Intensity and Being Creative

A personality trait that may often accompany high sensitivity (experienced by many, or most, creative people) is high intensity.

You can see some forms of intensity in many actors and musicians.

Russell Crowe in A Beautiful MindJodie Foster once commented about Russell Crowe, “He has that glacier intensity.”

From post: Working With Your Intensity Through Creative Expression.

[Photo: Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind” – see quotes about the real John Forbes Nash, Jr. in article: Creativity and madness: High ability and mental health.]

The book “Enjoying the Gift of Being Uncommon” by Willem Kuipers uses the term Xi for uncommon people, which can stand for eXtra intelligent, or eXtra intense.

High ability people often – even typically – have personality characteristics that include high intensity or excitability.

This is another trait that earlier in my life led me to think I was “crazy” – partly because it was an inner experience I had not read about or heard others talk about, and it is in many ways private. I tended – for a time, at least – to think of it sometimes as being “pathologically” passionate or emotional.

Polish psychiatrist and psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski developed a theory of personality and emotional development that is often applied toward understanding the psychology of extra intelligent and intense, gifted and talented individuals.

One aspect of his Theory of Positive Disintegration is the concept of unusual intensity and reactivity, which he called overexcitability.

Living With IntensityIn their book “Living With Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability, and the Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents, and Adults,” Susan Daniels and Michael M. Piechowski explain, “Overexcitability is a translation of the Polish word which means ‘superstimulatability.’ (It should have been called superexcitability.) …

“Another way of looking at is of being spirited – ‘more intense, sensitive, perceptive, persistent, energetic’…It would be hard to find a person of talent who shows little evidence of any of the five overexcitabilities.”

But they also note that many people may not welcome such traits: “Unfortunately, the stronger these overexcitabilities are, the less peers and teachers welcome them.”

From my article The psychology of creativity: performers and excitabilities.

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Don’t tone it down

Sarah Bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt

In her article (on my main TalentDevelop site) Creative People Shouldn’t ‘Tone It Down’, writer, writing coach, teacher, and speaker Cynthia Morris comments,

“I’ve been accused of being ‘too much’ all my life. Too loud, too fast, too smart, too multi-talented, too audacious.

“I’ve never been able to live according to that external standard of ‘just right’. Artists are often ‘too much’. It’s the job of the artist and writer to reflect what they see and feel.

“This expression of their art and talents must be larger than life. The trouble is, our expression doesn’t always jibe with what’s going on in the ‘normal’ world.”

Do you ever “stifle yourself” to more easily get along with that ‘normal’ world?

I certainly do – but it can be an emotionally costly choice, and one that inhibits creative energy and expression.

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Using intensity and pain

Cheryl AruttCheryl Arutt, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in creative artist issues among topics, notes that “Creating art has always been a way to channel emotional intensity.”

She points out in a world “where destructive acting out is all too frequent (and meticulously documented and sensationalized on the news and TMZ), sublimating painful feelings by expressing them in the form of artistic expression allows the artist to choose to ‘act out’ in a way that is constructive.”

She adds, “Many creative people carry the belief that their pain is the locus of their creativity, and worry that they will lose their creativity if they work through their inner conflicts or let go of suffering.

“These artists hold onto their pain as if it were a lifeline, even finding ways to enhance it, leading to some patterns of behavior that won’t ‘turn off’ even when they want them to.”

The challenge for creative and intense people, she explains, is “Finding ways to maintain that optimal zone where we are neither under- or over-stimulated” which “allows us to use our minds to respond rather than to react.

“If you are an artist, you are your instrument. The greater access you maintain to yourself, the richer and broader your array of creative tools.”

From one of Dr. Arutt’s guest articles on my site: Affect Regulation and the Creative Artist.

Also see another article of hers: The Artist’s Unconscious.

For more about these qualities of intensity, see the articles:

Excitabilities and Gifted People – an intro by Susan Daniels

Dabrowski Excitabilities – Michael Jackson

and my site: Highly Sensitive.

Also see multiple posts on Intensity on my High Ability site.


