Do you consider yourself an emotional person? If a potential friend candidly described you that way to your face, would you be flattered or disturbed? Compared to most people you know, are you stronger in the intensity and range of your feelings, milder, or somewhere in between?
Whereas for centuries astute observers of the human condition have noted that people vary remarkably in this dimension — it's been the theme of many great novels — only recently have psychologists come to understand that this difference is already apparent on our first day of postnatal existence — and continues strikingly unchanged ever after. Emotional Intensity clearly plays a major role in love relationships, yet has oddly been all but ignored professionally.
The vast realm of our feelings is clearly experienced differently by people across cultures. For example, it's long been a truism that those from Mediterranean backgrounds — such as Italians, Greeks, Spanish, and Portuguese — are typically more emotionally open and demonstrative than Northern Europeans like the Swiss and German, and the British. Similarly, South Americans and Caribbean Islanders are regarded as more emotionally expressive than their North American counterparts. The field of cross-cultural psychology is still in its infancy, but such seeming stereotypes have recently been found to contain more than a kernel of truth. Nevertheless, in every culture and country, some people are definitely more emotionally intense than others — and interestingly, they may be drawn to the same kinds of work and professions. For instance, whether growing up in Chicago, Paris, or Hong Kong, teachers of young children are likely to thrive on vivid emotionality, whereas accountants are likely to prefer rationalistic activities each day.
In terms of gender, in the Western world, historically women have been depicted as being more dominated by their feelings than men, for example; they're commonly thought of as making major decisions based on moods rather than hard facts. But there's virtually no scientific evidence to back this up. Indeed, anyone who has ever grown up in a family indisputably knows that many men are volatile emotionally, and lots of women conversely express a placid inner world.
What's clear, though, is that it is more acceptable for women to show strong emotions — such as tears of sadness or shock — in work or other public settings than it is for men. And perhaps more important, the two genders often have different ways of expressing the same emotion, whether it be love or gratitude, jealousy or envy, sympathy or fear, affection or generosity. For example, men rarely cry when feeling sad. But when it comes to a relationship involving two particular people, the intensity of their emotions is always what ultimately matters.
Emotional intensity is among our most basic personality traits. Infants and even newborns vary significantly on this vital quality. Obstetricians know this well, vividly describing some babies' "lusty cry" after their birth. In the first few months of infancy, the emotions of pleasure, distress, surprise, disgust, joy, anger, and somewhat later, fear and sadness, are specifically identifiable in all. But as every parent discovers, some babies express these vigorously, while others are quite placid.
At age five, emotionally intense children cry and laugh with great feeling; for example, they become distraught when a family pet is sick or hurt and ecstatic when opening birthday gifts. As a preteen, he or she already reacts strongly to movies and favorite TV shows, and when feeling upset, may spend hours moping. By high school, many can't watch horror movies but feel deep pleasure at happy events like religious confirmations, "sweet sixteen" parties, graduations, and prom nights. Whatever the feeling, the pitch is intense.
It's common to confuse Emotional Intensity with warmth, friendliness, and likability. Yet this trait reflects how strong a person's feelings typically are in daily life, not how positive or pleasant they are. Indeed, nearly everyone has met people prone to acute anger, sadness, fear, or jealousy but rarely those disposed to vibrant cheerfulness, gratitude, admiration, or joy. Regardless of the specific feeling, those high on Emotional Intensity will express them all forcefully — never meekly or mildly. A feeling is a feeling, and for those emotionally intense, the river runs deep, no matter its name.
SELF-QUIZ ON EMOTIONAL INTENSITY
Please read each question carefully and mark the one answer that best fits you. There are no right or wrong answers, and you need not be an "expert" to take this quiz. Describe yourself honestly and state your opinions as accurately as possible. Be sure to answer each item. If you make a mistake or change your mind, erase your answer completely. Then mark the number that corresponds to your correct answer.
• Mark a 1 next to the statement if it's definitely false or if you strongly disagree.
• Mark a 2 next to the statement if it's mostly false or if you disagree.
• Mark a 3 next to the statement if it's about equally true or false, if you cannot decide, or if you are neutral on the statement.
• Mark a 4 next to the statement if it's mostly true or if you agree.
• Mark a 5 next to the statement if it's definitely true or if you strongly agree.
