Emotional Overexcitability

Feelings and emotions are frequently at a higher pitch, and the person has a keen awareness and sensitivity to nuances of feeling in oneself and in others. Because the vehicle for emotion is the body, blushing, getting flushed with color, perspiring, trembling, feeling tension in different parts of the body, feeling hot or cold, present psychosomatic signs of overexcitability. Positive as well as negative feelings are experienced with great intensity, openly by extroverts and inwardly by introverts. We live in a culture in which being emotional is criticized and tampered with. Children are often told what they should or should not feel rather than accepting what they do feel. When this happens children with high overexcitability are intensely miserable and confused. Consequently, emotional individuals have a tendency toward depression, suicidal thoughts, feeling of being out of place and not belonging. Feelings of profound alienation, even suicide, are often the result. Ways of recognizing and respecting children's overexcitabilities and protecting their sensitivities are described in Living with Intensity.

Highly emotional individuals become strongly attached to people, living things, and places. They experience great difficulties adjusting to a new location and a new environment. To pull up so many roots and strike them in new soil takes up much energy. Adjusting to a new place often takes a long time, or it fails to happen. Hence compassion toward others, their loneliness, and being out of place. Friendships are strong and enduring.

Being emotional often means to judge oneself, to carry on an inner dialog and self-evaluation on how well one does toward others, how well one carries out one's responsibilities toward others. In the first entry of her Journal of Solitude, May Sarton wrote: "I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation. But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting, and tormented self." Such great intensity of feeling as well as an inner struggle and self-judgment used to be viewed as mental disturbance. Now they are understood to be essential to inner growth. The sculptor Malvina Hoffman said: "Language is a clumsy medium to express the pounding surge of intense feeling. ... Music could drive my blood and suffuse my entire being."

Intensity, passion, and sensitivity to nuances of feeling are expected in creative people in the arts but not in science or mathematics. Herbert Simon, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, said that there was no emotion in his creative process -only hard cognitive work. Simon took for granted his wife's contribution to his emotional well-being and overlooked the obvious fact what drives his work is the powerful emotion of intense interest. Louis Pasteur and Norbert Wiener, to cite just two examples, were deeply emotional and highly sensitive people. Darwin and Einstein also had a strongly emotional aspect to their personalities. The spectrum of emotions and feelings is immense and exceedingly intricate. The portion of the emotional spectrum that is characteristic of each creator is undoubtedly unique.

In his autobiography Darwin made frequent observations on his friendships and their personal importance to him in contrast to his association with scientific colleagues. In describing people he always noted the emotional impact each person had on him. Recalling his childhood, Darwin confessed to an act of cruelty. He beat a puppy and it troubled his conscience for a long time. "The exact spot where the crime was committed" was engraved in his mind. It was all the more troubling to him because he loved dogs and they often preferred him to their masters. Darwin also recalled that he was more affectionate in his youth when he had many friends among the schoolboys whom he said he loved dearly. When he attended the clinical ward of the hospital as a student some of the cases distressed him and left vivid imprints on his mind. Two surgeries he attended were performed without anesthesia - it was not yet introduced - he could not bear to stay and see them completed.

Einstein said about himself: "I am not much with people, and I'm not a family man. I want my peace." In personal relationships he kept a distance. He concentrated all his energy on solving the riddle of how God created the universe. And yet he was also animated by deep emotions and sensibilities. He was close to his mother and his sister Maja, and to his uncle Casar Koch. He was deeply honest and abhorred German militarism so strongly that from the age of 15 he sought to give up his German citizenship; he became stateless at 16. Eventually he became a Swiss citizen. He cherished those few with whom he could discuss physics. Einstein said that he suffered nervous conflicts "at the very beginning when the Special Theory of Relativity began to germinate" in him. Similarly Max Planck described the 6 years of his own seminal work on the equilibrium between radiation and matter as 'a process of despair' because the solution was eluding him.

As a boy, Einstein had a great sensitivity to beauty and a deep religiosity. About the age of 12 he came to the conclusion that many Bible stories could not possibly be true. Religion lost its authority. He suspected that all institutional authority was intentionally deceiving the young and lying to them. The resulting emotional crisis made him distrust any authority. Einstein loved music and studied the violin but was making little progress with teachers who stressed mechanical practicing and accuracy without feeling. When he was 13 he fell in love with Mozart's violin sonatas: "The attempts to reproduce, to some extent, their artistic content and their singular grace compelled me to improve my technique ... I believe, on the whole, that love is a better teacher than sense of duty."

Pasteur as a boy liked to fish but abstained from trapping birds - he couldn't bear to see a wounded bird. The contact with his family and friends was vital to the young Pasteur. Away from home he constantly begged for more frequent and longer letters. Pasteur was also deeply religious and it pained him to see in the practice of religion so much controversy, intolerance, and lack of peace and love.

Wiener's account of his boyhood and youth is very emotional. He remembered his first sweetheart from kindergarten -charmed by her voice he loved to stay close to her. He suffered fears of the dark, injury, violence, and death. The injustice and cruelty suffered by others affected him deeply. He was quite shaken when at the age of 13 he was told that his mother had a second child who died at birth. Realizing that his own family was not immune to tragedy, shattered his sense of security. Lacking religious upbringing he learned the story of Christ's crucifixion from his Catholic friends. The image of the crown of thorns and of Christ's wounds filled him with pain.

Despite his extraordinary abilities and being radically accelerated in school - Wiener graduated from Tufts College at the age of 14 2, spent a year at Cornell, and earned his doctorate at Harvard before he turned 19 - his self-confidence was undercut by his father's demand for perfection. Even worse, his father stated publicly in print that all the boy's accomplishments were due to the training he gave him and none to his abilities. Wiener was devastated; he felt that all his successes were his father's and the failures were his own. He dreaded graduation which forced him to leave the protection of childhood and face adult responsibility for himself. He seriously doubted he could succeed. "My achievement of independence during the year at Cornell had been incalculably retarded by the confused mass of feelings of resentment, despair, and rejection which had followed early in the year upon discovery of my Jewishness."

Studies comparing artists and scientists in regard to emotionality have shown that as a group scientists tend to be less emotional. But this comparison overlooks at least two things. First, the comparison is made of adults. The examples cited make it clear that as children scientists often are emotional and sensitive but later the involvement in research restricts their emotional range - recall Darwin saying that he was more affectionate as a boy. Second, there is a distinct difference in the artists' and the scientists' material. Scientists study phenomena outside themselves which are analyzed, experimented with, and explained in objective terms. And yet the process of working out solutions to problems is often described as despair or torture. The scientist's passion and agony do not enter the final result. Science tends to be seen as an unemotional and objective endeavor. In fact, objectivity is the outcome not of the individual but of the collective enterprise of science in which replication of results and confirmation of theories are carried out by different people checking on each other's work. The very substance of art is human subjectivity, the life of feeling to which an artist gives expression. Artists work with the complexities of human emotion and feeling. Before experience can be portrayed and expressed it has to be felt, whether in reality or in imagination.

In some cases emotional overexcitability is expressed negatively. For instance, Wagner was so self-centered that he believed that to be his friend a man had to be totally dedicated to him. Picasso, emotionally equally intense, was not far behind, being destructive in most of his intimate relationships. Somerset Maugham was often cruel to the boys procured for him. To understand what tips the balance toward a negative expression of overexcitability would require a close examination of the person's emotional development.

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