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.
—Herman Hesse, quoted by Imi
Emotional intensity—it’s a common characteristics among Third Factor readers. We know it can be a good thing: after all, it can add fanfare to life’s great joys and heightens the small pleasures. Unfortunately, it does the same thing to our wounds and sadnesses. When paired as it so often is with high sensitivity, it can do things like crank up our response to perceived injustice or churn shame out of an alchemy of perfectionism or distorted ideals. And all this can make us run from our own feelings.
Recently, I had a chance to chat with an expert in precisely these challenges. Imi Lo is a therapist who specializes in the emotionally sensitive and intense population through her practice, Eggshell Therapy and Coaching. On the main page of Eggshell’s website, Imi lists a range of experiences that are common among her clientele. For example: You are naturally excitable and passionate—even if you don’t show it on the outside. Or, You have an innate urge to push the boundaries of conformity, even when it makes life difficult for you sometimes.
“These are people who have been told all their life that they’re too intense, too sensitive,” Imi told me. “And they don’t know why.” For starters, her clients tend to be deep thinkers. “They think what others don’t,” she said, a trait which often leads them to feel like they don’t fit in—often even in their own families. It’s a perfect environment for existential depression—and for feelings that run to extremes.
For those who never find an escape from this outsiderhood, the struggle can continue into adulthood. “They may try their whole life to fit into the mainstream without much success,” said Imi. “They can’t stand how shallow and boring it is. Maybe they really want to be recognized at work, but they can’t be in a more conventional way.”
You May Be Sensitive, But Don’t Just Hide
As Imi and I discussed, there’s definitely a population out there that fits this description—but it’s a group that can prove tough to name. Labels, after all, are useful for quick, shallow communication, relying on rough patterns with which we’re generally familiar. Such stereotypes, however, might put the focus on only one corner of a broader picture. They can highlight positives or negatives without considering the trade-offs that go with them. And they might carry baggage that doesn’t apply in all cases.
With such issues in mind, Imi has given a lot of thought to the words she uses to describe this population. One label she uses fairly often are highly sensitive person (HSP). The term, she explained, is useful because it’s widely known, providing a good place to start the conversation.
Nevertheless, “HSP” doesn’t quite hit the mark Imi’s aiming for. “I’m very grateful to Elaine Aron for bringing the highly sensitive person into the mainstream, but I don’t fully identify with her description,” she explained. “’Sensitivity’ has a sense of fragility that is overemphasized. It only captures the more passive—the yin aspect.” She noted that a lot of books about HSPs focus on defensive strategies like lying in a dark room, getting more rest, and avoiding certain people—an approach that neglects the need for stimulation. “Understimulation is problematic, too. It’s not just about hiding. You need to find a sweet spot between stimulation and rest. You can strengthen your muscle. You are a part of the world!”
In her work at Eggshell, Imi has effectively expanded Dr. Aron’s definition of the highly sensitive person to emphasize a group that is passionate, perceptive, creative, and often intellectually intense. “If you look at the dictionary definition of intensity, you see concentration, strength, excitement. You very much see the people that I work with. They’re rich and complex in their inner life, very aware of their environment, so very vivid. These people are on the path to become the leaders of the world.”
Would This Rose By Other Names Smell Sweeter?
Though it’s not as well known as the label HSP, Imi also finds the term overexcitability useful when talking about and with her clients. “I do rely quite a lot on the description of OE,” she said. “It’s very useful—almost because people don’t know about it.”
Overexcitability, as our regular readers know, is a concept from Kazimierz Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration (TPD) that has become fairly well-known in gifted education circles, if not so much outside of them. She did echo a common complaint about the English word, a translation from Dabrowski’s native Polish nadpobudliwość that has also been rendered as “superstimulable.” “I’m not sure about the prefix “over,” because it seems to suggest that it is too much, but it’s just natural for the person,” Imi said. All the same, she finds the concept beneath the awkward term tremendously useful.
Her favorite term, however, is intensity. “I very much love the word,” she told me. “I know it’s often linked to disorders, but even so, there’s a lot of good stuff in there.”
When Is Intensity Pathological?
Of course, this raises a crucial question: when is an intense person suffering from something that we should consider a pathology? Are some people who proudly wear the term “intense” actually hiding from the fact that there is something really unhealthy going on?
