The Psychology of Intensity
Updated: Nov 13, 2018
When we think of intensity, we tend to consider it in a negative light. People who are intense are often viewed as over-reactive, too inquisitive, too sensitive, overly driven, too talkative, too loud. There is a “too-muchness” perceived in the way intense people experience the world and express themselves that is difficult for those around them — and sometimes even their own selves — to understand and accept, let alone appreciate.
I’ve often heard the experience of intensity described as a chariot drawn by wild horses. Each of the horses is fast and powerful, and pulling in its own different direction. There is an upsurge of power and force, but because the horses’ raw energy is not guided and aligned, the horses go everywhere at once and the chariot can’t get where it wants to go. At the same time, those in the vicinity of the intense chariot are overwhelmed by its uncontrolled power — they tend to either run away or try to shut it down, repelled by the too-muchness.
Having spent many years learning to understand and manage my own intensity, and helping my kids and clients do the same, I find this metaphor particularly apt. I know the frustrations of trying to drive an unwieldy chariot and the pain of being misunderstood and unsupported. And I know what it’s like to watch, oftentimes helplessly, a loved one struggle with their own contingent of wild horses.
But I also know the many joys and opportunities that come with a high level of energy, sensitivity, and passion. Intensity in and of itself is not a bad thing. There is deep fulfillment in learning how to get those wild horses aligned and experiencing a vibrant chariot ride if we are willing to do the work towards personal mastery. What I know for sure is that understanding intensity is the first essential step toward mastery.
Intensity can perhaps be best understood in the work of Polish psychologist and psychiatrist, Kazimierz Dabrowski (1902-1980). Dabrowski spent much of his life trying to understand extreme levels of intensity and sensitivity in certain individuals and the ways they experienced the world. Through his research, he coined the term “overexcitability” to describe these intensified sensitivities and reactions to stimuli — both internal and external. He described overexcitability (OE) as a heightened physiological experience of sensory stimuli resulting from increased sensitivity of the nervous system (Mandaglio & Tillier, 2006). These heightened experiences become part of the fabric of a person’s being, shaping how an overexcitable person views and reacts to the world, as well as how others perceive and react to him.
The physiological underpinnings of overexcitability/ intensity result in an experience of both one’s inner and outer world that is qualitatively different from the norm.
Dabrowski identified five forms of OE — psychomotor, sensual, intellectual, emotional, and imaginational. Each of these intensities tends to manifest in the following ways:
Psychomotor — excessive energy, restlessness, intense need for movement, and drivenness
Sensual — heightened sensory awareness and aesthetic pleasure of art, music, words, form, and balance
Intellectual — extraordinary curiosity, passion for learning, and strong need to seek truth and understand theory
Emotional — great depth and intensity of emotional life expressed in extremes of feeling from fervent joy and enthusiasm to profound sadness, fear or anger
Imaginational — highly active imagination for dreams, fantasies, and inventions, rich imagery and associations, and strong need for the unique and novel (Daniels & Piechowski, 2009)
These descriptions of overexcitability sound a lot like richness of experience — vivid imagination, passion for learning, deep appreciation for beauty and aesthetics. How is it that this richness becomes so overwhelming and difficult for individuals and the people around them to manage? At what point does it become “too much”?
In considering intensity from the standpoint of information flow in the nervous system (Piechowski, 1979), we can begin to understand how overexcitability and intensity are perceived as unwieldy behaviors in need of temperance.
A Systems View of Intensity
Like all systems, the nervous system is comprised of a complex group of parts that interact to form a coherent whole. Sensory information comes in to the system, is checked for safety or danger, redistributed for processing where it interacts with beliefs, values, memories, skills, imagination, etc. and then is either discarded, stored, worked with, or acted upon. At any point in this process, changes or limitations in one or more components in the system will affect the overall quality and quantity of what is produced. This, of course, is a very simplified version of how the nervous system works, but highlights how the system can only effectively process what is flowing through it if all of the components are well-equipped and working in a cohesive way to handle the sensory input.
In the case of intensity, the challenge occurs when the flow of sensory information drastically exceeds the capacity of the nervous system, or parts of it, to contain and effectively process it. This discrepancy results in a tension, much like the pressure of water blasted through a fire hose, that results in a “too-muchness” kind of intensity.
We can understand this systems challenge through a number of different examples:
A child with a psychomotor OE who has an intense need to move, yet is required to sit in a classroom for long periods of time, does not yet have the maturity in some of her system’s “components” to effectively manage the intense urges or communicate her needs. This tension results in intensified behaviors such as nervous fidgeting and acting out.
A parent who is juggling multiple stressors such as a demanding job, financial struggles, a child with special needs, and an ailing parent, may exceed his system’s resources for effectively managing all of these issues. The emotional tension results in intense reactions such as angry outbursts, aggressiveness, or anxiety.
A person with sensual OEs — a highly sensitive person — may experience sensory overwhelm upon going to a crowded mall. The sheer volume of input from the people, busyness, noise and smells exceeds her system’s capacity for effectively processing it all. This overload creates a system tension resulting in intensified reactions such as difficulty focusing, racing heart, headache and/or stomach upset.
