Been Told You Are 'Too Much' All Your Life?

Why being "over-excited" can be a gift.

Posted Apr 12, 2019

All your life, you have been told you are "too much."

When you were little, you were overwhelmed by people and noises. At school, you reacted to things when other children don’t. You stood up for justice, even to your disadvantages. Sometimes you did not understand why adults behaved the way they did—inconsistent, dishonest, unfair. One moment you might be full of energy and inspiration, the next moment you were depressed about existential issues of life. Perhaps your family and partner criticized you for being too dramatic, too sensitive, or taking things too seriously.

Throughout the years, you have become impatient and intolerant with the world, and it is becoming harder and harder to seek deep friendship and soulmates. All your life, you think there is something wrong with you. Never did you consider the possibility that your intensity is pointing towards enormous creative potential. 

INTENSITY IS A GIFT

“Overexcitability”—a high level of reactivity of the central nervous system—is a constitutional endowment. 

William James noted the "excitability of character" in those who feel things intensely, who are spiritually attuned and feel moved to act on what they strongly believe in or what arouse their curiosity. Psychiatrist Dabrowski coined the term ‘overexcitability’ to capture such trait, and in his research, he found intensity to be common with gifted people. Another translation for the trait is "superstimulatability"—heightened excitability and aliveness; One is easily stimulated, perceptive, persistent, and intense (Piechowski, 2010).

Dąbrowski presented five forms of OE: psychomotor, sensual, imaginational, intellectual and emotional, and each contributes to certain qualities:

(The following descriptions are drawn from Webb et al., 2005; Piechoski; Lind, 2001; Jeanne Siaud-Facchinin, 2012):

Intellectual Overexcitability 

  • You have a hunger for knowledge, and you always seek to understand the truth, to analyze and synthesize a wide range of information
  • You love learning, problem-solving, and reflective thinking. This may or may not be reflected in terms of academic achievements.
  • You have an active mind and are immensely curious about the world
  • You are acutely aware of your surrounding and make keen observations
  • You are an independent and critical thinker. This means you are less likely to accept things at face values and feel a need to evaluate new information constantly. You may become critical of and impatient with others who cannot keep up or do not share the same excitement about an idea. 

Imaginational Overexcitability

  • You have unusually imaginative and fantastical thoughts
  • As a child, you may have imaginary playmates, imaginary pets, engage in lots of fantasy play, or spend long hours daydreaming
  • You may come across as shy, self-conscious, or have a tendency toward depression
  • You worry about issues of life and death more than other people

Emotional Overexcitability

  • You can form deep emotional attachments to people, places, and objects. 
  • With your naturally high empathy, you feel like you have to be the emotional caretaker of whatever environment you walk into. 
  • You seem to absorb the emotions of people around you and may have trouble setting personal boundaries and separating your feelings and needs from those of others.
  • You are uncomfortable with conflicts and concealed anger and could pick up on other people’s passive aggressiveness
  • You sponge up others' feelings involuntarily. You could be overwhelmed by the amount of psychic information you receive in a group setting or crowded space. 
  • As you endeavor to help others or the natural environment, you realize others do not share your idealistic perspective. 
  • You are told that you are ‘too emotional,’ or ‘too sensitive.’ In some cases, these misunderstandings and attacks can lead you to hide your emotions. Even others perceive you as cold and distant, and you feel everything on the inside. In more extreme cases, you may have learned to dissociate with all feelings altogether and live in a constant state of numbness. 

Psychomotor Overexcitability

  • You seem to have lots of energy; you love movement and struggle to be still. Your body may fidget and twitch in their excitements. As a child, you might have been given the diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
  • You speak fast, especially when you are excited. 
  • When feeling emotionally tense, you may act impulsively or compulsively (such as becoming hyper-organized). 
  • You at times experience insomnia or mild form of mania.  

Sensual Overexcitability

  • You have a heightened sensitivity to sounds, smells, tastes, and touches. Though you may thrive in chaos, other people’s clutters bother you.
  • From an early age, you have a deep appreciation of all the beauty in this world. You have always been drawn to elements of art, language, and music, and tend to immerse deeply in them.
  • You are easily over-stimulated or overwhelmed by sensory input.
  • As a child, you found clothing tags, classroom noise, perfume, or smells from the cafeteria distracting. Your parents might have been frustrated at things like the cost of specific foods you could eat, the clothing which you find comfortable, or that you did not enjoy ‘normal’ activities due to high-pitched lighting, insufficient downtime, or overwhelming noise.
  • You might have withdrawn from your their surroundings as a coping strategy and ended up being perceived as being shy and timid. 

