After three years of interviewing overexcitable adults for my podcast, Embracing Intensity, I’ve noticed some themes in our stories. All of my guests are people who have learned to channel their intensity in a positive direction—but it pretty much never started off for them that way.
It didn’t for me, either. My journey began when my son first started school. Despite being labeled gifted, he had been having some behavior problems, so I looked up giftedness and behavior problems to see how to help him have a successful school experience. That’s when I discovered the concept of overexcitability—and recognized many of the traits in myself. Eventually this led me to launch my podcast, in the hope that by interviewing others who had learned to manage the superpower of intensity, I could help other highly excitable adults use their fire without getting burned.
One of the great things about interviewing gifted, creative, and outside-the-box thinkers is that no two stories are alike. After interviewing over 60 guests, though, I have noticed common themes.
No matter where they start off, gifted and intense people often feel like square pegs in round holes. In my family, we were all square pegs. That can be very comfortable because you’re surrounded by people who understand you. On the other hand, it can create a lot of chaos! Then there are those more achievement-oriented families that put pressure on their kids to “succeed”—which usually means fitting into that round hole. Regardless of your environment, however, you still have to find a way to deal with that intensity, because as Mely Brown of Self-Care for Sensitive Women put it, the experience is like trying to “put all of Niagara Falls through a straw.”
Messages of “Too Much”
Gifted and intense people simultaneously get messages of “too much” and “not enough”—messages that can arise both internally and externally. When the world feels like too much, you may start trying to tune things out. When the world thinks you are too much, you may start to tone yourself down. It’s easy to see why we’re tempted to tone down to fit in, but what actually happened to many of the people I talked to was an even stronger sense of loneliness. That’s because you start losing track of who you are.Common paths that we highly excitable people take when we’re trying to tune out include retreating into our heads or into the world of books, tuning out our bodies entirely, and getting consumed by busyness. Amy Pearson, of Live Brazen, experienced years of “approval addiction.”
She chased gold stars from other people—stars that never really made her happy. It wasn’t until she stopped focusing on achieving for others and started focusing on achieving for herself that she connected with people who really “got” her.
In my case, I was “too talkative,” but also “not living up to my potential.” Little annoyances were uncomfortable for me, and uncomfortable things were painful, so I learned at an early age to tune out my body. This eventually manifested in chronic pain I could no longer tune out. I toned myself down further in my first marriage as a part of what I thought was “maturing,” but began to lose some of myself in the process.
Leela Sinha, author of You’re Not Too Much, noted that “if you ‘toned it down’ and found yourself in a place where you sort of fit, as your toned-down self, the odds are, you’re going to get sick of it and you’re going to bust out of that box. [So] the less time you spend building yourself into a false reality, the better off you are.”
When we experience the world more intensely than others do, we can experience stress more intensely as well. Understanding how to regulate our stress and energy levels is a crucial part of maintaining the energy it takes to maximize our potential. There are five main areas of stress and energy balance: physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual. It can be helpful to look at each of these areas and see what activities in our day-to-day lives are energizing and which we find draining. That’s how we can prepare to increase the energizing activities and decrease the stressful, draining ones.
One way to decrease stressful and draining activities and increase energizing ones is to develop healthy personal habits. It may surprise many who are addicted to achievement that one of these healthy habits is focusing on doing the things we want to do rather than the things we think we “should” do. This makes the activities inherently more energizing. Other healthy habits include self-reflection such as journaling and gratitude practices, developing rituals and routines, automating repetitive tasks, and delegating tasks that don’t energize us whenever possible.
Living Within The Lines
For years, I followed the expected path. I got married, got an advanced degree, and worked in schools at a job that I was good at and was moderately fulfilling. I believed that the adult thing to do was get a “day job,” and that any other interests should become hobbies.
For Nisha Supahan, living within the lines took the form of supporting her whole family in their own endeavors including leading her tribal ceremony dance with her father, taking care of her grandmother, running her husband’s tattoo parlor and managing her children’s modeling careers. Now she is on an adventure of finding her own passions and interests.
But then, at the point where I met most of my adult “goals”—getting married, working in a career that suited me, participating on a community theater board, and having my first child—I found myself suddenly a single mom reexamining everything I had taken for granted.
Catalysts for change in our lives can take many forms. What they have in common is that “aha” moment, whether a self-realization, a life crisis, or some other form of positive disintegration. It’s where you feel like your life is falling apart, only to realize that it can come together into a stronger whole. In the case of Angela Rose Fields, shamanic healer and coach, the catalyst looked like a mental health breakdown as she started to connect more deeply to both herself and the world around her.
Whatever your catalyst, it’s usually followed by a period of self-reflection. Some tools I’ve seen many of my interviewees use at this stage are exploration of their purpose and values, self-education through classes and books, mindfulness and meditation, spending time in nature, and all kinds of creative expression. Understanding where we are can help us to move consciously in the direction we want.
Using Your Fire For Good
A final component that has been infinitely helpful for gifted and outside-the-box thinkers is finding community. I found mine through a Unitarian Universalist congregation and local theater groups, as well as online networking groups. Those I’ve interviewed have found theirs through educational groups, creative circles, social justice movements, and spiritual communities. Paula Prober, author of Your Rainforest Mind, said that taking Argentine tango offered her an excellent outlet for connecting with other gifted and creative thinkers. Whatever your interests, there are bound to be others out there who have interests in common with you—or something new you could try that feels good or suits your intensity.
The last ten years for me have been a process of getting to know myself better so that I can help others do the same. I’ve moved from doing things because I think I “should” to consciously choosing what I do and knowing the reason behind it. When I make a choice that does not turn out as expected, I forgive myself because I know the basis of my decisions, even if the outcome did not turn out as I expected. It’s still not easy being intense, but once you learn how to use that fire without getting burned, you can embrace your intensity as the superpower it can truly become!
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