WHY YOU MATTER
Some people experience life more vividly, are more aware of subtleties, and process information more deeply than others. You may have been described as having a keen intelligence, and unbounded perceptivity; You may have been called an old soul or feel like one. Your sentimental nature means you are always pondering the transient nature of relationships and situations, and plagued by an intangible feeling of homesickness.
Your sensitivity makes it hard for you to fit into the hypocritical aspects of this world. This is because you possess a particular kind of awareness to truth, to injustice, to suffering, and to painstakingly beautiful things.
In our world today, the norm is to try and cover up our deep-rooted existential anxiety by means of numbing. When things get to be too much, it is in our human nature to want to close our eyes and pretend that nothing is happening. Many people have settled by dulling their minds by engaging in mindless activities or consuming short-lived pleasure.
However, those who were born with a sensitive and perceptive soul struggle to do that. It is not that you try to be different, or pretend that you are special, but you just cannot shut down your natural ability to see and feel so much.
You may feel that you have no other option than to take life seriously, and you aspire to live fully, intensely, with full presence and passion. Even when it hurts, the intense soul inside you stubbornly refuses to be diluted for her infinite zest for life and wants to embrace it all, with wide-open eyes. Perhaps deep down you know that the joy and aliveness you will experience is in direct proportion to the suffering you can endure. In the end, without sensitivity what would life be? It is this part of you that has given your life so much colour and meaning. Although it brings both ecstasy and terror, it is also the source of all that is precious and memorable.
SOCIETY’S REJECTION OF DIVERSITY
Emotional Intensity is a form of ‘neurodiversity’— the biological reality that particular groups of the population are innately different from the norm.
As human beings, we seem inept at embracing differences. We have divided ourselves in a countless number of ways— between black and white, between the majority and the minority, between introverts and extroverts, between the stoic and the sensitive. Our current political climate is a clear reflection of this dark side of our tribal nature.
This is why sensitive and intense people often find themselves on the margins of society, being condemned as being ‘too this’ and ‘too that,’ or as somehow being too fragile for the world.
The problem is not our differences, but our judgement of each other, and indifference towards that. By pathologising, stigmatising and marginalising intense people, the world is sitting on a gold mine without knowing it, and our progression as a collective is held back in.
THE PROBLEM WITH NUMBING
To be human is to feel. Yet we live in an emotions-phobic world nowadays. Our system medicalises the most natural human expressions: Grief for the loss of loved ones, anxiety in our fast-moving world, anger when injustice happens. We tend to judge certain emotions as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and society as a whole has become afraid of strong, honest emotional expression. This kind of collective apathy cannot sustain itself. By pathologising, stigmatising and marginalising intense people, we also deny emotional honesty.
On an individual level, numbing our feelings makes life seem barren. Without emotions, even when our mind is busy, we feel vacant, lethargic and bored with life. It is as if life is passing by in front of us without us fully living it. By detaching from our passion, we no longer know what we want. As a result, many people experience a lingering, low-grade depression or background anxiety.
On the other hand, what we resist persists. The more we push emotions away, the more they will come back in full force, in ways and at times that we least expect them. That is when we get triggered for no obvious reason, burst out in sudden rage, or resort to extreme behaviours in order to suppress how we feel. Humans are not robots. Our psyche has its wisdom. It knows that if we ignore our emotions, they will grow like weeds and eventually destroy us. Deep down, our soul knows we need to find a way to digest, process, and dissolve them.
WHEN WE COLLECTIVELY DISCONNECT
A world in which people collectively disconnect is a dangerous one. Crime, violence, discriminations happen when we as a society become desensitised to each others’ suffering. It may feel ‘easier’ to detach from the pain and injustice in the world. However, such temporary tranquillity is brittle, because just like waves can never separate from the ocean, we can never completely disconnect from the rest of the world.
It is only natural that we cry over the woes of the world, and are pained when it is in pain. What else is a heart for, if not this? Mother Teresa once beautifully said, ‘May God break my heart so completely the whole world falls in.’ Her heart may be broken day after day, yet she is one of the emotionally strongest people who ever lived.
You might have felt that you have no choice but to protect yourself in this unpredictable and volatile world. You might have felt that you had to withdraw, to defend, to hide behind four walls. As you have probably figured out by now, such a strategy leads merely to internal deadness. Defending against the world doesn’t work. Neither do shrinking and hiding. And numbing your heart brings psychic death. The only thing that can take you forward is to open your heart and mind.