____ 1. I must admit that I'm a rather emotional person.
____ 2. I cry easily at sad or romantic movies.
____ 3. Sentimental songs seem silly to me.
____ 4. Whatever my mood, I usually feel it intensely.
____ 5. I usually have strong feelings about people I meet.
____ 6. I like people who approach life in a logical rather than emotional way.
____ 7. 1 usually try to control rather than express my feelings.
____ 8. Sometimes when reading something sad in the newspaper, I get tears in my eves.
____ 9. Many people seem like "cold fish" to me.
____ 10. When making an important decision, I pay more attention to the facts than to my feelings.
____ 11. I would be too embarrassed to cry in front of others.
____ 12. I often laugh aloud in the theater at funny movies.
____ 13. When making an important decision, I listen most to my feelings.
____ 14. My feelings are on the mild side.
____ 15. I get upset easily.
____ 16. I'm glad to admit I'm not an emotional person.
____ 17. I almost never cry at a movie.
____ 18. Most people seem overly emotional to me.
____ 19. I love with real passion.
____ 20. I like to keep my feelings well hidden from others.
____ 21. People who laugh aloud at movie theaters annoy me.
____ 22. I sometimes have tears when listening to sentimental music.
DETERMINING YOUR SCORE
• Add the numbers you wrote by these statements: 1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 9, 12, 13, 15, 19, and 22. Total for part A
• Now subtract the numbers by these statements: 3, 6, 7, 10, 11, 14, i6, 17, 18, 20, and 21. Total for part B
Your score on Emotional Intensity is A minus B.
INTERPRETING YOUR SCORE
Scores on this self-test of Emotional Intensity can range from -44 to +44.
If you scored 22 or more, then you are high on Emotional Intensity. Whatever you're feeling as you go through the day, it's likely to be strong. Your emotions flow like a river, and sometimes the current surges so strongly that you feel swept along. When you love, you're passionate. When you're happy, you're buoyant. And that's great. But alas, when you're angry, you're furious, and when you're sad, you can grow depressed. For you, the world often seems filled with "cold fish" who lack your emotional energy. So intimacy is best sustained with a warmly reactive rather than a placid partner.
If you scored 21 or less, then you are low on Emotional Intensity. You deal with life in a calm, even-tempered manner. Very little ruffles your feathers, and you like it that way. Rarely do you feel yourself lurching up and down on an emotional rollercoaster; for you, the ride is smooth. As you move through the everyday hustle and bustle, you often wonder why the world seems filled with so many hotheads and loose cannons. In your experience, intimacy is emotionally low-key — certainly a rewarding journey, but with neither soaring peaks nor plunging valleys.
EMOTIONAL INTENSITY: THE FOUR SCENARIOS
YOU BOTH SCORE HIGH:
Life for you two is a powerhouse of feelings, charged continually by your inner batteries. Even your dreams are likely to be more vivid than those of others, either glorious or alarming.
Psychologists have come to identify more than 350 different emotions in human affairs, and don't he surprised if together you get to know — and experience — them all. You may as well congratulate yourself on the fullness of your happy times ahead, for they'll be marvelously happy indeed. What for many couples are small or even trivial pleasures — like a walk in the park, a leisurely drive, or an entertaining movie — often positively captivate you.
Unlike those who require blockbuster moments in life to feel animated and exhilarated, countless events during a normal week can propel you jointly into an uplifting frame of mind. It's a wonderful gift to experience delights so easily.
But you should also know that depending on the level of Subjective Well Being you share, little disappointments, hurts, or frustrations can easily become magnified. When it comes to minor understandings between you, you may each tend to make mountains out of proverbial — and ephemeral — molehills. Reality checks are therefore particularly useful. Don't be afraid to use your head, and not just your heart, for guidance. It can also be helpful to ask a friend, perhaps someone low on Emotional Intensity, for advice if you're feeling downcast. Your greatest challenge on your life's rolling sea? Accepting that highs and lows are intertwined and that just as light cannot exist without darkness, your capacity to feel intensely as a team encompasses many moods. Keep focusing on the positive, let memories of your best times together be your beacon, and joy will be yours.
