Intensity – What makes intensely creative, emotional and gifted adults like Steve Jobs prone to troubling relationship issues?

I was truly dismayed to see someone as influential and talented as Steven Johnson, author of the brilliant book  Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation say this about Steve Jobs:

“But for all his obnoxiousness with his colleagues…, Jobs had a rich collaborative streak as well. He was enough of an egomaniac to think of himself as another John Lennon, but he was always looking for McCartneys to go along for the ride with him.”


To me, this is an example of the kind of socially accepted intolerance, bias, and disparaging name-calling that creative, emotionally intense and gifted adults (and children) frequently experience their entire lives. Even though Mr. Johnson is intending to show the “other” side of Steve Jobs complex personality, it doesn’t excuse his perpetuating the portrayal of Steve as an “obnoxious egomaniac.”   Those are some powerfully degrading and hurtful words for such a respected author to be using as though they were mere objective facts and not defamatory or derogatory character slurs.  To me, those words are just offensive as any racist or sexist epithets.  

Yes.  Steve was emotionally intense.  Yes, he had a temper and SOME people felt bullied by him.  But he was so much more than that — he had many allies, supporters and people who overlooked his outbursts as being part of his intensity and found his intense convictions inspiring.  They didn’t take his emotional intensity personally and loved working with him.   

Intensity is one of the many forms of neurodiversity that are misunderstood, not tolerated and aggravated by our culture.  Unharnessed, emotional, intellectual and energetic intensity can feel overwhelming to people who are not intense.

 When people assume that other people are sharing the same experience in the same way, and at the same level of intensity, it’s so easy to assume they simply lack self- control.  In reality, it’s more like two people can be in a 70 degree room and to one it feel like 100 degrees and they are uncontrollably sweating and to another it can feel like 40 degrees and they could be having uncontrollable shivers and goose bumps.  Emotional intensity works similarly.   There is actually a biologically based neurochemical reason (one of which is dopamine levels) that literally and profoundly affect how intensely we feel emotionally in response to events.  For example, we might feel such a strong surge of emotion in response to a new idea that it’s not “controllable” though with practice we CAN learn how to change the way we respond to it.  But that requires advanced habit shaping and emotional intelligence skills that are rarely taught.

To the intense person, what seems like nothing to most people, for example, seeing a typo or mistake, can trigger such a strong emotional discomfort that it feels like being hit by a crashing wave.  In our culture, instead of recognizing that some people are just that way, we treat it as a mental illness, we invalidate the reality of what it feels like to live with this, or we make it a character defect.  When you really look at the situation deeply and objectively, you begin to see that it’s actually a need to learn skills.  Thankfully therapy is moving toward an educational model, but why do we still classify the learning as a “treatment” for a disorder?    

This fundamental variation in intensity is at the the root of many of our “differences” and when not recognized causes misunderstanding and over time can lead to such extreme frustration and anger that people become very abusive to each other.

Intense people themselves are usually unaware of how different their experience of life is from most people and their descriptions of how they feel are often not believed by others.  Consequently, instead of learning how to cope with intensity, it is invalidated and people try to repress it.  The repression leads to build up and eventually meltdowns, tantrums and other forms of emotional outbursts.   My intention with this article is not to “excuse” anyone’s rude behavior, but rather to move us forward in understanding so that we can find more productive ways to deal with our differences.  Like learning more about the ways people are different and how to resolve the inevitable conflict in respectful ways.  We have a culture where most people seek to avoid conflict or confrontation.  If we learned early on how to see conflict as an opportunity to learn to become more accepting of differences, more patient, more emotionally agile, mentally flexible and less certain that what we think is right, perhaps we wouldn’t have an epidemic of social anxiety and depression.  

Back to the article that inspired this article — I wonder if Mr. Johnson is familiar with the literature on giftedness and intensity and, if he were, would he still choose to use words like “egomaniac” so easily?

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