Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Being "Too Much"

Last week an interviewer asked me, "How do the people in your life deal with your intensity?"

I was a little taken aback by his use of "deal with." It seemed to imply that the "intensity" he was pointing to was some kind of burden or flaw, something to be managed or tolerated.

But what puzzled me most was the fact that I could be surprised by the question, could somehow (repeatedly) have amnesia about the fact that others have often found me too "intense"- too focused on (if not obsessive about) certain subjects and activities (creativity, spirituality, psychology, the inner life, writing etc.,) and relentlessly curious about how to live fully and deeply who and what we are.

Pausing for a moment, I considered his question. My ex-husband came to mind.

When Jeff and I married over a decade ago, we each wrote our own vows, and heard the other's for the first time during the ceremony. Jeff included in his vows a modified line from my poem, "The Invitation," vowing to, "Stand in the centre of the fire with you and not shrink back."

Ten years later as our marriage was ending, driven by the mistaken belief that understanding might ease my pain, I asked him (not for the first time) to tell me why he'd lied throughout the relationship. He had already conceded that there had been many more lies- about things that mattered and things that didn't- than the ones I’d stumbled across (and we’d agreed that I didn’t need to hear about all of them now.) What I did want was to understand why he had lied so consistently, why he had- in my mind- made and broken a vow to be truthful.

I reminded him about this part of his wedding vow. "You said you'd stand in the fire with me, but there has never been a time- even on our wedding day- when you weren't lying about something."

He looked genuinely shocked. "Standing in the fire with you had nothing to do with telling the truth."

I honestly could not imagine what else it could have meant (which I suppose is the down-side of using something your partner wrote in your vows- she's bound to have a very particular idea about what the line means, since she wrote it!)

Baffled I asked, "Well, if it wasn't about telling the truth, what was it about?"

Without hesitation he replied, "It was about tolerating your intensity! It was a vow to stick it out, to endure despite the fact that you're always too intense about everything!"

Of course, it was easier to hear that an interviewer I didn't know was implying that my intensity might be less than wonderful than it had been to realize that my then-husband had seen this quality in me as something difficult to be endured and tolerated, as (in his techno-speak) a bug and not a feature.

When I tried to respond to the interviewer last week, all I could do was laugh. It started out as a chuckle of recognition that someone else’s assumptions about my so-called “intensity” had nothing to do with me, but it rippled quickly into a real giggle as I realized that the accusation of intensity simply no longer has any power over me. I was delighted to discover how deeply I now accept that who I am is someone some others will sometimes see as too intense.

We all want to be seen and appreciated for who we are. And yes, even I can see how my intensity does at times wear me out, cause social awkwardness and ask a great deal from those who want to meet on mutual ground. It also makes me deeply passionate and enthused about living life fully.

The truth is, our ability to live fully and enjoy the life we have been given is dependent, not upon how others see us, but upon self-acceptance. Deep self-acceptance can turn chuckles and giggles into deep belly laughs that might leave some others truly baffled. And that really is okay with me.

Oriah (c) 2013

24 comments:

  1. I often have to wonder if, when people comment on our (yes I am intense) intensity whether they are in fact saying we are too 'pushy'. Sometimes our intensity is channelled towards others whether they like it or not.

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    1. Fair enough- and it is worth questioning whether or not we are being respectful of others. However, I have most often been called "intense" when I was working on my own- being an introvert it may be as much about how I am with myself as anything :-)

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  2. I lost my third son on Dec. 8th, 011 after a 2 year battle with cancer! He was an incredible young man and left this world at the age of 36 -- obviously rather young! He was a Shakespearean Actor living in NY at the time....I have been going through photo albums and other memorabilia relative to his life and I came across "It Doesn't Interest Me" which he had typed out on his own. Looking back over his life, I can visualize him inhaling those words and living by them! ..... We go through life not knowing of the ripples in the water we create when first we dip a finger. I wanted you to know that a very large ripple not only touched my son, Stafford, but I dare say he was drenched and loved it! Thank you for sharing your heart and touching my son's!

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    1. Oh Margaret, I am so sorry to hear of you loss. I cannot imagine. Thank you for letting me know "The Invitation" (the title of that piece) touched your son- and now your life. Holding you in my thoughts, prayers and heart, Oriah

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  3. It truly is a matter of perspective; what is dubbed as "intense" for one person feels like home to another. I find the depth that you allow us to see Oriah, very refreshing and I feel quite comfortable with that level of intensity because I too being one who writes and find joy in the more contemplative things of life visiting your site often to connect to that same level of intensity in me. And, like you I am quite ok with it, no apologies, no arrogance; it just is for me and others what it is...

