There are many paradoxes in the life of being an emotionally intense person.
You may be highly intuitive when it comes to reading people, but struggle with interpersonal situations.
You may be sensitive and loving, yet fearful of intimacy.
On top of having intense emotions, you also have a mind that is constantly in overdrive. Since there have not been enough conversations about these complex experiences, you may have thought you were the only one struggling with these paradoxes:
Can I be emotionally intense and emotionally empty at the same time?
Why do I have a mind too busy, yet a heart that feels so vacant?
How is it that I can be both too full and too empty?
THE MIND, THE HEART, AND THE BODY
Although we identify as one person, our internal world is a complex system. For example, sometimes a part of us wants A, but another part of us wants B. In some situations, we are mature and adult-like, while at other times we find ourselves feeling and acting like children. Or, we experience a head-and-heart split when we have to make important decisions.
Not only that there are different parts of us, but there are also multiple dimensions to our existence in the world: We have an intellectual mind, an emotional world, as well as a physical body. Most of us have a predominant way of functioning or an aspect that we most identify with.
At birth, we connect most naturally to our physical and emotional bodies. Babies are the most in tune with their bodily needs and are unapologetic in expressing their feelings, even when they have not yet found the words for them.
As we grow older and go to school, we begin to develop vocabularies, learn about using languages, syntax, and grammar. We now have thoughts, and we turn to abstract concepts and words to represent our experiences.
This is when we discover that sometimes when things get difficult, we can escape from our feelings and hide in our thoughts. There is something about the predictable and tangible aspect of logic and reason that allows it to be a refuge when things get messy. Since it is so effective, this ‘flight into reason’ can quickly become a default coping mechanism.
Some people are born more sensitive than others: You may have a neurological system that is more susceptible to pain; You may be more open to being affected by what happens around you. When you were young and had not developed the skills to regulate intense emotions, or if your primary caregivers were not available to guide you or help you to modulate upsets, you would be left in a vulnerable place of having to feel too much, too early, and too soon. As a result, your entire emotional system might become fatigued and traumatised. It is not surprising that, to protect yourself, you have learned to do the complete opposite: To stop feeling. Perhaps unconsciously, you have come to dissociate, to distant and to numb yourself.
In psychology, the term ‘dissociation’ can describe a spectrum of experiences from mild disconnection from your immediate surroundings to a more severe detachment from your entire physical body and emotional reality. It does not just mean cutting off from your surroundings, but also cutting off from yourself. If attending to your feelings have once brought you pain that you were unable to escape and could not bear to feel, it is utterly natural that you have chosen to shut down, cut off, close your eyes, push away and deny your emotional world. As you become more out-of-practice in dealing with your feelings, however, you may end up in a vicious cycle of becoming less and less able to cope with the ebbs and flow of life, and get confused and anxious when intense emotions come up.
“Living a life somewhere else in your mind is nothing more than being a prisoner where you are.” ― Shannon L. Alder
THE DARK SIDE OF BEING INTELLECTUALLY GIFTED
Of course, not all of these come from trauma. Many people who are being labelled or mislabelled as having a ‘personality disorder’ are in fact gifted, and with that, comes a degree of emotional intensity (known as ‘over excitabilities’).
Like many intellectually gifted individuals, your fast running mind and intellectual curiosity are your comfort zone. Instead of staying with what is happening in your physical and emotional realities, your automatic reactions to whatever that arise in you is to problem solve, and to figure-things-out. While your intellectual rigour and processing speed are gifts, they can also conveniently cut you off from the rawness of the visceral and embodied dimensions of life.
The shadow side of being capable and gifted is that you are in a state of constant overdrive. Because it is in your nature to continually strive for growth and betterment, many gifted people find it hard to slow down. Plagued by the existential awareness that time is finite and there are a million things you want to and know you can achieve, you are constantly thinking, feeling, trying to synthesise ideas and concepts.
Your moral sensitivity may also mean that you struggle to accept injustice, cruelty and unfairness that happen for no apparent reason. You want to get to the bottom of the truth, and to make meaning out of these phenomena, so you are always seeking answers. As much as your overdrive comes from a place of healthydrive, your psyche and your body may not be able to keep up with such demand.
There is nothing wrong in exercising your mind and using it to your advantage, but if that becomes your only mode of existence, you miss out on the many other aspects of life. It is like seeing only one shade of the rainbow and not savouring the whole spectrum of richness in this human experience.
