Sustainable Intensity and Self-Compassion: A Mindful Perspective
Updated: Sep 8, 2019
Originally published by thirdfactor.org
You know quite well, deep within you, that there is only a single magic, a single power, a single salvation…and that is called loving. Well, then, love your suffering. Do not resist it, do not flee from it. It is your aversion that hurts, nothing else.
―Herman Hesse, Wer lieben kann, ist glücklich. Über die Liebe
The Intensity Paradox
People with intensity tend to experience life in big ways—they imagine rich possibilities, feel deeply, engage passionately, and are driven to explore and understand everything. While this capacity offers them a unique opportunity to experience life in a profoundly vibrant way, without learning how to support and channel this intensity skillfully, they often find themselves cycling through—and stuck in—three common “outs”: burn-out, bum-out, and freak-out. These “outs” are hallmark features of unsustainable intensity and can create deep suffering.
In my own life as an intense person, and in my work as a coach supporting others with intensity, I’ve become well-versed in the three outs. Burn-out has been a particular struggle for me as a mother of two intense kids, especially before I knew about and understood intensity! I would get so overwhelmed by the demands and living up to my own standards that I frequently found myself with a complete loss of the energy and motivation I needed to function well. Freak-out has been an unfortunate close companion to me as a parent, too: it has involved unskillful reactions to situations that haven’t been the way I would have liked them to be. And bum-out is the suffering I’ve experienced when I’ve felt like my parenting didn’t measure up. Because of these recurring, deeply unpleasant experiences in many areas of my life (even beyond my role as a mother) I’ve spent many years learning how to manage my intense desires, needs, and standards in sustainable ways and to drastically lessen my personal suffering as a result.
A contradiction arises, however, when we consider managing intensity and lessening suffering, as we also know that the inner disharmony and discomfort created by intensity is an essential ingredient on the path of advanced development. Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration (TPD) describes intense inner conflict as a catalyst for growth that can propel those of us living with intensity through the multilevel journey toward our chosen ideals.
Personality development, especially accelerated development, cannot be realized without manifest nervousness and [psychological maladjustment]. It is in this way that such experiences as inner conflict, sadness, anxiety, obsession, depression, and psychic tension all cooperate in the promotion of humanistic development. … We cannot…advise one to seek liberation from psychic tension since this very tension is absolutely necessary for creative development.(Dabrowski, 2015)
The questions arise: If we seek to reduce our suffering, do we lessen our chances for deep personal growth? If, on the other hand, we dive into our intensity and push onward and upward through the tension, do we risk cycling through burn-out, bum-out, and freak-out for the duration of the journey? Must we suffer our way to higher levels of being?
Fortunately, and perhaps surprisingly, the answers to these questions are no. I have found that mindfulness and self-compassion offer a wise approach to supporting the intense psychic tension we feel as we move through the levels of positive disintegration; these practices can both lessen our subjective perception of suffering and expand our possibilities for sustainably moving toward our chosen ideals. In other words, mindfulness and self-compassion allow us to still feel the pain, sadness, and tension we need to feel in order to grow, but they allow us to do so in ways that don’t cause us us fall apart. It is like a supported, nurtured, and wisdom-driven version of the “climb”, rather than the dangerous internal battlefield version.
A Mindful Perspective on Suffering
In the mindfulness tradition, there is an equation that is helpful in more fully understanding the nature of suffering: Pain x Resistance = Suffering
In this equation, “pain” refers to the difficult life experiences that we encounter as intense human beings—being misunderstood, struggling with relational conflict, loneliness, social injustice, living inauthentically, and enduring the disintegrative process of growth and development. “Resistance” refers to our efforts to push away the reality of our situation and the associated pain. This includes tensing the body, repressing the pain and pushing through, numbing the pain and disconnecting, and ruminating on ways to eliminate or “fix” the discomfort. “Suffering,” then, is the anguish we add to our pain when we fight against the reality of it.
In my work as a neuropsychologist and coach, I’ve worked with many intense parents of intense kids who are experiencing suffering in their role as parents. Like me, not only do they have the monumental task of supporting and guiding their children in using their intensities skillfully in today’s world (a task they undertake with sincerity and dedication, and often with little external support), but they also experience the inner tension that comes from their own deep desire to evolve on their personal path of development. This can lead to a vicious cycle of burn-out, bum-out, and freak-out as they strive to accomplish all of these things without acknowledging the realities of the time, energy, and external support needed, or the sheer magnitude of these endeavors. They can clearly see how things could or should be, and resist the realities of their limitations and time/energy/external support constraints. They push away or numb their pain; disconnect from, ruminate, and/or obsess about the situation as it is; and suffer deeply.