Gifts and misdiagnoses

Intensity is a characteristic of gifted children and adults. Yet the word "gifted" is loaded and is misunderstood by most. The traditional definition of "giftedness" has been limited, often associated only with IQ, or traditional talents such as music or sports. The reality is, there are infinite forms of extraordinary abilities. Many emotionally intense people possess a high level of interpersonal intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence, and spiritual intelligence. Scholars now agree that giftedness is best defined as "the potential for exceptional achievement"; with the right kind of support and nurture, this potential can be realized. 

In terms of neuroscience, intense people have innately higher neural interconnectedness. For you, sensory information reaches the brain much faster than the average, and the information is processed in a significantly shorter time, which contributes to intense intellectualizing and hypersensitivity to the environment (Siaud-Facchin, Jeanne, 2002). Intense people are true game-changers of the world. 

To the extent you have intellectual overexcitability, you are likely to question, evaluate, an scrutinize the existing system. Your passion for learning allows you to synthesize knowledge drawn from various sources, providing a vast horizon. Your imaginary OE means you can easily envision how things might be, and paint a picture that is outside of most people’s imagination. Emotional OE makes you sensitive to issues of morality. Feeling into others' pain inform meaningful changes that are needed. Psychomotor OE propels you to take actions and provides you with stamina and motivation.

People with overexcitabilities are endowed with greater potential and awareness,  but they are also more prone to emotional and interpersonal crisis. For instance, as an intellectually intense child, you might have eagerly blurted out answers in the classroom and be considered disruptive; your inability to sustain attention on what you were not interested in was deemed to be defiant.  As an adult, you may enjoy solitary pursuit, or you have to be alone because it is difficult to find people who could keep up with you intellectually. You feel lonely on the inside, yet others merely see you as being aloof and arrogant. 

Not everyone is fortunate enough to have realized their gifts, or have supportive family and friends to affirm their identity as a misfit. Without knowledge and awareness, having an operating system that is ‘out of sync’ can create feelings of shame that affects you throughout your life

Unfortunately, health care professionals often handle brain difference in a narrow fashion. To apply labels and diagnoses to people, clinicians and therapists have relied on standardized manuals such as the DSM, or rigid protocols. Overexcitabiities are incorrectly diagnosed as mental disorders. If you are intense, your high energy might be interpreted as ADHD, intense emotions as Borderline Personality Disorder, bouts of creative obsessions as Bipolar, perfectionism as OCD and existential depression as clinical depression. 

Of course, people who were born intense and sensitive are not immune to medical disorders. However, the natural characteristics of intense people can look like pathology even when there is not any. 

Are you saying I am "special"?

Since we have used the word gifted, you may ask: Am I really that "special"? Are you suggesting that I am superior in some way? Does this further alienate me from those around me? You might be afraid of the extent of your power, and of feeling even more lonely than you already feel. 

Here is a more useful way of thinking about it: We all have our unique blueprints, and everyone is being gifted to do certain things in the world. Maybe you are qualitatively different from someone who is less intense, but that does not make you any better or worse. We are all nature’s creation, perfect in our form. As Alan Watts poignantly puts: “In the spring scenery there is nothing superior, nothing inferior; flowering branches grow naturally, some short, some long. From this standpoint, you see, everybody is seen to be a perfect manifestation of the Godhead or of the void or whatever you want to call it.”

However, when you are born into the world with a fast brain, fierce passion, the ability to see things penetratively and to feel things deeply, you ought to embrace them. As your body already knows, suppressing your expression leads to existential guilt, depression, restlessness, physical pain, and chronic emptiness. In other words, you don’t have a choice but to follow where your intensity leads. 

You are both special, and interconnected with everything else in nature. In nature, there is no superiority and inferiority. All things, beings, are unique as it is.     

"Be humble, for you are made of earth. Be noble, for you are made of stars". —Serbian Proverb

**

A Letter to the Intense Souls

For a long time,

You might have resented the fate of being a misfit. 

You wish it could all have been easier, that you were able to fit in, feel belonged, and have less anxiety

However, it is not up to you whether or not you are born a conformist.

If you could rest with an ‘easy life’, you would have. 

If you could give up on your quest to stand up for what you believe in, despite all inconvenience, you would have. 

You did not choose your fate. 

You did not set out to be a rebel, but hypocrisies hurt you. 

You did not opt-in to be a black sheep, but you are not winning in the dog-eat-dog world.

You did not choose to have a fast brain, a soft heart, a complex mind, and a sensitive body;

But it is now up to you to work with what you are endowed.

You were once disempowered, confused, and shamed. 

But you also have all the power from here on, to take the matter into your own hands. 

It is on you, to nurture the wounded child that was once ostracised, 

to honor your gifts while accepting your flaws, 

to set healthy limits with friends and family,

to find other misfits, and kindred spirits that offer you courage and solace,

to say no to the "shoulds," and say yes to the "wants,"

and finally, to compassionately kiss the socially-compliant facade goodbye, and embrace your truest innermost nature.