FEELING EMPTY AND LOST
Without connecting with your feeling world, life can feel barren.
Hiding in your head might have offered you a temporary sterile space, away from the messiness of human relationship and the imperfections in the world. But overstaying in this uncomfortable comfort zone for too long, you will lose the ability to dance the human dance, to tolerate some degree of chaos and uncertainty that are so essential to feeling alive.
Underneath the mental activity of your mind, you may have a lingering low-grade depression or background anxiety. Although your mind is busy, you may paradoxically also feel vacant, lethargic and bored with life. You may also lose the ability to connect to other people or to dig within yourself for your deeper desires and purposes. These result in the sense of void— the feeling that somehow life is passing by in front of you without you fully living in.
Scientific research has found that we form memories when we have strong emotions. The same part of the brain that’s in charge of processing our feelings and senses is also responsible for storing memories. That is why certain sights, sounds and smells can transport you back to time in the old days. If you have used ‘hiding in your head’ as a strategy for too long, to a point where you struggle to feel things, you can have memory losses. And without emotionally charged memories, you may struggle to form a meaningful personal narrative, make meaning of your life, or have a solid sense of identity.
Ironically, the deep sadness and loneliness that comes from such non-living state can be as painful as, if not more painful than the original emotional turmoil that you were trying to avoid. Running away from the ‘hotness’ of emotions at the moment, you ended up in a dry, cold and arid land that is indeed no better than the struggle in the first place.
“No matter how much suffering you went through, you never wanted to let go of those memories.” – Haruki Murakami
The definition of trauma is something that happened to you— perhaps too early, too soon- that had overwhelmed your ability to cope. Some memories, emotions and grievances are too floodingly painful that to protect you and your ability to function in daily life your mind automatically blocks them out.
Perhaps you are burying an unbearable regret, a painful departure without closure, a grieve that can never be amended. By relying on logic and reason, you do not think about the painful event, and you get on with your life, your work, and your new relationships.
Except that there are exceptions.
You are able to suppress the pain, except in moments where a song, an image, a smell takes you back;
Except when suddenly you are plagued by sadness of no knowable sources or a panic attack that does not seem proportionate to the current reality;
Except when someone says something that triggers you, and you find yourself breaking out in uncontrollable rage.
Whenever something occurs that the mind associates with your original upset, the memory of that bad experience will be re-activated. You may suddenly feel drastically different, have certain intrusive thoughts, or act in a certain way, have unexplainable outbursts, or engage in addictive or self- sabotaging without knowing why.
Humans are not robots. Feelings are not rational and they are not meant to be. The more you try to push them away, the more they will come back in full force, in ways and times that you least expect them.
The truth is, our psyche has its wisdom. It knows that if we are to ignore these memories and painful emotions, they will grow like weeds and eventually destroy us. Your soul knows you need to find a way to digest, process, and dissolve them.
LOSING TOUCH WITH YOUR INSTINCTS
Initially, hiding in your head seems helpful — it helps you to park your emotions away, to show up to work with a stoic outlook and to achieve tangible goals in the world.
In the long run, however, numbing yourself from your feeling world has the opposite impact on your ability to be effective in the world.
By numbing your emotions, you miss out on a rich source of information that can help you problem solve and make decisions. We often experience head-and-heart splits in life: Sometimes, your thoughts say you ‘should’ be acting a certain way or choosing something, when your emotional and physical bodies scream otherwise. Perhaps your mind says you are calm, but you are trembling and sweating and getting a headache. You tell yourself that you ‘should’ be a loyal friend and lover, a diligent worker, while your depression, jealousy and irritations speak the opposite. By losing touch with your body and your emotions, you also lose connection with your intuition. Intuition, also known as ‘tacit knowledge’, is an immaculately designed calculator that combines all that it knows about your desires, knowledge and past experiences- including those that you do not consciously remember- to make decisions that are best for you. Just like your empathetic abilities, your intuition is constantly at work in the background, even without your conscious awareness. When skilfully used, it is your perfect guidance. Even Einstein has famously said: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
To access this well of innate wisdom, you need to stay connected with the more subtle flow of feeling energies within yourself. If you can catch a break from analysing, you will be able to receive the richness of information from a whole different dimension. When you can quiet your mind, you will hear that your heart is trying to tell you something.
