufferings. You have an innate urge to push the boundaries of conformity. Although this may indicate a challenging life path for you, you also thrive as a visionary leader.
Profoundly rich inner world
Your inner world consists of both vivid imaginations and rich inner dialogue. You have the ability to form infinite associations with images, metaphors, visualisations, fantasies and dreams. As a child, you may resort to your own imagined world as a safe haven in times of emotional turmoil. You are constantly integrating concepts and knowledge with your intuition and feelings. Since you are highly capable of contemplative thinking, you may be intensely occupied with inner dialogue, and scrupulous self-examination, this can manifest as ‘perfectionism’ or ceaseless self-criticism.
Heightened sensitivity and compassion
You are compassionate, loving and you may be naturally idealistic and romantic. When others are abused or mistreated, you react as if it is happening to you. Because of your responsiveness and insights into others’ pain, you tend to form deep and meaningful relationships. However, being naturally open and sensitive also means you are vulnerable to relational injuries from a young age. These qualities can easily get stunted due to early interpersonal rejections and trauma.
Potential for spiritual experience
You have more potential for deep insights and compelling spiritual experiences. You are open and sensitive to the spiritual world or were drawn to the spiritual path from a young age. This may or may not manifest as some form of psychic ability. Being acutely aware of the suffering, hypocrisies and complexities of life, you may constantly feel older than others around you, like an ‘old soul’ that has somehow lost his/her roots.
Capacity for rapture
You are easily touched by beauty in the world. Beautiful art or music has an extremely powerful emotional impact on you. You can be flooded by an unexpected wave of joys, or be moved into a state of ecstasy.
(Reference: Jacobsen, 1999; Piechowski, 2006, Kuipers, 2006)
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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, borderline personality traits and unblocking creative potential in people. She is the founder of the Eggshell Therapy and Coaching Practice.