What Is Intensity?
Updated: Sep 18
Are you sensitive but also passionate? Do you sometimes feel as if you’re literally buzzing with thoughts, feelings, or energy?
Sensitivity and intensity go hand in hand, but not every sensitive person is also intense.
A key difference between sensitivity and intensity is in the way we react to things.
If we’re sensitive, we have heightened awareness of things other people don’t notice. In other words, our threshold for stimuli is lower than average.
But if we’re also intense, we have strong inner reactions to those stimuli – reactions that are often apparent to the people around us. It’s as if we have so much energy inside that we can’t keep it in.
What Makes Us Intense?
So what makes us sensitive and intense? Partly it’s that we have more sensitive and reactive nervous systems than average - we react to experience quickly and strongly.
But it’s not just a case of having bigger reactions.
Our perceptions differ not just in scale, but in essence. People who have intensity experience themselves as distinctly more alive. The gap between life’s highs and lows is much greater than it is for most people.
'Life is vibrant in good moments and overwhelming and turbulent in more difficult times.'
Living With Intensity, Daniels & Piechowski
Intense Reactions to ‘Things’
So we have strong reactions to things other people often don’t notice. And these ‘things’ – stimuli - can take many forms. It could mean any input from our physical senses, or anything inside our bodies, like feelings, thoughts or ideas.
Many intense and sensitive individuals experience a much broader and more complex range of emotions than average. Some have huge amounts of mental and physical energy. Some engage so strongly with the thoughts, ideas, questions, and sensations that constantly float through their minds and bodies that they just can’t leave things alone - they have an intense need to get to the truth of the matter, to solve problems, to set things right.
Why are Intense Individuals Vulnerable?
The difficulty with these internal differences is that unlike differences on the outside, like our hair colour, we can’t see them – we can only see the effects of our different internal wiring in the ways people act. Neither are we taught about these differences when we’re children. While we learn to describe ourselves as tall, say, or having brown eyes, very little is explained about the way our minds vary.
That leaves those of us at the edge of the bell curve, who experience the world really quite differently from average, feeling like there’s something wrong with us – feelings that are often reinforced by the reactions of people around us.
When we’re young, other children might back away from our intensity. Family members often criticise or ridicule our differences. Teachers and professionals commonly mistake intensity for pathological disorders like ADHD, autism, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or Pathological Demand Avoidance.
Consequently, we grow to experience our intensities as something to be ashamed of, the things about ourselves that we need to change to be acceptable.
That was certainly my experience. I always felt a bit apart from other children. Not disliked or bullied, but not quite one of the crowd, with whom I had a love/hate relationship.
My mother, concerned for how her fragile child would cope in the world, would tell me to stop being so sensitive or to toughen up.
To compound things, from a young age I was fascinated with altered states of consciousness and all things metaphysical and spiritual – an interest I now know is shared by many emotionally intense people but which in the rational, head-centric 1980’s felt like a shameful, frivolous, secret.
I most definitely did not tell my fellow undergraduate lawyers at Oxford that I communed with the Universe via a deck of tarot cards hidden at the back of my drawer.
Reclaiming Our True Selves
So intensity is a difference and, just like physical differences, it’s neither innately positive nor negative.
Intensity brings strengths and challenges. But just as a 6’2” man would struggle to live his best life in a perpetual stoop pretending to be 5’, so a person with intensity can’t thrive while she’s disowning a powerful part of her character.
Humans are social creatures; we’ve evolved with a strong drive to fit in. In our prehistoric ancestors’ days, ostracism from the tribe meant death. For intense individuals, often more aware of others’ emotions even than they are, this drive can cause immense personal suffering. We're simultaneously almost painfully aware of social cues and norms, yet our natures often prevent us from conforming to those norms.
But we were born intense for a reason. The world needs us like this. It takes self-understanding and compassion to stop hiding our intense natures. Maybe this is why so many intense people are late bloomers. But your true colours, when you finally have the courage to let them show, are glorious, vibrant, and definitely worth waiting for.
What does intensity mean to you? I'd love to hear from you.