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    1. "No apologies, now arrogance" - sounds like a good guideline to remember :-)

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  4. Hmmm I never regarded this part of me as 'intensity,' but in reflecting over it and reading your post, I must say that I too, am intense in that way. I laughed when I read the part about "social awkwardness" - been there, done that. Hence the reason I only have one or two close friends who 'get me.' But still working on the "self-acceptance" piece of my life and trying not to define myself by how others see me. I guess some of this comes with age. I, for one, appreciate your intensity Oriah and come back to read your post each week BECAUSE of it. I admire your open-hearted courage and relentless pursuit of how to live life fully and be fully who you are. :)

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    1. The shadow side of intensity may well be the "relentless pursuit" when I could more regularly sit back and just allow life in its fullness to come to me :-) I do find that as I get older I am more at ease with my own intensity and so able to not create as much social awkwardness (even as I write this I wonder if it is true or if I just don't worry about the social awkwardness as much any more.)

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  5. Wow. I was shocked when I read this. In all the years I've known you, Oriah, I have rarely experienced you as "intense". Sure, you have your moments, like all women with passion. But intense by nature? My god, no!

    Which leads me to the conclusion that, like other terms, "intensity" is interpreted in many different ways depending on who you are talking to. I have been described as "intense" all my life and in my experience, it usually means a person is struggling to deal with whatever we're giving out -- be it energy, or emotion, or passion, or strength of conviction. But I bet a poll of 50 people would reveal a mix of definitions at the very least. It's a term thrown around far too loosely.

    I've witnessed a similar phenomena on dating sites, where a disturbing number of men list on their profiles "No Drama". But what the hell does that mean?! If they approach me, I ask. Some say they define it as destructive or hurtful arguments, others describe it as yelling -- they don't like a woman who raises her voice, no matter what the emotion is behind it. Some men consider it to be "too emotional", others translate it as "too deep". What a range! It proves the point: some terms are far more "loaded" than others.

    Jesse

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    1. Jesse- now this made me smile. You ARE one of the most intense folks I know (which, I suspect is why you do not experience me as particularly intense)- it is one of the things I love about you! :-)

      Yes, I'd wonder about that "no drama" thing too. Sounds a bit like- "if you are unhappy about something that's happening between us I don't want to hear about it (or send it to me in a concise memo."

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    2. Ha ha! A concise memo. My take on it is that "drama" is often means any form of volatility or intensity (there's that word again). It insinuates "theatrical", of course; that "making a big deal out of nothing" thing, and is laced with judgment in the same way "intensity" might insinuate "too much" or "unreasonable". Men who talk about these qualities as undesirable (or something to be "tolerated", as your ex-husband put it) are a western or more modern version of men in the Middle East who want their women toned down, moderately dressed and "appropriately behaved". Same shit different pile.

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    3. Jesse- lol- I think you're right (and I had not heard that wonderfully colourful phrase you used at the end :-) )

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  6. Oh yes I recognise this one :-). Thank you - as always.

    I gather that a good 20% of the population is categorised (I know, I know) as a 'Highly Sensitive Person', and that a non-HSP (though of course it HAS to be a spectrum) might find us hard work. We're also early-warning-systems for society, so they need us too ;-). (And yes, I have big problems with that label, of course.)

    I find MYSELF hard work - but recognise that this intensity is the price I (and maybe others, which is not so good) pay for my passion, enthusiasm and the deep commitments I make to change and transformation. Recognising the strengths and weaknesses in this, via Elaine Aron's book on HSPs in Love, has been so helpful.

    And I'm reminded of something Dr Seuss said (I'm paraphrasing): 'Be who you are and say what you feel. Those who love you won't mind, and those who don't don't matter.'

    Oriah, I for one am extremely grateful that you continue to put your care, passion and insight out into this poor fragmented world. We SO need people like you. x

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    1. Roselle- thanks for this. I was always very resistant to the term "Highly Sensitive" (probably because I was accused of being "too sensitive" if I got upset as a child) but I do think there are some whose early-warning systems have been finely tuned (sadly, often because we experienced trauma early on) and I like the idea of being a kind of canary in the mine (although not always easy.) Am thinking now of very concrete things (like my inabiltiy to eat any aspertane or food dyes without getting a migraine etc.) that could be taken as a pretty clear sign that these things are not good for anyone, even though some may not react as quickly. :-)

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    2. Yes. And yes. Me too.

      And - hope you're pacing yourself re (not) feeling you have to respond to everyone, as per a blog of yours last year! :-) I so recognise that too - big burnout for me.

      Sending love

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  7. It's funny, I interpret "standing in the fire" with another as meeting all challenges that come out of a relationship--of any kind.

