by Andrea Blundell
Think you are good at connecting and intimacy, but somehow always losing friends and partners and feeling alone? You might be mistaking emotional intensity for intimacy.
What is emotional intensity?
If you are emotionally intense, you will experience feelings in a bigger, more immediate way than an average person.
Everything just seems to affect you more. It’s as if others have some shell around them you don’t, leaving you more vulnerable to things, for better or for worse. You see beauty where others don’t, but you deeply feel pain.
You will also be less able to control and limit your emotional experiences. It can feel like being an instrument played by life and those around you, and all you can do is be the music.
If you seek professional support, you might be given a diagnosis of ‘emotional dysregulation’ and/or ‘borderline personality disorder’. But such diagnoses are increasingly being connected to trauma responses.
Signs and symptoms of emotional intensity
So what might it look like to be emotionally intense? It can be things like:
- easily moved by things like film, art, stories, nature
- deeply affected by world events and other’s pain
- like very deep conversations, to understand things
- often in a big emotion, such as sad, ecstatic, furious, crying
- not understanding why others seem to not feel anything over what seems to you a serious issue
- able to go from calm to upset and back again very quickly
- intuitive, feeling other people’s pain as if it’s your own
- sometimes being so overwhelmed with emotion you end up just numb
- constantly being told you are ‘dramatic’ and ‘oversensitive’
- matching descriptions of a ‘highly sensitive person‘ or ‘HSP’.
When it comes to relationships, emotional intensity can look like:
Intimacy, or emotional intensity?
Sure that if your relationships go wrong it’s because other people can’t keep up, or they have issues? Yet deep down, despite what you see as your apparent gift for relating, you feel very lonely?
It can be easy to mistake intensity for intimacy, but they are very different things. And if you are using emotional intensity in relationships, you are not actually building intimacy but can be destroying it.
Intimacy means you are fully yourself around someone, even as you accept them as they are and create an environment they can be fully themselves. Key words here are acceptance, authenticity, and trust.
Intensity pushes others to open up faster than they feel comfortable with. You might even not be respecting their boundaries under the guise of ‘helping them’. This can then cause the other person to back off or build a barrier, meaning they no longer relax and act themselves around you or don’t quite trust you.
And if you are demanding intensity from the other person, always asking big questions, telling them you want more? Then despite best intentions, you aren’t actually accepting them as they are.
People with intensity issues also can have an unstable sense of self. If you are always caught up in riding emotions, ‘feeling out’ and understanding others, then you can lose sight of who you are.
Often those who are emotionally intense also had childhoods where they had to please the adults around them, and weren’t allowed to be themselves. This reading and meeting of other’s needs carries into adulthood, making intimacy hard because other people can’t get a handle on the person beneath the charm.
Why am I so emotionally intense?
Most people who end up an emotionally intense adolescent and adult experienced instability, adverse childhood experiences, or trauma as a child.
For example, a 2017 study carried out by Italian researchers found that 80% of people diagnosed with borderline personality disorder experienced trauma.
But then some people who experienced trauma don’t end up with emotional dysregulation. So it’s thought that being emotionally intense is a combination of environment and genetics. If you are, for example, born with a sensitive personality, you are more likely to have emotional dysregulation if you epxerience childhood trauma.
How to handle emotional intensity
1.Use it in a productive way.
Like anything, emotional intensity has a positive and negative side. Many people with intensity issues, for example, are also creative, sensory, and sympathetic to the suffering of others. Instead of focusing your intensity on your relationships, find a positive outlet, such as volunteering, making art, or joining a cause.
2. Get your emotions out by yourself.
Emotions are not bad in and of themselves. They are essential to help us process experiences.
The problem comes when we take our emotions out on others, or use others in our obsession with exploring our emotional states.
The secret when dealing with emotions, as put by an NHS-produced pamphlet on emotional intensity, is to, “wait awhile before responding”.
Try things like free-form journalling, expressive dance, singing, or drawing out your feelings. Or heck, a punchbag in the garage, if that is what works. The NHS also suggests punching a pillow.
3. Remove lifestyle choices that make things worse.
Hangovers make the best of us grumpy. If you have emotional dysregulation, things that affect your moods like binge drinking are best avoided. As are recreational drugs, unhealthy eating and bingeing, and not sleeping enough. Instead, up your self-care. Eat well and exercise.
You can also choose what situations you put yourself in, and who you spend time with. A 2018 study at the University of Sheffield looked at how ‘situation selection’ improves moods in those that suffer from emotional intensity. It found that purposely taking time to consciously create your schedule around situations and company that won’t upset you did lead to less depression and greater wellbeing.
4. Learn mindfulness.
Mindfulness means being fully in the present instead of controlled by your thoughts, and it is something that certain forms of therapy use to help emotional dyregulation and borderline personality disorder. You can learn it yourself in a day. Try our free ‘Guide to Mindfulness‘.
5. Seek support.
Therapy can absolutely help with emotional intensity, and can mean you relate to others in healthier ways that leave you less lonely. And there are certain kinds of therapy designed just to help with this issue — see our article, “Therapies that Work for Borderline Personality Disorder“.
Ready to stop upsetting those you love and feeling overwhelmed? We connect you with London’s top counselling psychologists and psychotherapists. Not in the city? Use our booking site to find registered therapists across the UK and online therapists you can talk to from anywhere.
Still have a question about emotional intensity? Post below. All comments moderated to protect our readers.
Andrea Blundell is the editor and lead writer of this blog. She studied person-centred counselling and likes to write about relationships, trauma, and ADHD.