Are emotionally intense people misunderstood, or simply emotionally immature? I investigate society’s view of emotional intensity and why intense people deserve a break.
“You are too intense,” is a phrase most emotionally intense people are tired of hearing. It’s like telling someone their voice is too deep, or their eyes are too blue, because emotional intensity can’t be switched off, it’s simply the way some people are. Yet it is something that is often misunderstood by a society ill-equipped to deal with people who are so deeply in touch with their emotions, by calling them emotionally immature.
On the contrary, these people experience life on a very intense, full-on emotional level, a maturity that those who are perhaps not as in-tune with their feelings often find difficult to deal with, because they find it overwhelming. For the emotionally intense person it is simply normal and they often don’t perceive how different their experience of life is to that of other people.
In a piece investigating why emotionally intense people are prone to have troubling issues in relationships, educator Ariane Benefit writes that our culture treats emotional intensity with a level of disdain, often putting it in the mental illness box, seeing it as a defect in character and denying the validity of such a person’s reality. This failure to recognise the variation in intensity leads these individuals to try suppress their intensity, rather than learning how to cope with it.
Part of the problem may be that emotional wellbeing is often overlooked in our education system, and children aren’t brought up learning how to deal with various levels of intensity and that it’s okay to be more or less intense, leaving the more emotionally intense children feeling misunderstood and pressured to be “normal”.
As adults in the workplace this perpetuates, and Benefit uses Steve Jobs reputation as an “obnoxious egomaniac” as a case in point – even when his emotional intensity was key to him becoming the iconic innovator that he was, challenging the status quo and refusing to have his visionary ideas watered down by the popular thinking. Yes, Jobs was considered a genius, but there’s long been a strong correlation between giftedness and emotional intensity, one of the five areas of intensity identified by influential psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski in gifted individuals.
It’s paradoxical, argues Benefit, that it is desirable today to be unemotional, unaffected, self-controlled, to appear centred and not challenge anyone, yet expected to be passionate about something. One can’t be passionate without being emotional. And therein lies the crux of the problem according to Benefit.
“When did having and showing deep emotions become a fatal flaw?” she asks.
We live in a culture that celebrates the common denominator – the average – and those on the extremities are treated with caution and fear and forced to conform, to dumb-down, to become less intense, to forgo part of who they are in order to be like everyone else. This can have a stifling effect on the valuable contribution these individuals can make to society. However, the fact remains that emotionally intense people are in the minority, and a level of conformity is needed to be able to function in society.
In her article, Benefit states that her plea for the emotionally intense isn’t intended to excuse bad behaviour and poor social skills, but rather to encourage more productive – and creative – ways of dealing with our differences through awareness and understanding.