“I try to be very careful,” Imi said. “You can be intense and have a mental illness. There is a place for medication. I talk about misdiagnosis because a lot of people are misdiagnosed. But there can come a place where you need psychiatric input. You may need it to save your life.
“As for what is considered pathological,” she continued, “it’s a complex philosophical question. I emphasize that all these traits are a spectrum. Take personality disorders: we all share these universal traits, but some of us are pushed to a threshold where we can’t function in the world, and that makes it a dysfunction. But pathology is not just when your behavior is outside the norm. A lot of people assume there is something wrong with them just because they’re not normative.”
One More Label: The G-Word
As we’ve already alluded to, Imi’s expanded definition of high sensitivity includes an overlap with that construct we call “giftedness.” And as anyone who uses this term knows, it’s highly imperfect—even distracting. In some cases, however, it’s the best option.
“I use it because I myself have been through the journey of finding out about the word, cringing about it, procrastinating about getting an IQ test, getting the test, and still feeling like I can’t come out of the closet,” Imi said.
She herself wanted to find a therapist who specialized in giftedness, but struggled to do so. “In terms of marketing, it’s a dirty word to use,” she said. “People see it and say ‘No, I’m not gifted, bye!’”
At the same time, Imi uses the word “gifted” to describe people with emotional gifts, even if they took an IQ test and didn’t score above the common 130 threshold. “I think the IQ thing is very limited,” she said. “It only captures a singular dimension of intelligence. It is so dependent on how you feel that day, or whether or not you have done test before. So it’s useful, but limited.” She says that she also finds Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences useful in working with clients, especially the concepts of intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence.
Indeed, the stereotype of giftedness is one that she has found limiting in her own search for belonging. She joined Mensa, as so many do, looking for kindred spirits, but she never connected with anyone there. “I think it’s in part because the criteria for entering Mensa capture a very limited population. I mean, I’m not interested in chess. But people go in wearing a mask, thinking they need to look and sound that way.”
When Fire Fights Fire
As much as finding gifted peers is a good strategy for many, Imi’s struggle to find belonging even in “gifted” spaces is not uncommon. In my personal observation, when people who are not used to being seen and acknowledged for who they are finally get together, sometimes things can be a little rocky. Everyone’s defenses are up.
Moreover, if your companions share your emotional intensity, you may at times find yourself facing strong righteous feelings—from the opposite side of an issue you care about! To give an example that is timely as I write this, many Americans left of political center are now finding tension where they used to find solidarity as they discuss the contest for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination; many right of center felt the same way in 2016.
And though she has observed it, this isn’t a struggle that Imi herself has participated in, and not just because she’s not an American. “In the majority of the world, people are way too afraid of any conflict,” she said. “People are by and large so repressed! There’s a lot of passive aggression.”
She had some suggestions from her work with clients struggling with such tensions: “See it as fire on the surface, but remember that underneath there’s love. See yourself in them and see them in you, and try to celebrate the commonalities that you have.” For this population, Imi believes, though disagreements may be a fire, this fire need not cause harm—it can even be enjoyable.
Shame: Toxic or Dynamic?
The opportunity to engage passionately with friends and family over charged issues, of course, requires that you have a certain level of confidence in yourself and the worthiness of your ideas. And if you didn’t ever have trusting relationships to begin with, you may not ever have reached this point.
If the people around you are struggling with their own problems, there is a risk that they might engage in something called projective identification. As Imi recently wrote at PsychCentral, the risk, in essence, is that these individuals will dump the negative feelings that they are not up to properly processing on to you.
“If they feel insecure, they make you feel insecure. If they feel helpless, they make you feel helpless,” she explained. This can give rise to fear and division—and sensitive people are particularly vulnerable to its effects. “You need very strong energetic boundaries,” she said.
Unfortunately, if you absorbed a lot of this projected negativity before developing such boundaries, you may experience what Imi calls toxic shame. As she explains in her book, this sort of shame is chronic and debilitating. It makes us hyper-vigilant and worry-prone and is often at the root of anxiety and panic.
It also undermines so much of what intense people tend to want to develop—including creativity. “When you carry a lot of shame, you stifle your own voice,” Imi said. “You don’t feel confidence in what you have to say. You try to hide the truth and protect those around you, because you believe you are the one who is in the wrong. You end up with paralysis by analysis.” By working through toxic shame, Imi said, people can become more generative.
