What do you do with your intensity?

Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind

Many talented actors, musicians and other performers have the venue and “permission” to use their high physical and emotional intensity.

But many of us who are not performers can find it challenging at times to manage our intensities or excitabilities, especially when working with other people.

It is easy to point to examples of high intensity acting – such as Sandra Bullock, Mo’Nique, Jeff Bridges, Christoph Waltz, Meryl Streep and Robert Downey Jr.

Or Russell Crowe – the photo is from “A Beautiful Mind.”

Jodie Foster once commented about Crowe, “He’s terribly talented and an incredibly charming guy, but I think when he gets nervous he gets incredibly serious. He’s a very light, funny guy. He has a little leprechaun side to him. He has that glacier intensity. He is truly intense.” [imdb.com news Mar. 29 2002]

Intensity on screen may take effort

Abbie Cornish portrays poet John Keats’ muse Fanny Brawne in Jane Campion’s movie “Bright Star,” and commented about acting the role: “She’s such a strong character. I always had to be switched on, no matter how tired I was or if I was hungry — it didn’t matter. It’s nice to be that focused.” [Los Angeles Times Dec. 2, 2009]

Amped up, highly sensitive, seeking inner peace

In her post Overexcitabilities and the gifted – Living With Intensity (on her raisingsmartgirls blog), author Casey notes that the editors of the book Living with Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability, and the Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents, and Adults, Susan Daniels and Michael M. Piechowski “remarked that J.D. Salinger looked everywhere outside himself to find that peace he was searching for relentlessly.

“He tried Kriya Yoga, Dianetics, Christian Science, and many other fads of the day to find answers. The reason he never found them was because he was looking outside himself. The answers aren’t out there, they are within us.”

Another author who sought inner calm is Mary Gaitskill. (Among other work, she is author of a short story that was the basis for the movie “Secretary.”)

She once explained, “I wanted to live somewhere [Marin County, Calif.] that was very quiet and didn’t demand anything of me. … I don’t drive. Which is one of the reasons that I liked being in Marin, because without a car, everything had to slow down to one mile an hour.

“You wouldn’t think from my demeanor that I would require that, but I can be very amped up, even though I don’t show it. Everything was slow like silly putty. That was good for me at the time. My internal state was so chaotic that I needed to be somewhere that wasn’t going to reflect that back to me.”  [The Write Stuff Interview by Alexander Laurence, 1994]

Gifted and acting out – “crazy” behavior

In a post on her blog Growing Up Gifted, Christine N. Fonseca includes a number of collective responses by gifted adults [GA] to her questions.

CF: What did the label mean to you?

GA : Nothing really.  Maybe that was smarter than some of my friends – that school was a little easier.

CF: Does it mean anything to you as an adult

GA: Yeah, as I’ve come to understand more about the intensity that typically goes along with giftedness (thanks for that Christine), I am realizing that some of my somewhat crazy behavior in my teens and as an adult may actually be related to being gifted.

CF: Crazy behavior? Tell me more about that:

GA: Oh you know, things like overreacting to stress, through things around my room in high school when I was stressed out about school; feeling like the world would end when I made a mistake or got a score below 100% on something.

Even now, as an adult, I get a little freaked when my boss tries to tell me I made a mistake on something.  It isn’t that I think I can’t make a mistake, it’s just that I am mortified when I do. Then I get mad at myself for my reaction – for the emotional aspects of it.

From her post: Through gifted eyes: An interview with gifted adults.

[Also see Perfectionism articles]

According to Marylou Kelly Streznewski in her book Gifted Grown Ups: The Mixed Blessings of Extraordinary Potential, as much as 20 percent of the prison population may gifted people. But that high figure is disputed.

Maybe it isn’t misbehaving

High sensitivity to ethics and moral standards and other people’s feelings are all “good” and desirable, but at some point, we may be constricting ourselves, holding back too much.

As Rebecca Webber writes in her Psychology Today article Wholesome Guide to Misbehaving, “As adults, we absorb even more behavioral expectations when we take on new roles as employees, neighbors, spouses, and parents.

Problem is, adhering to others’ expectations can keep us away from harmless natural tendencies that can help us flourish as individuals.”

Worth doing to excess?

In his article Mis-Diagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children, James T. Webb, Ph.D. declares:

“Perhaps the most universal, yet most often overlooked, characteristic of gifted children and adults is their intensity.” He quotes a mother: “My child’s life motto is that anything worth doing is worth doing to excess.”

Also see his book Misdiagnosis And Dual Diagnoses Of Gifted Children And Adults


Lesley Sword, Director, Gifted & Creative Services Australia, explains more about a psychological viewpoint on intensities in her article Overexcitabilities in Gifted Children, noting, “Kazimierz Dabrowski (1902 – 1980) was a Polish Psychiatrist and Psychologist who worked with creative adults and adolescents. He proposed the Theory of Positive Disintegration which maintains that crises and disintegration are necessary for psychological growth and the attainment of a personality ideal. …

“Overexcitabilities play a central part in Dabrowski’s theory of advanced development. Overexcitability is a sensitivity of the nervous system, an expanded awareness of and a heightened capacity to respond to stimuli such as noise, light, smell, touch etc.