In each of these cases, the volume and force of the information coming in or within the system exceeds that particular system's capacity for managing it, resulting in a tension and an 'inside-out' output that is intense and challenging to wield.
How is one to manage, or support another, with this kind of tension and intensity? If you’ve ever seen firefighters trying to wield a high pressure fire hose, it's no small feat! It requires a level of mastery that comes after much guidance, practice, and experience — learning that cannot, and should not, happen in isolation. Navigating these intensities requires the support of others who can, at minimum, empathize with the struggles of intensity, and, at best, guide an overexcitable person on how to understand, nurture, and work with intensity in creative, skillful and meaningful ways. Unfortunately, we have a lot of work to do when it comes to supporting intensity...
To those who don’t have these heightened sensitivities or understand what underlies them, be it teachers, family, friends, co-workers, employers, etc., intensity is often seen as overreactive and inappropriate problem behavior in need of toning down. “Calm down,” “You’re so dramatic,” “Pull yourself together,” and “What’s your problem?” are commonly heard phrases overexcitable children and adults hear. Disregard, annoyance, rejection, anger and punishment are common reactions they experience. In some cases, intensity is mistaken for indicators of pathology, “defects” in need of fixing (Daniels & Piechowski, 2009).
Intensity is often seen as overreactive and inappropriate problem behavior in need of toning down. In some cases, intensity is mistaken for indicators of pathology, “defects” in need of fixing.
These kinds of negative reactions experienced over and over lead to deep emotional wounds and confusion that only serve to create further tension and too-muchness in overexcitable people’s already overwhelmed systems. In children, this can manifest as acting out, argumentativeness, hyperactivity, meltdowns, sleep issues, and somatic expressions of headaches and stomach aches. In adults, the tension can be expressed in disillusionment, depression, anxiety, anger, relationship conflict, and employment struggles.
Sadly, because of this misunderstanding, overexcitable people — those with wild horses — not only never learn to understand and skillfully manage their personal chariots, but also rarely get to experience the feelings of well-being, confidence, and strong sense of self that come from personal mastery.
It’s important to note that Dabrowski’s body of work and the psychology of intensity go much deeper and are more complex than what I have described here. Furthermore, in some cases, intense behaviors are a result of an underlying disorder or condition that would benefit from therapeutic or medicinal treatment. These issues are important in developing a comprehensive understanding of intensity, but beyond the scope of this particular post. For the purposes of this overview, I have provided a basic level of understanding that enables us to begin meeting intensity, whether our own or another’s, in a more open, compassionate way. If you are interested in delving further into the topic of intensity, I invite you to stay tuned for future posts.
Because it falls outside the realm of what is seen as typical behavior, intensity has been sorely misunderstood and misguided in our culture. Transforming it needs to occur at a couple of levels. Firstly, it needs to transform at the conceptual level of how it is perceived and understood. Rather than assume intensity is a negative trait in need of temperance and “fixing,” we — parents, educators, health care professionals, employers, etc. — can widen our perspectives and view it as a potential for something full of richness and depth; something that needs TLC and a more divergent approach to development. In meeting intensity with openness and compassion, we can begin nurturing it in more skillful ways. As Rumi once said, “It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.”
Secondly, transformation needs to occur at the level at which we support children, adults and our own selves with intensity. Finding support from someone who deeply understands intensity and can mirror it is incredibly helpful and can significantly compress the learning curve towards self mastery. Learning how to turn towards intensity in an open, mindful way, developing the clarity to discern the subtleties of one’s particular “brand” of intensity, (i.e., how intensity uniquely manifests for you or a loved one), and cultivating the skills for supporting one’s self and one’s inner experience are essential if we are to embrace intensity in ways that move us toward falling in love with it rather than fighting it.
To paraphrase the words of one of my favourite masters, American modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, there is a life force, a vitality that exists within each of us that longs to be translated into action. And because each of us is unique, if the expression of our life force is blocked or stifled in some way, it will be lost and will never exist in the world. Our job is not to determine the value or goodness of that life force, or to compare it to others’, but only to do what we need to do to keep our channels clear and open so that it can express itself in the world.
Intensity is that life force. Our work is to take the steps toward building our inner resources, and/or supporting others in those steps, to enable that unique vitality to find its place in the world. Please do not lock it away.
Daniels, S.P. & Piechowski, M.M. (2009). Living with Intensity. Tucson: Great Potential Press, Inc.
Mendaglio, S. & Tillier, W. (2006). Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration and Giftedness: Overexcitability Research Findings. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 30:1.
Piechowski, M.M. (1979). Developmental potential. In N. Colangelo & R. T. Zaffrann (Eds.), New Voices in Counseling the Gifted (pp. 25-57). Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.
About Kelly Pryde
Kelly is a neuropsychologist, coach, and mindfulness teacher who specializes in helping people of all ages transform intensity and overwhelm into calm and resilience. She offers mindfulness-based coaching and training to people around the world on issues related to giftedness, parenting and conflict. She currently lives in the Greater Toronto Area, Canada.