I often hear my clients say, “I overwhelm people. Sometimes I freak people out because I’m so intense. People can’t handle me.” Can you relate? I can. In my 20s, I felt that most people didn’t understand me or fully know me because they didn’t get my intensity. My exuberance overwhelmed them. And what I had hoped would be met with equal or greater intensity was often met with befuddlement or disengagement.
Which left me feeling very much alone, indeed. What I didn’t know then was the source of my intensity. And what I was so naively unaware of was that most people aren’t that intense. As I work with my holistic counseling clients now, and they express concerns like the ones above, I like to help them uncover where that intensity comes from and what needs it’s filling. If this is something you’ve struggled with, read on, as we explore some reasons why we can come off as SO INTENSE.
Why Some People Are So Intense
When we feel intensely about someone or something, it can come across a few ways. Like exuberant speech, where you’re talking a mile a minute, and you’re animated, or excited. Or it can come through in body language that takes up a lot of space with wide gestures, standing or sitting close, or leaning toward another.
In and of themselves, these displays are not an issue. But when this seems like the main way one expresses themselves, the impression can be off-putting—looming, crowding, or even intrusive.
The sad thing is that those impressions are seldom, if ever, the intention of the speaker. A person who comes across like this is often totally oblivious that they are being perceived in this way. To them they are expressing themselves in a way that feels normal. And they are often confused by people’s reactions to their behavior. Under the surface, there are a couple of things playing out for both the speaker and the listener.
For the speaker, this kind of intensity can come from a deep need for connection. There may be a core wound of neglect or abuse that unconsciously manifests as intense displays of emotion. The intense person may experience these feelings of longing for connection at a near unconscious level and when they come out in these intense displays, the person will often consider themselves passionate—they’re just passionate! About everything!
Passion is much more palatable than neediness
It’s easier to live with yourself, it’s easier to look yourself in the mirror if you think of yourself as a deeply passionate person rather than a deeply needy person. But true passion is born from a place of creativity, eros, and inspiration, not from a place of need. So when we feel that our intensity scares people, the uncomfortable truth is that sometimes we’re right about that.
It does scare some people. And that in itself can be a source of shame that lies over the deeper shame that caused the neediness in the first place. The lack of love and care a child of neglect or abuse experiences can leave profound scars. All too often, children will blame themselves for being abused or neglected. They will think that they did something wrong or were “bad” and thus were deserving of the treatment.
The void neglect and abuse create is oftentimes filled by neediness and shame. Which can get involved in a nasty cycle of feeling a need then feeling shame for feeling need. We seek to fulfill the need for connection through intense displays of emotion. And when that need goes unanswered, we feel shame all over again for sharing our feelings.
It can become a vicious pattern
Now, here’s the thing that may be happening inside the intense person at the moment they are overwhelming someone with their feelings. That deep wound left by neglect or abuse is seeking to be healed. It’s seeking contact, seeking connection, love, and safety.
For many, that deep wound is seeking a sense of home and comfort. But how that comes across in one’s words or behaviors is like this:
Imagine two people standing facing one another. One person has their arms at their side and is standing straight, looking at the other. The other person has their arms extended toward the other, reaching with all their energy, they lean deeply toward the other person, the eyes are open wider than usual, the mouth is slightly open as if to speak, everything about this person is extending toward the other.
When Feelings Become Overwhelming
That is essentially what is happening when one person overwhelms another with their feelings. It’s as though everything in that person is screaming “Please love me!”. Because, in actuality, that is precisely what’s happening when the intense person expresses their feelings, and the listener, rather than being drawn in and attracted, is repulsed and pushed back. The feelings come across as too great because they are coming from a great need that is the result of a deep wound.
When the listener hears this or feels these emotions coming toward them, their nervous system senses that as overwhelm, or intrusion, and their natural response is to step back. Suddenly something occurs in the mind of the listener that asks, “Why is this person so intense? This doesn’t feel right,” and they withdraw. Ever notice how some relationships, romantic or platonic, seem to quietly dissolve without a word? Sometimes it’s just as simple as one person being pushed away by another person’s intensity.
What if You’re Too Much for People?
Feeling like you’re too much is an interesting issue because the question becomes, “Too much for whom?”. You could be totally fine but be surrounded by repressed or closed-minded people who want you to conform to their standards of behavior. Or you could, like our passionate friend is the last example, be expressing your emotions in such a way that pushes people away from you rather than drawing them near.
Communication is always about connection. We’re all trying to connect in some way to another person. So if we find that our style of communicating our feelings or thoughts is having the opposite response of what we’re looking for, then we have to look at ourselves and ask some self-reflective questions:
- How do I express myself?
- What is my intention when I express myself?
- Is it for connection?
- Or is it to understand or to be understood?
- Is it to get attention?
- Maybe it is to fulfill a need?
Your intentions shape how you express yourself, and the need for attention or the desire to fulfill a need will come across as “too much” one way or another.
First Things First
So the first step is to gauge your situation: are you 1) Surrounded by closed-minded or repressed people seeking your conformity? Or are you 2) Communicating your thoughts and feelings in a way that pushes people away rather than drawing them closer?
After that step, you’ll want to take a good look at the people around you, or take a good look at yourself and explore different ways of expressing yourself.
People Who Love You Will Accept All Of You
Sometimes the things we go through are so terrible that we don’t even want to face them. It’s just too painful. So we seal those things away and try not to go there. Ever.
But the longer we do that, the more difficult it gets to ignore these skeletons in our closets. The problem is made worse when we have people in our lives whom we love and care about but are scared out of our minds to share these darker things about ourselves. This can lead to feeling like you’re living a double life—the one your friends know and the one you hide.
But here’s the thing—if a person truly loves you and cares about you, they’d much rather know all of you than not. And if they truly love you for who you are (and not what you mean to them or what you can do for them) then they will accept you and your history without judgment or reproach. In fact, when confided in, truly loving and caring people respond with sympathy and compassion to the things that hurt us most.
Can You See Me?
Everyone wants to be fully seen and known. When we feel like there are parts of our lives that are just too intense or upsetting or scary to share, it can leave us feeling all alone in the world.
The best thing you can do for yourself and your wellbeing is to surround yourself with people who truly love you as you are, who understand not everyone had a perfect life, and some of us carry deep wounds and harrowing stories but are still absolutely worthy of love and support, regardless. And even if it’s just one person you find who can show your heart that kind of care, that is enough.
How Being Intense Has Helped You
Here’s the thing, you’re intensely passionate nature is an adaptation to your environment and circumstance. It helped you navigate through this world somehow. So, how has your intensity served you?
Perhaps, it helped you feel in times when you felt mostly numb. Maybe it gave you an outlet and an escape from a home that was void of love, tenderness, or care. Or it helped push away people as a way to keep you from getting hurt again.
As with all coping skills and adaptations that once served us but no longer, it’s helpful to look at these aspects of ourselves as friends who visited us in a time of great need, and now that the time of need has passed, we can thank them, say goodbye, and release them.
In their absence, we can develop new ways of being that more accurately reflect who we are now, that build on our strengths, and that help us achieve the one thing we’re all after—to be known.