“The term ‘overexcitability’ conveys the idea that this stimulation of the nervous system is well beyond the usual or average in intensity and duration.”

Living With IntensityShe notes that Michael Piechowski, who worked with Dabrowski, explains overexcitabilities as an abundance of physical, sensual, creative, intellectual and emotional energy that can result in creative endeavours as well as advanced emotional and ethical development in adulthood. He says that the overexcitabilities feed, enrich, empower and amplify talent.”

[Michael Piechowski is co-editor of Living With Intensity, mentioned earlier.]

Also see Sword’s article Parenting Emotionally Intense Gifted Children, in which she declares: “One of the basic characteristics of the gifted is their intensity. Intensity is not a matter of degree but of a different way of experiencing: vivid, absorbing, penetrating, encompassing, complex, commanding – a way of being quiveringly alive.

“Emotional intensity is positively correlated with intelligence and so the higher the intellectual level, the more emotionally intense a gifted child will be.

“Emotional intensity is expressed by the gifted through a wide range of feelings, attachments. compassion, heightened sense of responsibility and scrupulous self-examination.

“While these are normal for the gifted and appear very early in gifted children, they are often mistaken for  emotional immaturity rather than as evidence of a rich inner life.”

“Flying close to the flame”

“I get emotional all the time,” says actor Jennifer Beals.

“I get emotional every time I make a speech, or talk about other cast members. Every now and again, my heart just explodes and expands.”

Nicole Kidman has commented about living with “a lot of complicated emotions as an actor, and they whirl around you and create havoc at times.

“And yet, as an actor you’re consciously and unconsciously allowing that to happen.

“It’s  my choice, and I would rather do it this way than live to be 100. .. Or rather than choosing not to exist within life’s extremities. I’m willing to fly close to the flame.” [Interview mag., Oct 2003]

Musician Avril Lavigne has described some of her related feelings:

Sometimes I get so weird I even freak myself out
I laugh myself to sleep it’s my lullabye
Sometimes I drive so fast just to feel the danger
I want to scream it makes me feel alive …
I’d rather be anything than ordinary please

[From lyrics of Anything But Ordinary – from her album Let Go.]

All this intensity may help make life an endlessly rich and far from boring experience.

But when we are both intense and sensitive – which may usually be the case – we need to take particular emotional care of ourselves in order to feel healthy and more able to express our talents.

Also see my Highly Sensitive site.


Originally posted 2010-01-22 17:37:54.

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Comments (19)

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  1. […] insightful look into adults with intensities or excitabilities can be seen in this article, “What do you do with your intensity?” By Douglas Eby.  The article includes links to relevant […]

  2. […] of my articles: What do you do with your intensity? [which links to a number of related […]

  3. […] From my post What do you do with your intensity? […]

  4. […] Another article: What do you do with your intensity? […]

  5. […] of my most thrilling days was when one of my blog posts got quoted on Douglas Eby’s article, What Do You Do with Your Intensity? I still get a little boost in my self-concept every time someone links to my blog Raising Smart […]

  6. […] See quotes by her about J.D. Salinger “searching relentlessly” for peace in my post What do you do with your intensity? […]

  7. Emma Stangl says:

    The blog cited here “http://growingupgifted.wordpress.com/2010/01/18/through-gifted-eyes-an-interview-with-gifted-adults/”

    is marked as private.

    I would like to read it. Where can I get permission to read it?

  8. […] From my post What do you do with your intensity? […]

  9. […] more examples of and thoughts on managing intensity, read “What do you do with your intensity?” from Douglas Eby’s Talent Development […]

  10. Got intensity? Many gifted adults/children do – @talentdevelop sheds light on how to make sensitivity work for you. http://ow.ly/10YNF

  11. […] to find one of my blog posts featured on Talent Development Resources website in an article titled, What do you do with your intensity?. I always am a little amazed when something I have to say makes even a tiny ripple of an impact […]

  12. What a great post! Thank you for including my blog post among such wonderful resources. I’m adding Ms. Fonseca’s blog to my gifted blogroll. It seems like a wonderful resource, and I’ll be on the lookout for her book!

  13. What do you do with your intensity? http://is.gd/6Qd5F

  14. I talk about intensity with kids in my upcoming book Emotionally Intense (Prufrock Press 2011). This is a great post and well thought out. Intensity is such an interesting topic!!!

  15. What do you do with your intensity? http://bit.ly/6K2Q7e

  16. What do you do with your intensity? http://bit.ly/6cqiNF

  17. Douglas Eby says:

    I can be very amped up, even though I don’t show it. author Mary Gaitskill #HSP http://ow.ly/ZzDT

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