People’s brains vary. Research has shown that some people are born with a neurological make up that can make them more emotionally or intellectually intense, sensitive, and more open to external stimuli than the general population.
They are more aware of subtleties; their brain processes information and reflects on it more deeply. At their best, they can be exceptionally perceptive, intuitive, and keenly observant of the subtleties of the environment. Yet they are also overwhelmed by the constant waves of social nuances and others’ emotional and psychic energies.
From the get-go, intense individuals’ way of seeing and being in the world is not shared by those around them. Since they think more and feel more, they also reach their limits much quicker. They are more easily affected by their surroundings and those around them, which may exacerbate the impact of any problematic events or lack in their early years.
Sadly, because of the lack of awareness and understanding both in the family and in the wider world, many intense children have grown up internalizing the belief that there is something wrong with them, or that they are somehow defective, “too much”, or even “toxic.”
Apples That Have Fallen Far from the Trees
Unique challenges arise when an emotionally intense child is born into a family in which the parents or siblings do not function in the same way.
In his perennial work Far from the Tree (2016), Andrew Soloman addresses the differences between directly inherited (vertical) and independently divergent (horizontal) identity. Normally, most children share at least some traits with their family: Children of color are born to parents of color; People who speak Greek raise their children to speak Greek. These attributes and values are passed down from parent to child across the generations through DNA and cultural norms. However, children are not always a replica of their parents; they may carry throwback genes and recessive traits beyond anyone’s control. When someone acquires a trait that is foreign to the parent, it is referred to as “a horizontal identity.” Horizontal identities may include being gay, having a physical disability, having autism, being intellectually or empathically gifted.
It can be excruciatingly difficult for any parents who are presented with children with ways of being and needs that are alien to them. A gay child being born to straight parents, for instance, raises a myriad of challenges when it comes to understanding and acceptance. Vertical identities are usually respected as identities; horizontal ones are treated as flaws. Any unconventional ways of being, including being extra emotionally intense and sensitive, are often disparaged as “illness” to be fixed, rather than identities to be accepted.
Our culture plays a part in perpetuating this disconnect. There is something primitive in our tribal nature that makes human reject what we are not familiar with. Although our world as a whole has made huge progress in bridging the divide between class, gender, and race, awareness and respect for “neuro-divergent” traits such as emotional intensity have not broken through into public consciousness. As a society we continue to pathologize individuals who have different ways of thinking, feeling, relating to and being in the world. Under the influence of a culture that is inept at embracing diversity, some parents have come to perceive their child’s horizontal identity as not only a problem but even a personal failure or insult.
It takes extra resilience for families to learn to tolerate, accept, and finally celebrate children who are not what they initially had in mind. The fact that there is no “guide” to parenthood, especially when their child cannot be handled through conventional ways, leave a painful gap of disconnection between the parents and the child. “Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger,” wrote Andrew Solomon (2016), who conducted over 4000 interviews for his book. Families of emotionally intense children are presented with a fork in the road; They can reject or scapegoat their child for their strangeness, or they rise to the occasion and allow themselves to be profoundly changed by their experience.
Unique Challenges Faced by the Intense Child
If you have been emotionally sensitive and intense all your life, you will probably recognize some of these experiences as a child:
From birth, intense children have more permeable energetic boundaries. They hear faint sounds, detect subtle smells and notice the most subtle changes in their surroundings. They may find certain foods too flavorful, or can’t stand to wear certain fabrics.
They can experience other people’s emotions, noises and other environmental elements as coming onto and even inside of them, or that they merge with those they encounter. At home, they feel every shift and nuanced expressions of their parents’ moods and are swayed continuously by events that do not affect their sibling as much.
Intense children are incredibly conscientious. They always try to figure out the right course of actions and can be hard on themselves. For example, they tend to assume a lot of responsibilities in relationships. When conflicts arise, they quickly conclude that they have done something wrong and become overwhelmed by self- criticism and shame.
Being shaken continuously and pierced through by their intensity and events around them, these children may never find the mental space or support to develop emotional resilience. Even as adults, they can feel very unstable and ungrounded; and in the long run, many suffer from physical pain, stifled energy and fatigue.
Feeling Existentially Alone
The intense child carries deep insights. They sense into the world’s pain, both in their immediate surrounding and in the wider world. They feel lonely to be the only one who knows what is going on beneath the social facade of normalcy and harmony; many also feel guilty for not being able to alleviate the pain and suffering they see.