“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart” ― Helen Keller
WHEN WE COLLECTIVELY DISCONNECT
The tendency to hide in our head has implications that are beyond a personal level. Crime, violence, discriminations happen when we as a society become desensitised to each others’ suffering. The result of our collective numbness is especially reflected in our current political climate.
It may feel ‘easier’ to detach from the pain and injustice in the world. However, such temporary tranquillity is brittle, because just like waves can never separate from the ocean, we can never completely disconnect with the rest of the world.
We have an intimate relationship with the space we share with others.
On a physical level, We breathe it. We smell it. We taste it.
On a metaphysical level, We are it.
Our world suffers when we turn a blind eye on everything but unicorn and rainbow, when we lose our tolerance for differences, and when we become too intimidated to stand up for our truth.
Therefore, it is only natural that we cry over the woes of the world, and be pained when it is in pain. What else is a heart for, if not this? Mother Teresa once beautifully said” May God break my heart so completely the whole world falls in.’ Her heart may be broken day after day, yet she is one of the emotionally strongest people ever lived.
“Pain is a pesky part of being human, I’ve learned it feels like a stab wound to the heart, something I wish we could all do without, in our lives here. Pain is a sudden hurt that can’t be escaped. But then I have also learned that because of pain, I can feel the beauty, tenderness, and freedom of healing. Pain feels like a fast stab wound to the heart. But then healing feels like the wind against your face when you are spreading your wings and flying through the air! We may not have wings growing out of our backs, but healing is the closest thing that will give us that wind against our faces.” ― C. JoyBell C.
WHAT GOT US HERE WILL NOT GET US THERE
It is not wrong to live in your head for a while. Perhaps for a very long time, it has been a necessary salvation from the darkness. This might have been necessary when you were little and vulnerable, but as an over-stayed defence strategy, it holds you back from your full potential, and the deep fulfilment that you ultimate long for.
YOUR EMOTIONS ARE NOT IN THE WAY; THEY ARE THE WAY.
We have emotions for very good reasons.
Thomas Merton said ‘Everything that is, is holy’, his words point to the limitations of our judgement and perception. We are often tempted to see something as good and others as bad.
Many of us have forgotten how to embrace the totality of reality. We see the wet grass on the mountain top as ruining the camping experience, as if that isn’t what camping is about. We complain when it rains, forgetting that without it cycling with the sun we wouldn’t even be alive. In the same ways, the wave of emotions is an essential part of life. When we cut ourselves off from pain, we lose our joy. The less fearful you are, the more aliveness and fulfilment are available for grasp.
Of course, some days are harder than the others. At times, we just feel more tender more porous, and more affected by every little blow in life. However, even during your bleakest hours, see if you can challenge your own fixed belief that emotions are ‘in the way’ and what you are experiencing is ‘bad’. Instead of judging and resisting, see if you can take a moment to contemplate the possible messages within your difficulties- it may well be serving a bigger purpose that you do not yet see.
Your feelings are not here to haunt you, but rather, they are invitations for you to process and digest what was unfinished so that you can become more whole, more healed, and free. As a living organism, we have to complete the cycle of emotions. Like a sneeze that is coming on or breath that is held back, the inhibition of anger, fears, sadness and grief will leave us with a lingering dissatisfaction. It is when we give ourselves over to a natural, biological cycle of responses, of ‘shaking it out’, could we be set free.
Like a detox process, being with your feelings maybe challenging but will ultimately leave you in a better place. Your psyche is always working to find its balance between past and present, between sorrow and gratitude, fear and hope. If only we can trust our feeling body a little more, and hear what they have to say before they have to scream so loud.
JUDGING VERSUS EXPERIENCING
In a world that is often shallow and fast-moving, we slip into the tyranny of logical productivity and dismiss the heart- centred intelligence guided by emotions.
Our intellectual mind’s primary function is to pass judgement, but it is not our best friend when it comes to forging a fulfilling life. We are often so busy and eager to try and label our experiences as good or bad, right or wrong. The reality is, however, by the time we have figured out if something is for us or against us, it is already on its way out. In the end, we spend our entire life trying to figure out if life is hopeful or hopeless, if we have done right or done wrong, if the Universe is for or against us, while the experience itself is passing us by.
How about embracing this moment as it is, without the busy intellectual label and judgement?