    How interesting to hear him say that even then-on your wedding day- he felt you were "too." I love your take on self-acceptance ...and I can't stop pondering this idea of not fully accepting our beloved in their entirety. That there is such thing as "too" anything when it comes to a partner we choose to commit to is curious. Maybe I just resist the idea of judgment (even as I do it myself.) Was Beethoven too intense? Or Ben Franklin? Einstein? Or Rumi? When someone has this kind of creative life's work, the kind you do, isn't intensity part of it? Isn't intensity part of living fully in the world? So many questions as I read and re-read this. Another thought-provoking post that came out of your being too intense. ;-))). Thank you, Oriah.

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    1. Carol, I always meant it as a willingness to be with another fully come what may- and honesty and truthfulness went (I thought!) without saying as a necessary pre-requisite. I do think that creativity requires a certain fierce intensity- although that does not necessarily translate into what others would see as an intense way of living. Love all the mulling (which we intense types tend to like to do! :-) )

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  8. Oriah, I can relate to this, although I am not often told I am "intense", I am told I am "intimidating". It used to really bother me, because I want people to find me approachable and helpful - and I also want to support them in helping themselves. I am a very honest person, I call it as I see it, and I know some do not appreciate such bluntness. As a dear friend once told me, "I always know where I stand with you". No, I do not sugar coat the truth, though as I grow older I have aimed to be gentler. I've also always been the one who speaks up and says what everyone else is thinking, but afraid to say.
    My point here is this - when we dare to be who we are and live that truth fully in each and every moment - people in general do not know what to do with it. Most people have been groomed to be polite, and say the right things or don't say anything. So definitely take being told you are "intense" as a compliment, for it means you are allowing others to stretch outside of their own comfort zones and live more fully!!

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  9. Oriah,

    Being accused of being "Too Intense" is spoken only by those who can't stand the heat of the "fire". I will stand in the fire with you any time...that's the reason I liked you from the first time I met you at the bookstore in Santa Cruz.

    I suddenly have an image of flames burning all around us.

    Keep writing and keep burning. I like you just the way you are!

    People who are "grounded" can take the heat of the fire. It warms my heart, touches my soul, and lifts my spirit.

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  10. I guess it's the other way round. People who title us as "too intense" only have a problem with themselves. Though they would never admit it, they would love to be like us but are way too frightened to truly live that part of themselves. So in a way they are annoyed with us 'coz we don't give a damn and just be who we are. In a way we act as a mirror to them. They want to label us as being difficult, too frank, too emotional. Boy would they wish to just once feel what we feel :-)
    In the past I was sad that people saw me as too intense, too emotional. Now I've figured that if someone truly loves me and can "deal with me", he will love the fire that's in me and not be intimidated by it. I don't want a man who is too "weak" to be courageous and stand in the fire with me. Life is not just nice and well-behaved either, it's wild, it's ugly but it's also awesome. I want all of that. And I want a guy who wants that, too. Your ex-hubby just didn't have a clue, Oriah, how to love all of you and know that he's blessed beyond measure to be loved back by someone as wonderful as you are.
    @Jesse: Totally love that saying "same shit different pile" :-))
    xox

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  11. Love this - and your "canary in the mine" image in your reply to Roselle. I've found my own intensity hard to accept and embrace, coming from a family in which open emotion was disapproved of and a culture (UK middle class)which is also not very tolerant. As a child I'd be bursting with the strength of my thoughts and feelings but learned to keep them to myself, with considerable consequences for my later mental and emotional health, including depression and food and alcohol abuse. It's only in recent years that I've begun to appreciate my intense reactions as an OK, even valuable, part of who I am and to find healthy ways to express it.

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  12. I am so pleased to find your blog. For many years I worked to not be "too much". I modified my authentic nature in an attempt to side step that wash of embarassment when I was thought a phoney or eyes rolled after I spoke. But... a big but...when the good I wanted to share was on a one on one with someone in need the very same eyes that once rolled softened and they were able to take me in. I believe that was due to my ability to take myself in and through this bring my message or passionate nature forward without hesitation or modification to suit my audience. It takes intensity to reach people who have gone numb to human kindness. Vulnerabilty to judgement has given way to self acceptance. Folks still roll their eyes but when they call for a loving ear to listen or a heart that is fearlessly open to hold their secret I am there and my passion for understanding is not dampened by those for whom the heat in the kitchen is too much! I love your intensity. You go girl. Rock this planet with the good you do.

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  13. I love this post! i can totally relate....

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  14. Thank you everyone for this post it has helped me. People usually say am toooo intense or to firey or to something. These statements can make me feel wrong or am too much. You are right its about self acceptance and being okay to be passionate about stuff and love. Why should I feel bad that people can't
    Cope with the fire its there stuff not mine.
    Much love and thank you again it has helped not feeling bad about me. Xx

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