On some level, they are more mature than their peers. With a psycho-spiritual age that is older than their actual one, these “old souls” feel they never had a childhood. Gifted children, especially as they enter adolescence, find that the adults in charge are not worthy of their authority.
Although they appear independent, deep down these young souls carry a longing for someone that they can wholly lean on, relate to, so they can finally relax and be taken care of. As one child described it, they feel “like abandoned aliens waiting for the mother ship to come and take them home” (Webb, 2008).
The intense child’s creativity and intuition also give them a rich and deeply-reflective inner life not shared by those around them. They grapple with existential concerns such as life and death and the meaning of life and find themselves in an absurd and meaningless world that they can do little to alter. However, when they try to share their thoughts with others, they are usually met with puzzlement or even hostility. With no one to connect with them to the depth of their being, or recognize the fullness of who they are, they carry an unshakable sense of loneliness through into adulthood.
Losing Trust in Themselves and Others
Intense children are alert to the hypocrisies, sufferings, conflicts, and complexities of their surroundings, even before they can cognitively articulate or handle it.
The perceptively gifted child is perplexed by the contradiction between the emotional vibration they get from the adults and their surface expressions: They see through the masks of propriety, the forced smiles, or the white lies. This discrepancy causes the child to become distrustful. Seeing society’s injustice and hypocrisy so early on also lead them to feel despair and cynicism.
If when they tried to share what they see, they are shut down, they may start to doubt their own judgment, intuition, even saneness. They may also feel guilty for having these foresight. When they cannot find anyone who understands their reality, they may decide to-even unconsciously stifle their intuition and emotions, and become teenagers or adults that do not know what to believe, how to decide, or who to trust.
When combined with radical honesty, insightfulness can bring interpersonal challenges. The intense child feels compelled to point out what they know and are unwilling to play the game of social facade. Sadly, their truth-telling is often unwelcome in the world.
As the messengers of the inconvenient truth, they are blamed for creating discord. At best, they are a source of bewilderment but at worse, a source of ridicule. At home, they become the scapegoat. In school, they become the target of bullies or relegated to the outcasts on the fringe of schools’ cliques.
Having to choose between their authenticity and other people’s acceptance is an overwhelming challenge for any young person. The intense child may grow up feeling incredibly self-conscious about their differences from others, to the extreme, some believe that they are somehow ’toxic’ or dangerous, and live with a constant fear of being cast out from their family or social circle.
Sensing They Are “Too Much”
Intense children have intense needs. From a young age, they live with a pressure of their creativity and have a yearning for intellectually stimulating conversations, deep contemplation and answers to life’s meaning. Their inner life is pierced with moral concerns, strong convictions, idealism, perfectionism and forceful passions. However, without sufficient understanding from the adults around them, they might be misunderstood as being intentionally difficult. As a result, their natural needs for the adequate amount of stimulation and support may then be dismissed or deprived.
Even with the most supportive parents who validate their sensitivity and speed, many intense children have an awareness that they are somehow ‘too much’ for those around them. They may be explicitly criticized, or just implicitly rejected for wanting too much, moving too fast, being too naive, too serious, too easily rattled, or too impatient. Realizing that their natural self can be overwhelming to others, they may decide to gradually shut down, to build a ‘false self,’ and to curb their excitability and enthusiasm.
Embracing the Intense Child in You
Your home might or might not have been a haven for your sensitive, intense and gifted young soul. Being different can be lonely, but the real suffering comes from having internalized the feeling that you, as a person, is fundamentally ‘not okay.’
If all your life you had felt like a Martian being exiled onto the earth, it might take some time to not only know but also feel in your heart that being intense is not an illness. Being intense comes with the most precious abilities and qualities. You have an extraordinary capacity to understand and empathize with others, as well as the ability to reflect on your feelings, intentions, and desires. Across history, intensity is often paired with other forms of exceptional talents in the areas of music, visual art, sports, and creativity. Your excitabilities are not only highly related to giftedness; they are gifts in themselves. It is up to you now, to provide a safe home for your inner child. This time, under your wings, they can have a nourishing, safe, and exciting childhood.
Solomon, A. (2016). Far from the tree. In Unknowable, Unspeakable, and Unsprung (pp. 52-60). Routledge.