Emotional Intensity is a form of neurodiversity that is most often misunderstood by our culture. Emotional Intensity in itself is not a pathology. It overlaps with other traits such as being highly sensitive (HSP), being an 'empath', having thin-boundaries, and over-excitabilities. It is not only highly related to giftedness, it is a gift in itself.
As it is being defined here, emotional intensity comprises of the following five components:
1. Emotional depth, velocity and complexity
2. Deep empathy and sensitivity
3. Highly acute perceptivity
4. A rich inner world- paired with sensual, imaginary and intellectual excitability.
5. Creative potential and existential angst
1. Emotional depth, velocity and complexity
You have the capacity to experience emotions to an unusual level of depth, complexity and intensity. This makes you feel extremely alive, sometimes painfully so.
You have a constant stream of both positive and negative feelings, sometimes together, sometimes from one to another in a short period.
You feel your emotions with an exceptional degree of velocity; you may soar high into bliss and plunge low into gloom in rapid succession.
Sometimes, feelings are so powerful and compelling that you feel out of control or get a sense that it is unbearable.
You know the meaning of despair, but you also know beauty and rapture. When art or music move you, you are flooded by waves of joy, or get transcended into a state of ecstasy.
You are passionate, even if you do not show it on the outside. Since you also feel love and attachment intensely, you tend to form strong emotional connections with people, places, and things, and sometimes that makes separation difficult.
You experience life with much tenderness and nostalgia. Your emotional expansiveness can be misunderstood as pathologies or emotional immaturity, rather than evidence of a profoundly deep capacity to feel into the world.
2. Deep empathy and sensitivity
From an early age, you have a grave concern for others and the wider world. When others are abused or mistreated, you feel as if it is happening to you. Not only do you empathise with other people, but you may also feel a direct connection to animals, nature, and elements in the spiritual realm.
You may resonate with traits of being an ‘empath’, due to your innate ability to feel and be affected by other people's energies. In social situations, you can intuitively identify with others’ emotions, and you may feel that you 'absorb' their physical and mental ailment, to the point where you get overwhelmed.
Because of your responsiveness and insights into others’ pain, you tend to form soulful and meaningful connections. You are naturally compassionate and loving, and when it comes to relationships, you are loyal, idealistic and romantic.
However, being naturally open and sensitive also means you are vulnerable to relational injuries from a young age. Your natural tendency to be open and loving may get stunted due to early rejections and trauma.
Having a heightened sensory system also means that you are extremely sensitive to your surroundings. You have an increased appreciation of sensual pleasures such as music, language, and art, as well as intense reactions to sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. This may also cause you to feel overwhelmed or uncomfortable with too much sensory input. You may be sensitive to loud noises, strong smell, or tactile sensations such as clothing tags and rough surface. You may suffer from other physical sensitivities such as misophonia (Having little tolerance to certain sounds), hyperacusis (sensitivity to certain frequency and volume ranges of sound), multiple allergies, and pain sensitivity.
3. Highly acute perceptivity
Being perceptively gifted means you can sense and perceive things that others miss. With acute awareness, you can see beyond superficiality, grasp patterns and make linkages.
Insights, intuition, and the ability to read several layers of reality allow you to assess people and situations rapidly. You may be shockingly perceptive and accurate in noting the relational dynamics in social situations. You have a sense of knowing when something is about to happen, or about other people’s inner worlds. You can sense incongruence, and their intentions, thoughts, and feelings that are underneath the facades.
However, your abilities do not necessarily make life easy. Even when your insights and intuitions overwhelm you sometimes, you cannot ‘un-see’ things. You are bothered by hypocrisies and unfairness and struggle with inauthentic people and situations. You cannot help but be the one who points out the ‘elephant in the room’, but your perceptiveness may seem intimidating to those who felt ‘seen through’.
In a family situation, you may be scapegoated to be the one who carries the painful truth that is unsaid in the facade of normalcy. You may carry the role of being the ‘problematic one’, the scapegoat, or the black sheep. Often, this is an unconscious strategy used by some family members to evade their emotional pain and sufferings.
You have an innate urge to push the boundaries of conformity, to question or to challenge traditions, particularly those that seem meaningless or unfair. Paired with a strong sense of justice, you are often frustrated with corruptions and inequality in the world. Being one step ahead of time, you reveal truths and progressive thoughts most people find unsettling to hear or see. Although this may indicate a challenging life path for you, you also have the potential to thrive as a visionary leader.
Combining your introspective nature and your awareness 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 your roots.
4. A rich inner world- with sensual, imaginary and intellectual excitability.
You have a rich inner world that is fuelled by vivid imaginations and inner dialogues; and imbued with words, images, metaphors, visualisations, vivid fantasies and dreams. As a child, you may resort to your imagined world as a haven in times of emotional turmoils.
Intellectually, you are inquisitive and reflective. You have a strong need to seek to understand, to expand your horizons, to gain knowledge and to analyse your mental content.
With an ability to process information with speed and depth, you absorb and surge through information very quickly. You may be an avid reader and a keen observer. You may appear critical and impatient with others who cannot keep up with you.
You also have the ability to integrate intellectual concepts with your deep feelings for original conceptions. You may have a constant stream of ideas, sometimes so many that you feel you cannot keep up with it.