Their internal dialogue during these difficult periods often goes something like this: How is it that everyone else seems to have this figured out and I haven’t? I’m not trying hard enough. I’m not cut out for this. When is it my turn to get my needs met? This is not right. I can’t continue on like this. And the more they resist the pain of this mismatch between where they are and where they want to be, the more deeply they suffer and become stuck in inner tension and conflict. In the case of parents and children, unsupported intensity amongst family members can cross-multiply and, at the extreme, reach toxic levels of distress and create unsustainable living for everyone involved.
The question then becomes: how do we navigate this painful rocky terrain when all of our efforts seem to be going nowhere?
Meeting Our Inner Experience with Self-Compassion
In her groundbreaking book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, psychologist and researcher Kristin Neff uses a chemical metaphor to describe pain: Pain is like a gaseous substance. If you allow it to just be there, freely, it will eventually dissipate on its own. If you fight and resist the pain, however, walling it into a confined space, the pressure will grow and grow until there is an explosion.
Theoretically, this metaphor and the idea of not fighting our painful experience makes good sense; but how are we to allow pain to “just be there, freely” in reality? This sounds like a very tall—if not downright impossible—order when it comes to intensity. This is where the practice of self-compassion can become a powerful catalyst for the acceptance process.
Self-compassion has its origins in the Buddhist insight tradition and has been secularized and conceptualized by Neff as a construct in the scientific literature (2003). Her definition of self-compassion is related to the general definition of “compassion” and involves being touched by and open to one’s own pain and suffering, not averting from it, and meeting that pain with care and kindness. Self-compassion consists of three central components according to Neff: mindful awareness, common humanity, and self-kindness. These elements mutually interact to create a compassionate self that can offer us soothing support when we encounter overwhelm, maladjustment, and inner conflict due to intensity.
Mindfulness, as a state of awareness, involves being present with one’s painful experience in a clear and equanimous way. A very common experience for those of us living with intensity is to be swept away by and lost in our strong inner reactions to difficult circumstances. I often refer to mindfulness as “meta-awareness”—being aware of what’s going on in our field of attention without overidentifying with or getting lost in the storyline. Meta-awareness creates a spaciousness in which we can more clearly see what is happening and choose a skillful way of responding. When we are struggling with an intense experience, mindfulness enables us to notice and open to our pain—the first element of compassion. Neff suggests that when we become aware of these distressing moments, we can respond by noting to ourselves, This is really painful. This simple acknowledgement opens the door for self-compassion to enter more fully.
During painful experiences, an instinctual reaction is to self-isolate; we become absorbed in our suffering and begin to feel more and more separate and vulnerable. This tendency is even more pronounced amongst those of us with intensities and overexcitabilities (OEs), as we often have felt a disconnection and sense of not belonging due to our different way of experiencing and being in the world. While Neff suggests that we connect with the shared human experience of suffering to avoid isolating ourselves, I have found that people with intensity often struggle with this notion in the early stages of self-compassion; they find it difficult—and sometimes overwhelming—to connect with the shared experience of humanity. For this reason, I tend to modify this component of self-compassion slightly to Common Developmental Journey. In the same way Dabrowski recommended that people with OEs take a developmental view of their situation and experiences, reframing our pain in the context of a shared experience amongst individuals on the rocky path of advanced development can bring some relief to our suffering. The journey and associated experiences are still painful, but the pain is not compounded by feelings of being alone and isolated.
When we become mindful of our self-isolating thoughts such as, Why does this always happen to me? or Why does everyone else have this figured out and I don’t?, we can remind ourselves that this journey is not a smooth or easy one and that countless other individuals with intensity have struggled greatly along the way—perhaps even our own ancestors, family members, and friends. Here, it can be helpful to use a variation on Neff’s suggestion by shifting our self-talk and noting to ourselves, Painful experiences are part of this journey. This recognition can help us embrace our intensity in a more sustainable way and enable us to turn towards ourselves with greater support and kindness.