The above material [except photos] is mostly from the “Intensity” section of my book “Developing Multiple Talents: The personal side of creative expression” – visit the About the Book page for reviews, more info and purchasing links.


Related articles and other material:

Article: Too Much to Contain: Intensity and Creativity.

Here is a short audio clip of material from the article, followed by some quotes:

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Lesley Sword, Director of Gifted & Creative Services Australia, explains that the term overexcitability “conveys the idea that this stimulation of the nervous system is well beyond the usual or average in intensity and duration.”

She 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.”

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Nicole Kidman gave a nice description of what many other actors and other artists experience:

Nicole Kidman as Martha Gellhorn“You live 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.”

[From my Nicole Kidman profile.]

But living with intensity means needing to respect our needs for mental health and stability, and working with powerful passions and excitabilities, while not trying to suppress or “fix” them.

These emotional and intellectual intensities of high ability people can be challenging.

Psychologist and creativity coach Eric Maisel says that ‘smart’ people often experience characteristic challenges including “difficulties with society and the world, issues at work, challenges with your personality and your racing brain, and special meaning problems.

Why Smart People Hurt - Eric Maisel“You may have chalked up your emotional distress, existential problems, work troubles, insomnia, relationship issues, and other difficulties to a variety of common causes like some ‘mental disorder,’ some biological malfunction, some feature of your childhood, or some shadow in your personality.

“But the poignant truth may be that some or many of these difficulties may be flowing directly from your natural endowment.”

See his book Why Smart People Hurt: A Guide for the Bright, the Sensitive, and the Creative.

Also see his related online course: Why Smart People Hurt.

See more quotes from his book in article: Challenged By Being So Smart.

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Author Christine Fonseca provides a summary of intensity in children – and, of course, children go on to become adults, with many of the same qualities and challenges:

Emotional Intensity in Gifted Students“Intensity comes in the form of cognitive intensity – those aspects of thinking and processing information that all gifted individuals use to problem solve. It relates to the attributes of focus, sustained attention, creative problem solving, and advanced reasoning skills.

“Most people think of cognitive intensity as intellect, or ‘being smart’ – all good things.”

She continues:

“But a gifted child’s intensity does not stop there. The emotional aspects of a gifted individual are also intense. Emotional intensity refers to the passion gifted people feel daily.

“It also refers to the extreme highs and lows many gifted people experience throughout their lifetime, causing them to question their own mental stability from time to time.

“This type of intensity is a natural aspect of giftedness. However, in my experience, it is also one of the most misunderstood attributes – and it is the reason gifted kids sometimes struggle.”

From her post Tips for Working With Emotional Intensity.

Also quoted in my article Channeling Intensity Through Creative Expression. – which includes a TEDx video: “Cheryl Arutt, PsyD – That Good Feeling of Control” and other material.

She is author of the book Emotional Intensity in Gifted Students: Helping Kids Cope With Explosive Feelings.


Jennifer Lawrence has been praised for her acting – including her intensity – in movies including “Winter’s Bone,” “The Hunger Games,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle” and others.

Jennifer LawrenceHer interviewer for a magazine article comments:

“All throughout our lunch at Odeon, the part of Lawrence that never let up was a kind of intense engagement with the world or the person in front of her.

“You could practically see her brain scanning the room, sifting through the data, and then spitting out something dryly observed, perfectly timed, or oddly profound. …

“Given her intensity, it does not come as a surprise that Lawrence describes her childhood as an ‘unhappy’ one—exceptional, excitable, hot-wired kids are often misunderstood and full of anxiety. Lawrence herself was so anxious that her parents found her a therapist.

“I was a weirdo,” she says. “I wasn’t picked on or anything. And I wasn’t smarter than the other kids; that’s not why I didn’t fit in.

“I’ve always just had this weird anxiety. I hated recess. I didn’t like field trips. Parties really stressed me out. And I had a very different sense of humor.”

From article: The Hunger Games’ Jennifer Lawrence Covers the September Issue by Jonathan Van Meter, Vogue.


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