By Belinda Seiger, PhD, LCSW
If you are a person who has heard statements like, “you’re just too much,” “you think too much,” or “you’re too sensitive,” your whole life, this article is for you.
Perhaps you perceived such comments as indicators that something was wrong with you, or you weren’t even sure why people were saying these things to you.
Well, take heart, you are not alone! It was only recently, that I myself, a therapist specializing in working with gifted, creative and highly capable people had a humorous and enlightening experience of my own.
I was having breakfast with a relatively new friend who is the mother of a highly gifted child; she herself obviously has a great mind.
She is the kind of person who, when presented with a question or problem to solve, will embark upon finding an answer with immense gusto and fervor, generating such a multitude of possible solutions and resources within a 24 hour period, that it appears that she has been thinking about the issue over many months.
She is incredibly knowledgeable and synthesizes immense amounts and types of information very rapidly.
During our conversation, I reflected on these abilities to her and described her as an “intense” person, and she was surprised.
I was surprised that she was surprised, since it seemed so obvious to me. We were with another friend who has known me for about fifteen years and, much to my surprise, he said to me, “you know, you’re very intense too.”
“What do you mean,” I asked him, genuinely confused. “What do I mean?” He repeated and laughed, obviously assuming I was joking. I really had no idea what he was referring to and had never thought of myself in this way.
I am sharing this experience as I realized that people who are intense often have no idea that they are that way, and they frequently do not realize that others perceive them in this way, or the impact of this intensity on their interactions.
I had no idea that I was “obviously intense,” until my friend reflected this back to me.
Could that be what others had referred to as “relentless,” or “highly enthusiastic,” or “very aware and perceptive?”
As I thought about it, I became aware of the many synonymous descriptions that I had heard throughout my life from employers, friends and others, all pointing to my intensity.
Well, in my customarily intense way, I began thinking about the various meanings of “intense,” and the many responses I had experienced from other people.
I couldn’t help but wonder how my “intensity” had been experienced in job interviews, relationships, with health care providers, with clients, with colleagues, friends and with family members over the years.
I knew that I personally enjoyed being around intense people, even though there might be moments when I might experience their intensity as overwhelming or exhausting.
Wow, I had never really thought of myself in that way although I was aware that I was a passionate and enthusiastic person.
To understand the intensity of highly sensitive, highly intelligent capable people, we can reference the work of psychologist, Kazimierz Dabrowski, (1902-1980,) who coined the terminology “overexcitabilities,” when referring to the heightened sensitivities and reactions of highly intelligent, sensitive individuals.
As per his definition, “Overexcitabilities (OEs) are inborn, heightened abilities to receive and respond to stimuli. They are expressed in increased sensitivity, awareness, and intensity. Each form of overexcitability points to a higher than average sensitivity of its receptors.” (Dabrowski, 1964, p.7)
The presence of overexcitabilities (OE) results in a real difference in the fabric of life and quality of experience for overexcitable people and those around them.
Dabrowski identified five areas of OEs-Psychomotor, Sensual, Intellectual, Imaginational, and Emotional.
OEs then, are not only an integral part of one’s personality, they also help to shape a person’s view of and reaction to the world.
Dabrowski said “One who manifests several forms of overexcitability, sees reality in a different, stronger and more multisided manner” (Dabrowski, 1972, p. 7).
Experiencing the world in this unique way carries with it great joys and sometimes great frustrations.
The joys and positives of being overexcitable need to be celebrated. Any frustrations or negatives can be positively dealt with and used to help facilitate the individual’s growth.
I often wonder about the nature of high intelligence, sensitivity and intensity; thinking of them as co-occurring.
Gifted advocate and educational pioneer, Annemarie Roeper may have defined it best when she defined “high ability” as: “A greater degree of awareness and sensitivity and a greater ability to understand and transform perceptions into intellectual and emotional experiences.”
This tendency may lead to a certain amount of intensity especially when paired with the persistence, perfectionism and insatiable curiosity often seen in highly intelligent individuals. What a combination of traits!
Many of my clients became aware that they often lacked awareness of the effects of their intensity on other people, including on their own children and spouse.
Since most highly intelligent, creative people do not go around thinking of themselves as intense adults, they may not have attributed other people’s reactions to this trait.
Owning one’s own intensity may also mean owning one’s own giftedness as well.
With such awareness comes the responsibility to examine the impact of one’s own sensitivities, gifts and intensities on other people.
This self-exploration often allows people to develop the mindfulness and the intentional awareness to begin to take ownership of their own intensity/OEs, depending on who they are communicating with and the situation.
People have different tolerance levels for intense people and there are many who find them annoying, “know-it-alls,” or “just too much.”
Others fully enjoy the experience of such enthusiastic, creative and emotional people and seek them out as reflection of themselves.
Developing greater control of the “volume of intensity” may lead to more relaxed or responsive interactions with friends, family and colleagues.
This modulation of intensity can be relatively simple and may include; speaking more slowly, focusing on one topic at a time, not overwhelming listeners with too much information and attending to listener’s body language for clues of their reactions.
Such mindfulness regarding one’s own intensity frequently leads to an enhanced sense of competence and mastery over what may have been a previously little known aspect of oneself.
This in turn leads to enhanced social interactions and satisfaction as well.
Thanks to Dr. Seiger for providing this article.
She has worked with gifted, talented, creative, performing, visual artists for over 20 years.
Photo added by site author Douglas Eby: Mia Wasikowska portrayed troubled, suicidal teen gymnast Sophie in the outstanding HBO psychotherapy drama series “In Treatment.”
Her work made Sophie one of the most powerful, conflicted and emotionally complex teen characters I have seen. She was both fascinating and wrenching in her distraught intensity.
In a magazine interview about her lead role in Tim Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland, Wasikowska (pronounced vash-i-kov-ska) commented, “As a teenager I was very anxious. I had a lot of energy and passion that I wanted to channel into creative things, and I always felt like I wasn’t achieving enough.”
From my post Mia Wasikowska on teen anxiety and energy.
See more articles on Excitabilities in the Intensity section of this High Ability site.