We never quite know, anyway. What we think is good may turn out sour, what we think of as bad may turn out to be a gift. Things can always be better, and they can always be worse.
If we go down the rabbit hole of busying our mind with rational judgement, we may just end up never actually living our lives.
Life is an existential experience. We are the most alive when we move beyond dualistic thinking, attitudes, preferences and judgement. We exist by direct experience, and we do not achieve healing and transformation by ways of intellect and thinking, but by our heart and our being.
There is no need to forego your intellect altogether, as it is indeed one of your biggest gifts. And yet, it will be a massive loss to not enter fully into this world, to embrace reality and to savour intimacy in its full strength. Real emotional health is not about stoicism, nor is it about contracting ourselves or bubble wrapping the world. It is about our ability to expand, to absorb, and the willingness to say yes to our inner and outer world. It is about allowing life to move you and affect you deeply, without losing your ground.
Perhaps your emotional intensities will not stop, but by realising that these emotional crises are a natural part of your growth and not somehow symptoms of a “sickness,” you can feel more grounded while sailing through the ups and downs of life. When you realise your capacity for healing and thriving, peace will emerge, powerful enough to change the course of your life.
I shook my head. “No, not like humans. With “you mean machines are like humans?” machines the feeling is, well, more finite. It doesn’t go any further. With humans it’s different. The feeling is always changing. Like if you love somebody, the love is always shifting or wavering. It’s always questioning or inflating or disappearing or denying or hurting. And the thing is, you can’t do anything about it, you can’t control it. ” ― Haruki Murakami, Dance Dance Dance
Imagine having three dimensions to your being: Your intellectual mind, your emotional body or feelings, and your physical body. With what aspect are you most identified with most of the time? When situations arise, what aspect of your personality do you shift into? When you face challenges in life, do you feel things physically? What parts of your brain— is it the emotional limbic system or the logical pre-frontal cortex that you move into?
REFLECTIVE EXERCISE: LISTENING TO YOUR EMOTIONS
Every emotion has a function, even the so-called negative ones. They play a significant role in our lives by motivating us, preparing us for the necessary behaviours, and signalling us to our needs and wants.
Reflect on the following:
– What are some of the examples where your emotions have prompted you to take the necessary actions?
(E.g., feeling anxious that you had to make the necessary preparation)
– When was the last time an emotion helped you to overcome an obstacle or propelled you to make the necessary changes?
(E.g., Feeling annoyed at work that you had to speak up for yourself)
– During the coming week, when you notice an emotion arising, consider the possible messages embedded in them. Here are somehints and prompts, but the list is inexhaustible and should never override your instinct:
Has someone violated my rights, or overstepped my limits?
What are some of my needs that have been deprived or compromised?
What boundaries must be asserted or restored?
Should I adjust some of my social and interpersonal rules?
What would I say to the other person/ an institution/ the world/ God if it is safe for me to do so?
Have I been self- critical, perfectionistic, and set unreasonable standards for myself?
Do I have enough clarity about what is within my control and what is not?
For what is within my control, have I prepared sufficiently?
If it is beyond my control, can I release my attachment to a fixed outcome?
Fear and Panic:
Have I been confusing an old fear with the actual threat in front of me?
Was there psychological trauma that has been frozen in time and needs to be addressed?
What can I do to protect myself now, as a mature adult?
What needs to be mourned and released?
Am I holding onto a fantasy, and refusing to let go of an idealised version of reality?
How can I live more fully in the present and embrace what is in front of me?
Do I allow sadness to go through me, or do I resist it with a stoic outlook?
What are some of my expectations that have not been met?
Am I stuck in an addictive cycle of some sort?
What has moved me forward in the past? What resources or support I may need to change my course?
Can I change my expectations- of myself and others?
Have I been over-indulging in hedonistic pleasure, rather than things that lead to deeper fulfilment?
What excites me? What invigorates me? What brings me joy?
What did I use to enjoy doing when I was a child?
Do I make time for playfulness and creativity in my life?
“In all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.” ― Carl Sagan
That’s it for today’s letter. Thank you for reading this far!
Imi Lo is a consultant and published author with extensive and international experience in mental health and psychotherapy. Her books Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity and The Gift of Intensity are available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi has two Master’s degrees; one in Mental Health and one in Buddhist Studies. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism.