Kissed by Fire: On Being an Emotionally Intense Empath
Rage and Shame, a Vicious Cycle
My latest "incident" happened while I was visiting with my sisters and working remotely. I received an unpleasant work e-mail and read the subtext behind a line written with the clear intention of being rude and dismissive of a genuine concern I had expressed in an earlier reply. It was a concern I had expressed to make the other person aware, not to cause offense. Their reply to me was clearly meant to offend and was written subtly enough that an "average" person could look at it and not see a problem with it.
Sometimes it is as though people know I'm tormented by things like this, and they strategically plan such insults because they know I will burn inside and not be able to do one thing about it, lest I look like the aggressive person in the exchange.
Suddenly, I was shaking. The flames in my heart convinced my body that there was real danger. I wanted to stand up and pace, throw something, or scream, but the ever-present voice in the back of my brain warned me, "Don't do that. You'll look nuts. Your family will know you're nuts, and then they'll stop loving you." The warning only further incited the fire, sprinkling fear over it. I had an angry verbal outburst in front of my sisters and deeply regretted it over the course of the evening and the next day, but once the words were said, I could not take them back. Luckily, I was able to respond with no trace of anger in my words in the e-mail, at the very least, if I was not able to do this aloud in front of my family.
Many other invalidating thoughts occurred to me, among them: It's just a work e-mail. There is no reason to be so upset. The person who sent it does not even know me at a personal level. It's not like I've never received a nasty work e-mail before. This shouldn't bother me so much.
Did these ideas matter, while the fire raged inside me?
No. They didn't matter one bit.
Great News: I'm Not Crazy
Soon after the incident, I grew curious about my reaction to the e-mail and why it was so strong. My rational brain could kick in more once the emotion had been expressed, regardless of how I criticized myself about that expression later. I fell into a Google and YouTube hole the following day and found a couple of things about something termed "Emotional Intensity." It's really a thing, and there are a lot of therapists and coaches who work with those who have it. There are many online articles about it, and no doubt there will be many more in future as more people understand this about themselves. Not everything I read resonated, but I will link a few of the sources I found particularly helpful at the bottom of this article.
In a nutshell, those who identify as emotionally intense not only have strong emotional responses to certain stimuli, but they can also be very passionate, loving, and creative people. Many of us are empathic, which is why we tend to worry about or be overly aware of how those around us receive our emotional responses, as I did with my sisters in the story above. Many of us try to hide, cover up, or play off our emotional responses in hopes of appearing more "normal" to others. We may have learned to hide our feelings to avoid feeling rejected or dismissed by other people. As a result, we can feel extremely isolated in our experience.
When combining these fears with how much pressure society places on always having a positive attitude and response to everything, it can feel quite impossible to navigate the world as an emotionally intense and empathic person. As with most things in life, managing this is about maintaining a healthy balance of expression, self-acceptance, and openness to what is positive without feeling like a failure if this openness cannot be in place 24/7.
Gaslighting and Emotional Intensity
Many of us have been recipients of gaslighting behavior, or we may have gaslighted someone else without realizing it. Gaslighting can be extremely hurtful, and it's important to be able to recognize it as well as understand how best to deal with it, especially because our reactions to it can be stronger than an average person's. If we have a strong negative emotional response, the gaslighter can also use that against us to sow more seeds of doubt within us as to our own goodness, emotional intelligence, and soundness of mind.
Put simply, gaslighting is when someone says or does something to make one question one's own feelings, intentions, and sanity. The term comes from a stage play and movie by the same name in which a husband dims the gas-powered lights in his home and tries to deny any change in the lighting when the wife notices.
Gaslighting can be difficult to recognize and even harder to call out, because it is a method primarily utilized by people who do not find fault within themselves and make you or a behavior of yours the problem. Rather than focusing on how they might be contributing to an issue, they only focus on finding fault with you. In most cases, it is probably best to minimize contact with a person who is like this, since they likely aren't willing to see how their own behavior might contribute to a problem. Of course, minimizing or cutting off contact can be hard in cases where the person is family, your partner, or someone you work with.
The most important thing is that you recognize the behavior, and now you have a name for it. If it's impossible to cut it completely from your life, you can at least have a plan for how you want to deal with it in your back pocket. Here are a few ways that I deal with it:
- Understand that the person likely is not self-aware to the degree you want or expect them to be. They've no doubt endured suffering in life that has made them the way they are, but they are unable to change because they lack said self-awareness.
- Know that the person is using gaslighting or similar techniques to get the response they desire from you, never mind that it isn't the best way for them to get that response. It is all about them, not you, and they are probably not in their rational mind either. It truly is not personal, and you can see this as you look at it more deeply after your strong emotions have passed.
- Carefully weigh your response internally before you express it. If it has the potential to make matters worse or provide ammo for the other person, it may be better to journal it or express it some other way. Physical exercise can be a wonderful outlet for anger or sadness, even if just in the form of a brisk walk around your block or office building, if it is a safe area.
- Validate your own feelings. You can do this simply by affirming, "It makes sense that I felt [emotion] in response to [behavior]."
- Know that others may not be able to understand your feelings or why something made you feel the way it did, and wean yourself off needing validation from others as much as possible.
What is your favorite way of self-soothing?
The Gift and Curse of Heightened Perception
Heightened perception and empathic abilities mean that you pick up a lot on the nuances of things people say, their meanings that go unspoken. You understand others at a deep level, have the ability to feel what they feel, and people may pick up on this and find themselves telling you their life story or problems. People may sense your understanding and have an easier time opening up to you than they do with most others. This means you have a lot of potential as a healing agent, but it is important that you take care with your abilities and avoid others becoming overly reliant on you for your energy.
Having these gifts also means that you have a knack for knowing people's intentions, even if they are being very subtle about them. I knew I was not imagining the venom behind that seemingly ordinary, quiet line in the e-mail, just as you will know you aren't imagining it when someone uses similar tactics to dig at you. Unfortunately, others without this heightened perception may write these things off or make you feel as though you're overreacting, which is why it is important to become less reliant on validation from other people. A less emotional way of viewing things may come more naturally to others who don't identify as HSPs or feel things as deeply as you do.
It's okay if you find it difficult or even impossible to find the blessing in being so perceptive. Many times, I have wished I could turn off this side of myself too. It's okay to have bad days, but if you find that you often respond in ways that damage your work relationships or otherwise have a significant negative impact on your life, you may want to consider journaling about your feelings to let them out (reading what you write also offers a nice, new level of understanding yourself) or find a way of self-soothing that works well for you. It is important to establish boundaries with people who seek your healing energy as well. This will ensure that you keep your energy field clear of other emotions and problems that aren't truly your own.
Knowledge is Power
After reading about emotional intensity following my latest outburst, I felt so much better. Finally, I have a name for my experience and a new way of understanding it after years of confusion and shame.
While a lot of people knock those who are frequent visitors of the "self-help" section in bookstores and libraries, it can be beneficial to know yourself and read as much as you can about the things you find relatable. If you think you might be an empath or emotionally intense, explore some resources (like the ones below). While we all have many aspects and perhaps should avoid identifying overmuch with any one thing, it can be helpful to understand and put a name to the sensations we're experiencing. We can also seek out others who have had similar experiences so that we don't feel so alone all the time.
- The Beautiful Truths About Being a Highly Sensitive Human | Psychology Today
An article on Psychology Today that provides more understanding on emotional intensity and how it is a form of brain difference.
- What is an Emotionally Intense Person? - YouTube
Dunja Rado explains her perspective of emotional intensity, what it is, and how to validate it.
- Eggshell Transformations - For the Emotionally Intense
What comprises emotional intensity? Read more about that here.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
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© 2019 Holley Hyler