But not all shame is toxic. In Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration, shame is considered a dynamism—that is, one of the forces responsible for restructuring our inner selves and helping us develop personalities in line with our ideals.
So I asked Imi whether she thought Dabrowski was right. Is there is ever a good use for shame?
“I’m sure there is,” she replied. “Healthy shame helps you to know your own values. But the process to use it has to be so delicate. To make good use of healthy shame, you have to have done a lot of work on your toxic shame.” She doesn’t tend to use the concept of healthy shame with her clients, she explained, because chronic toxic shame is epidemic, and the people who come to her need help with that first. Once they’ve healed, they will be equipped to deal with healthy shame on their own—an observation in keeping with Dabrowski’s concept of autopsychotherapy. “That will happen on its own!” Imi said. “They will be driven by a sense of idealism that feels inspiring and motivating. It’s a happy process.”
Fear of Our Emotions
In the end, emotionally intense people will have to learn to accept and work with their own emotions. For those who have always been able to rely on their intellect but whose emotions have gotten them in trouble, it’s not surprising when they develop a fear of the latter.
“A lot of us haven’t been taught how to regulate strong emotions,” Imi explained. “When we were younger, it very often came out as something that felt absolutely uncontrollable. So many of us go the other way—to be overcontrolled. Overcontrolling comes from being out of control—and you’re that way because no one has taught you how to regulate your intensity.”
Intense people therefore often can start off by becoming observers of their own feelings—a core concept in practices like meditation. Even here, however, we can miss the mark if we’re not careful. “Don’t spiritually bypass; try not to over-intellectualize,” Imi said. Intellectually gifted people have a tendency to do this, but as Imi explained, “There is a fine distinction between being able to be an observer of your emotions and spiritually bypassing them and detaching, pretending that you don’t care.”
So what should an emotionally overcontrolled intellectualizer do? “See the message behind the feeling,” Imi said. “Understand that to be a full human, you need to embrace all sides of the river. If you shut down your trauma and pain and anger, then you shut down a part of yourself.”
Fear and strong negative emotions will still come, of course. But when that happens, Imi said, you don’t have to believe what they’re telling you.
The Ultimate Question: How Do We Find Belonging?
And so we return again to a question that ties together so much of what we’ve been exploring lately at Third Factor: is there a way to find belonging?
Imi was frank that finding kindred spirits has been a struggle in her personal life. “There’s an element of grief, a need to reconcile,” she reflected. “It is harder for you.”
But she was not without any hope. “Being authentically who you are is a big first step. How can you find people like you if you don’t tell people who you are? The big step is not to be shy about your intensities. Put it in your Tinder profile! I am intense and crazy. Who’s like me?!
In her book, she recalls the mega-hit Disney film Frozen and the song Let It Go. I mainly know it as that song that generally makes parents run away screaming, but Imi’s book, Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity [Library / Sponsored Amazon], prompted me to listen to it and actually pay attention to the message. And Imi was clearly right when she wrote,
Ultimately, Frozen is a story of ‘un-freezing,’ where the heroine learns to accept her true self and to show her real power. Embedded in the tale is an important message for all exceptional individuals who do not fit nicely into society’s mould: you do not have to sacrifice the truth of who you are, to be loved. Hiding your true self to fit in will paradoxically make you feel more alone and separated from the rest of the world. Most importantly, by playing small you are depriving the world of your gifts, and that serves absolutely no one. (73)
So how can we do this in the real world, where our forbidden powers are a bit more abstract than magic ice fractals?
“Keep going,” Imi said. “Keep trying. Go to places where you might find people like you. Put yourself out there—you’re not alone. It’s time for you to stop seeing yourself as a misfit.”
In fact, Imi went so far as to describe these individuals as “the gifted leaders of the world.” To that I responded, Oh, you mean like Steve Jobs and Virginia Woolf? She had, after all, listed them as examples of intense people on her website.
But that, as it happens, is not what she meant.
“I’m reluctant to throw up big names and say, ‘These are the leaders,’” she told me. “I really mean it on a smaller scale. You can be a mom and be a leader. You can sweep the streets but smile at everyone you see—and that makes you a psychosocial leader.”
It will take you longer to get there, almost certainly. But keep going. It will take work. It will take energy. But that’s how you, as an intense person, will get that stimulation that you need—and get something back from the world. And you might never know the full impact you will have when you take a step out the door and engage, deeply, in your community.