Self-kindness is the antithesis of the inner critic. In situations or moments where we are struggling, the inner critic can chime in harshly, reminding us of all the ways we haven’t measured up, don’t know enough, aren’t trying hard enough, will never reach the heights we long for, and so on. As most of us with intensity and drive can attest, this list can be quite lengthy and elaborate. Along with our tendency to self-isolate, this barrage of self-criticism, in addition to its many variants—perfectionism, imposter syndrome, resistance, and so on—contributes heavily to the vicious cycle of burn-out, bum-out, and freak-out.
Self-kindness, on the other hand, involves turning toward ourselves in the same way we would toward a dear friend or loved one who is suffering—with genuine care and support. Here again, mindful awareness is essential to noticing when our inner critic is online so that our compassionate self can gently intervene with soothing words such as, May I be kind to myself, I’m sorry this is so hard right now, and I’m here for you. In meeting our painful inner experience with compassion, we create the space for it to just be there and to feel safe and comforted. As American psychologist Carl Rogers reminds us, “When I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
Many people find it helpful to journal about the situations they are struggling with, using mindful awareness, a sense of common developmental journey, and kindness to reflect on and process their inner experience in a self-compassionate way. Using a self-compassion mantra is also useful to offer ourselves soothing support in the heat of intensity. The phrases mentioned above can be combined and used to evoke the three aspects of self-compassion in the following way (or in a modified way that feels natural for you):
This is really painful. Painful experiences are part of this journey. May I be kind to myself.
Because intensity is rooted in the nervous system as “superstimulatable” sensory experience, mindfulness and self-compassion are uniquely suited to supporting us at a neurobiological level. In his work on the science of compassion, clinical psychologist Paul Gilbert highlights the role of mindfulness and self-compassion in soothing our nervous system when emotional reactivity overwhelms us. While difficult emotions activate the body’s threat response, the act of turning towards ourselves with care and compassion engages the parts of the nervous system—the affiliative system—that deactivate the threat response and enable us to feel safe and supported.
At the psychological level, mindfulness and self-compassion are consistent with notions of self-acceptance and personal growth in the humanistic tradition—ideas Dabrowski advocated in order for individuals to move through the painful process of disintegration and reintegrate at higher levels. They allow us to embrace ourselves on the level of personality development and psychological well-being. Living mindfully requires us to accept that our mental thriving and mastery are sustained efforts, and compassion enables us to be fully human along the way; embracing both our lower self (the one in pain) and our higher self (the one being inspired and guided by our ideals). They both get to be—and must be—included in our sense of psychological self in order to live mindfully and compassionately.
Finally, mindful self-compassion is a powerful tool at the relational level. When we are able to support ourselves and lessen our own emotional reactivity, we can more fully and sustainably support our loved ones and significant others in their intensity. Nervous systems react to the state of the nervous systems around them (their interconnected web is sometimes called the “social nervous system”). By meeting life as it is with openness and kindness, we can meet our loved ones where they are, offering them a social nervous system which includes the presence, safety, and warmth that cultivate intimacy and connection—even in the midst of personal suffering or tension in your social ecosystem.
Transmuting the Tragic Gift
Dabrowski referred to OE as “a tragic gift” to reflect the reality of life with intensity as a difficult and often painful one. But like ancient alchemists who transmuted base metals into gold, we can use self-compassion to transmute the suffering that stems from intensity into hope and resilience. Where our instinct tells us to push onward and upward and resist our pain, self-compassion, along with its component mindfulness, offers us a wise alternative. By changing the way we relate to our intense inner experience—meeting it as it is with compassion and recognition of its role on the journey—we open the door to sustainability and transformation. As we saw, mindfulness and self-compassion do not eliminate the pain inherent to living with intensity, but they offer us a powerful tool for lessening our suffering and generating the space for more skillful, conscious decision-making and relating as we navigate the path toward our chosen ideals.
If you're feeling ready or eager to develop your ability to mindfully support and sustain your intensities, I warmly invite you to join one of our online group courses on gifted mindfulness. You can learn more about our offerings here. I also welcome you to reach out to me if you'd like to explore one-to-one gifted-specific mindfulness coaching or to join our virtual community of practice.
Dabrowski, K. (2015). Personality Shaping Through Positive Disintegration. Otto: Red Pill Press. Gilbert, P. & Choden (2014). Mindful Compassion. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.
Neff, K. (2003). Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself. Self and Identity, 2: 85–10
Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.