WHAT GOT US HERE WILL NOT GET US THERE
The chaotic time that we are in right now is imbued with potential.
For the last few decades, our world has been driven by linear, mechanistic, patriarchal values (I don’t mean an individual male is oppressing women, but a cultural narrative that is dualistic, results-oriented and action-oriented). We have become very information-driven, intellectual, and concrete. We have been ambitious, driven, stressed human-doings, disowning our essence as human beings. As the world gets more shallow and literal, we slip into the tyranny of logical productivity and dismiss the heart-centred intelligence guided by emotions.
But it is not working. We are constantly stressed out. We feel separated from one another. We need to drown ourselves in hedonistic activities. Our global economy is outgrowing the capacity of the earth to support it, and what is happening in politics might just be the ‘final push’ of the old system, before it is forced to recede.
As a whole, we are yearning for a more vibrant life, one that is about inner abundance, rather than materiality. Communities need inspiration, not more information. People yearn to be led by empathy, rather than force.
Humanity is calling for a different way of being, and a redefinition of power.
We are waiting for the emergence of heart-centred trailblazers, torch-bearers, and bridge-walkers. And this is where sensitive, intense and gifted people come in.
FROM MISFITS TO LEADERS
You see, passionate engagement with life is not an easy path, and it is a path less travelled. The word passion comes from the Latin verb patio, which means to suffer and endure. Passionate living entails a kind of openness that exposes youd to the ups and downs, gains and losses, pleasures and pains of life. When you choose to walk the path of passion, you commit yourself to come face to face with the bare bone of reality- including its embedded challenges and uncertainties, even when they pain you, trouble you, and exhaust you.
Even when others don’t see it, and you have not yet recognised it, a tremendous amount of courage is actually required to be you! In fact, may I suggest that you are a born warrior of life, the protagonist of a Hero’s Journey into your authentic self?
Your love for life itself is most powerful when you can combine it with your ability to see beauty and make intellectual or creative linkages. This is what artists and poets have done across history. Sadly, though, historically and up until today, those with visionary or insightful qualities are also deemed mad, pathological, and schizophrenic by the world. Yet the misunderstood ‘misfits’ are also the ones who have shown the world the most bravery, tenacity and love. They were the great healers, visionaries, trailblazers, creatives of their time.
Let me give you some examples.
Steve Jobs — as brilliant as he was — is often portrayed as an abrasive, hot-tempered and narcissistic leader. He was misunderstood because of his unusual level of intellectual, imaginational and emotional intensities— known as ‘over-excitabilities’, these are common traits for many highly talented individuals across history. His fast mind and strong intuition created an immense amount of creative pressure from within him, which sometimes came out as obsessions or even madness. Deep down, he was a highly intuitive and emotional person. When he found something truly incredible, he was moved to tears: “Every once in a while, I find myself in the presence of purity — purity of spirit and love — and I always cry.” He cared deeply, which drove him to be demanding of those around him. A lot of people mistook his passion for arrogance, or his focus for selfishness.
Van Gogh- Many know Vincent van Gogh as the brilliant, disturbed artist who fought with depression. He was also known for cutting off part of his ear and committing suicide. Rather than simply labelling him as mad, we can come to understand Van Gogh as someone overwhelmed by his own creative visions and sensual perceptions. He had a deep passion for not just beauty and colour, but also his family and divinity. In contrast to the image of a self-obsessed artist, he had a big heart, and an intense devotional and spiritual life. He volunteered to preach in an impoverished Belgian coal-mining town, whose population adored him. As an artist, his intense and passionate nature went against the artistic style that was popular at the time– Impressionism, the softly brushed depiction of tranquil scenes in nature or of aristocratic people. In the end, Van Gogh was misunderstood and undermined because he created art that was ahead of its time.
Princess Diana – the first wife of Prince Charles of Wales, remained the object of worldwide media scrutiny both before and after her passing. The media has painted her with the portrait of a troubled Princess, someone who was emotionally volatile and unstable. In truth, despite a sensitive and delicate outlook, Princess Diana was never truly fragile. She was vulnerable but strong, humble but willing to stand up for her values. She was a dynamic woman who combined many fine traits shared by highly sensitive, intense and gifted people: Warmth, empathy, grace, humility, wit, thoughtfulness, generosity, compassion, resilience and courage. Her graceful resilience was a rare gift. “She was an entirely intuitive person,” said journalist and historian Paul Johnson. “She was not particularly good at rational processes, but she could get on well with people because she could grasp ideas if they had emotional importance to her.” With her compassion and deep understanding, she was not only a safe haven to those around her but also a role model for all sensitive women who came after her. As a true trailblazer Princess Diana has a compelling sense of herself as the seeker and speaker of truth, she was a strong woman who openly spoke about people’s fears of strong women.
