Helping the "Emotionally Intense Person"

As someone who contributes to the well being of others, you've likely enjoyed contributing to many.  You have seen people take in your caring and benefit from your support.  You have met some who said they didn't want your help.  You also might have found yourself in a relationship in which you are consistently the one who listens and tries to help in the face another's emotional intensity*, but found your support seemed to make no difference.  If so, there's a good chance that this person names emotional intensity as a part of their identity.  Once any aspect of behavior is named as a part of identity, change regarding that behavior becomes unlikely.

If you are in the helping role with this person, then you might be operating under the idea that you can help them achieve a state of calm or equilibrium.  You imagine that once you get them through this emotional crisis or problem, then they will be okay and have space to consider your needs or simply take more of an interest in you.

Unfortunately, when someone decides that emotional intensity is "who they are", there is typically very little time between one emotional issue and the next.  The drive to protect identity is stronger than the discomfort or pain the identity-protecting-behaviors create.

Not understanding this you try everything to help out or "calm them down" each time they come to you.  After a certain number of experiences attempting this, you will likely start to feel resentful of this person and your behavior may shift from attempts to help to attempts to manage or control.  Later, judgment slips in and either aloud or silently you find yourself applying labels, giving advice, and criticizing the decisions they make.  You are in compassion fatigue and have nothing left to give.

If this is a family member you seek out help at this point.  If this is not a family member, you leave the relationship.  If you are seeking help at this point, you likely don't really have the energy to try new skills or strategies.  You find yourself in the sad place of having to take space from that family member.

As you reflect on this person and your relationship to them, a few common themes will likely arise.  One, you regret not taking care of your own needs with regard to this relationship.  Two, you wish you would have caught the pattern sooner.  Three, you see that no one is to blame and you can find compassion for both of you.  This last one may be the most difficult to integrate.

 Seeing no one is to blame and finding compassion requires acknowledgment of common patterns of human interaction that are bigger than any one person.  For example, your impulse to help another at a cost to your own needs, arises from both genuine care and generosity and likely also from your own reactive pattern of devaluing your needs, playing the role of harmonizer in your family, or taking on a rescuer role, etc; which at some point was an adaptive response, but is no longer helpful. 

The other person's identity around "being a person of big feelings" or however they phrase it, is their tragic attempt to take care of themselves in some way.  Their needs and experience remain valid even while surrounded by reactivity.  Unfortunately, reactivity does affect decision making and they likely find themselves in the same emotionally difficult situations again and again.  In the same way, you might find yourself repeating non-mutual relationships in which someone "needs" your help.  Creating identities and then attempting to live them out is a universal tragic strategy.  In the end there is no static identity that can support you in living as the dynamic flow of aliveness that you are.

But if your identity is flexible and you can release whatever role you have taken with this person, you can free yourself from these relationship patterns and begin to set boundaries and discern what is really helpful in any given relationship.  If this person is a family member, grieving ideas of the familial relationship you long for might be the next step.  Then, you may need to find support so that you can accept what's true and set boundaries.

In the big picture, any time you invest your energy in attempting to help someone, it's essential to notice the impact of your offering.  Are you contributing?  How do you know?  This isn't always very obvious, but the question is important to ask.  At the same time, you are asking the equally important question:  "Am I doing this from the generosity of my autonomous heart with ease and joy?"  Or  "Have I begin to feel resentful as my own needs are at cost within this relationship?"  "Do I harbor some idea of saving or fixing this person so that we can finally have the relationship I want?"

The most reliable and fundamental contribution you can make to others is the gift of your loving presence and joyful heart.  Such a gift isn't bound up in long hours of listening and problem solving.  It can be given from a distance or in intimacy.  It is for you to discern how loving presence and joy is shared in each relationship and community.

Take a moment now to cultivate loving presence and a joyful heart.  Breathe through your heart, absorb your attention in something that elicts joy, bring to mind something you are grateful for...  


*emotional intensity: I am using this term to refer to states or situations in which an inability to achieve emotional regulation interferes with wise and compassionate decision making.