You tend to experience zealous enthusiasm about certain topics and endeavours. When you get excited about an idea, you find your mind running faster than your words can keep up, or you find yourself talking rapidly, perhaps even interrupting others. When you become absorbed in your love for a piece of art, literature, theatre, or music, the outside world ceases to exist.
You are highly capable of contemplative thinking and self-reflection. The flip side is that you may be occupied with obsessive thoughts, and scrupulous self- examination. You may also suffer from perfectionism and self-criticism.
Your openness to experience also means you have more potential for spiritual insights and experiences. You are 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.
5. Creative potential and existential angst
You have always been concerned with the big questions of life. From a young age, you may experience existential depression and have felt grief over the meaninglessness of life, death, and loneliness. You might have a difficult time fitting in with those around you, or feel frustrated that those around you are not prepared to discuss and consider these weighty concerns.
Your existential angst may manifest as an unnamed sense of urgency, a constant impulse to move forward. You get a constant ‘niggling’ feeling that there is something important that you should be doing, even when your vision is not clear yet. You live with a feeling that somehow time is running out, and you are not doing what you should be doing. For some unnamed reason, you feel a weight of responsibility on your shoulder - even for things you are not responsible for. Such pressure can cause you to be highly self-critical, and experience anxiety, guilt, and a sense of failure.
Your angst propels you to learn, to expand, and to advance in your life path, but it can also paralyse you. You may be prone to creative blockages such as ‘artist’s block’, ‘writer’s block’, procrastination, the fear of exposure or the Imposter Syndrome (the feeling that you are a fraud).
Nevertheless, you have always known deep down that you are dissatisfied with a life that is meaningless and task-driven.
You may be a polymath, or a ’multipotentialite’ - someone with multiple interests and creative pursuits, and not just one calling. You yearn to be of service to the world, but struggle to hone in on one channel.
When you have a strong vision or innovative idea, you can feel the split between belongingness and authentic expression— you want to express with your full, authentic self but you are worried that it means being rejected, or leaving people behind.
I embrace the concept of neurodiversity— the idea that particular groups of the population are ‘different’ from the norm, with specific kind of sensitivity, intensity and giftedness.
But my intention is NOT to have a grossly simplified system that shoehorns someone’s reality into fixed pigeon holes, or rigidly suggesting that you would always perceive, thinks or feels in a certain way.
The above conceptualisation of the emotional intensity trait inevitably involves some simplification of human complexity. Unfortunately, this is the limitation of language: Just as a map is always a simplification of the territory it is trying to map, to make sense of things and to communicate we need to create a schematized version of a complex reality. Any typology is necessary a simplification compared with the real, unique human being in front of us.
A pathologising caricature is the last thing I want to reinforce. In the end, we as a human species are both different and much the same, in a paradoxical unity. We must not forget that what always holds more weight than the theory is the here-and-now-ness of the living human beings, who is constantly changing and evolving. I hope we can all retain the wisdom of the ‘beginner’s mind’ (Suzuki, 1973), in that part of us will always stay open and curious, and see things as if we are seeing it for the first time.
Nothing is definite.
WHY DO I FEEL INTENSELY?
In recent years, there has been growing interest amongst psychologists and the general public on the topics of emotional sensitivity, emotional intelligence, introversion, and their links to wellbeing and creativity. An overlapping trait amongst these topics is Emotional Intensity— the propensity to feel emotions with more awareness, intensity, and depth.
If you identify with the description of emotional intensity, you may also find resonance with the following:
You are one of the 15-20% of the population who identifies as a 'Highly Sensitive Person' as defined by Dr. Elaine Aron
You identify as being an Empath
You feel that you have Thin Boundaries as defined by Hartmann's inventory
You fall on the right side of the bell curve and are gifted in one or more forms of intelligence:
Intellectually Gifted -traditional IQ measure)
Logical-Mathematically gifted -the ability to detect patterns, reason deductively and think logically
Linguistically gifted - the ability to express oneself rhetorically or poetically, and to master languages
Spatially gifted - the ability to create mental images
Muscially gifted -the capability to recognize and compose musical pitches, tones, and rhythms
Bodily-Kinesthetic Giftedness- a keen sense of body awareness, ability to communicate through body language
Interpersonal Giftedness-the ability to understand and discern the feelings and intentions of other
Intra-personal Giftedness -the ability to understand one's own feelings and motivations
Spiritual Giftedness -Psychic sensibility, clairvoyance, clairaudience, and particularly 'Claircognizance'
(the above framework is based on Gardner's Multiple Intelligences, with the added Spiritual dimension)
Emotional intensity is an innate trait, a temperament. Living with emotional intensity is a mixed blessing. It means feelings a wide spectrum of emotions in a more vivid and profound way than most people do, and this includes both positive and negative emotions – pain, distress, despair, fear, excitement, love, sadness or happiness. At its best, intensity comes with a sense of awe, quivering aliveness and deep appreciation for the beauty in this world. At its worst, it feels like a consuming, out-of-control, never-ending storm.
do I need therapy?
A lot of people who first approach me for ‘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.
No matter what the origin of your emotional intensity is, or the group (Empath, 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.
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. 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.
In these cases, the work in psychotherapy and coaching 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, you 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.
Once a emotionally sensitive people have learned to live this way, they can be one of the most attuned and fulfilled individuals there is.