Leonard Cohen- Leonard Cohen has a reputation for being dark, pessimistic, and was known as the poet of brokenness, or the ‘prince of gloom’. Yet we often overlook the deep emotional strength embedded in his virtues and his work. What he was, is someone who was emotionally honest, and brave enough to acknowledge the shadows of our collective consciousness. When we take a closer look at his work, we see that even in his bleakest expression there is a sense of sharp wit, reverence for the truth and deep empathy. In his track Anthem, Cohen famously intoned: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Sensitivity and perceptiveness are among Cohen’s many fine qualities. He intuitively knows what people want, or feel. He is strong enough to be vulnerable, and transmuted his own suffering into life-affirming art that can touch millions.
Virginia Woolf- Much examination has been made of Woolf’s mental illness, speculated to be manic- depression or Bipolar disease. Indeed, she seemed to work on the edges between what was considered sanity and what would be called mental crises. Yet to her, these are utterly natural cycles that revealed the true workings of her mind. Most often the media portrayal of Virginia Woolf gives prominence to her mental crises and suicide, yet if we look at her life, she was a prolific and gifted creator, a committed pacifist, a second wave feminist before her time, and a true legacy that continues to inspire millions. She was indeed an emotionally gifted woman, misunderstood because she was ahead of her time.
Your unusual life path is a summon from Life. Intense people are positioned to be the game-changers, the truth-tellers, and the fierce lovers of the world. By nature, you are the pioneers and the questioners and the progressives whose role in the world is to bring forth the realities that others do not yet see or understand. You can deny it, fight it, but in the end, you will not be able to deny or suppress your unique insights and perspectives. Although you might not have chosen this path, it is yours.
Existing self-help resources for highly sensitive people often focus on protective and defensive strategies; this breeds the idea that sensitive people are somehow ‘too fragile for the world’. Through my encounters with many of you, I have seen quite the opposite — with your intensity, sensitivity and perceptivity, intense people have important work to do in the world. It is critical that you do not collapse into the trap of pathology. Not being able to own your gifts and be authentic about your true nature keeps you in hiding and holds you back from bringing your gifts into the world. Such an act deprives not only you but also the progression of our collective consciousness. Your sensitivity and intensity are the doorways to your fullest potential, and you are not serving the world by playing small.
Real emotional health is not about stoicism. It is about our ability to expand, to absorb, and tosay yes to our inner and outer world. It is about allowing life to move you and affect you deeply, without losing your ground.
We root in order to rise. While healing old wounds is important, we are ready for the next step. The next chapter is about moving from victimhood to heroism, going from being the ‘misfits’ to standing as the leaders of the world (and this can take many forms. You can be a thought leader that speaks to a small niche, a quiet creative pioneer, or you can model how to be the best parent in town).
My pledge may seem extreme, but for too long intense people have been misunderstood, shamed, and sidelined, and just like the beginning of any movement, a forceful pushback is needed to swing the pendulum.
At this point, some of you may ask: Am I really that ‘special’? Are you suggesting that I am superior in some way? Does this further alienate me from those around me? I do understand the fear of your own power, and of losing belongingness. Here is a more useful way of thinking about it: We all have our unique blueprints and trajectory in this lifetime, and everyone is being gifted with certain qualities to do certain things in the world. Maybe you are qualitatively (rather than quantitatively) different from someone who is less intense, but that does not make you any better or worse. As your body already knows, suppressing your expression leads to existential guilt, depression, restlessness, physical pain and chronic emptiness. In other words, you don’t have a choice but to follow where your intensity leads.
Embracing your gift of sensitivity is not just something you do for yourself, but also for those around you. If you can summon the courage to stand out as a sensitive leader, you set a solid example for all others like you. The more you can free yourself from the childlike need to trade ‘fitting in’ with the herd for your authentic truth as a sensitive human being, the more you can channel your gifts and serve the world.
For now, I will leave you with this quote from Herman Hesse, and I wish you well on your utterly precious and heroic journey:
“We who bore the mark might well be considered by the rest of the world as strange, even as insane and dangerous. We had awoken, or were awakening, and we were striving for an ever perfect state of wakefulness, whereas the ambition and quest for happiness of the others consisted of linking their opinions, ideals, and duties, their life and happiness, ever more closely with those of the herd. ‘