YOU BOTH SCORE LOW:
"Nothing to excess" advised the Greek statesman and poet Solon more than two millennia ago, and you two would absolutely agree. In your shared view, the world is filled with hotheads, loose cannons, and in-your-face emotional displays of every type. As all the articles about road rage, air rage, and now desk rage keep saying, the problem continues to worsen. "Letting it all hang out" emotionally is becoming our new international sport — so much so that simple courtesy and civility seem to be rapidly disappearing. You're thus glad to experience — and react — to life's events with a persistently calm demeanor.
You're both even-tempered and placid, and perhaps have even been accused of being complacent. But so what? In many ways, complacency is just another word for contentment, those with your trait might justifiably argue — and isn't that the goal for all of us? Indeed, growing medical evidence suggests that frequent catharsis — that is, uncontrolled venting of anger or sadness — not only isn't good for our well-being but it also seems to increase the risk of heart disease by placing our body-mind system on continually stressful "high alert."
As a couple, your moments of emotional heat together will be minimal — and this will suit you just fine. Keeping things light and low-key in all matters comes naturally to both of you. As you may already sense, the heady fountain of passion and excitement will cascade somewhere else, as will the engulfing torrents of disappointment, bitterness, and sorrow. Your emotional pond will be beautifully smooth.
Visitors to your home will immediately notice your soft-spoken way of life together. Certainly you will have dreams and hopes, desires and longings — but these will be consistently mild and easily contained if necessary. Individually and as a pair, you'll almost never feel like victims of your feelings but rather like their confident guide and master.
Your greatest challenge on your placid emotional sea? To know as a couple that lightning often strikes without warning and that storm clouds sometimes burst. If you can accept life's inevitable emotional storms when they arise, greater harmony is assuredly within your grasp.
YOU SCORE HIGH, BUT YOUR PARTNER SCORES LOW:
Whether you are joyfully sitting on top of the world or sadly moping down in the dumps, don't be surprised if you feel that you're going through life paired most of the time with a cold fish. For whether you're watching an endearing romantic movie, listening to sentimental music, reading a gripping news article, or simply recapping your day's triumphs and disappointments, your emotions play a vital, starring role. You can't be any different, and there's no reason for you to be.
But to your partner, facts are always more important and even more interesting than feelings. No matter how hard you try, no matter what strategies you adopt, you won't be able to raise his or her Emotional Intensity to your level. The surface — and the depths too — are placid. If you think this discrepancy is a prescription for discord and hurt, you're absolutely right.
When you have happy, wonderful news to relate — a job promotion, a new business deal, a child's accomplishment — your partner will react in a way that seems lukewarm or even frigid. When you're upset, sad, or downright depressed and are looking to be cheered up, you'll likewise feel let down. But know that your partner is not trying to hurt, trivialize, or marginalize you. He or she simply doesn't get excited by very much, for good or for bad, in experiencing life. And don't even begin to imagine that beneath your partner's complacent demeanor lies someone destined one day to emerge crying and laughing with beautiful intensity like you. It won't happen, and to expect it to is only a self-delusion. The more you press to elicit a big reaction, the greater your partner's back-off will be.
Also be aware that from your partner's perspective, your seemingly endless emotionality is stressful and wearing. Virtually any strong feeling you display, even laughing giddily or crying at a lively movie, will seem immature and an embarrassment. Each of you longs for an emotional state the other cannot provide.
YOU SCORE LOW, BUT YOUR PARTNER SCORES HIGH:
Count on it: Because of your partner's personality, you're going to become acquainted with lots of different emotions — more intense and varied than you have probably ever imagined. Of course, you've met demonstrative people in the past. But this is different, it's your relationship, and virtually every day now you're going to be presented with vivid emotions as never before. Rare indeed will be the movie that fails to provoke tears or belly laughs in your partner, regardless of how others are reacting.
Your basic approach to life emphasizes that problems are challenges to be solved logically, and that feelings, however intriguing to some people, are really only secondary to facts. Like the renowned Mr. Spock in the popular Star Trek TV series, you regard human emotions as fascinating, baffling, or disturbing — but never as a reliable guide for acting in this world. To do so would be the height of foolishness. But your partner has the opposite view.
With this combination, expect lots of discord in your reactions to friends, relatives, neighbors, work and career, and countless other elements of daily life. You'll feel that you're paired with a walking firecracker — someone who has strong feelings about nearly everything — from the salad bar's diversity at the local Italian restaurant to the personality of all your siblings — and everything in between.
You'll thus find yourself asking over and over again, "Can you please lower your voice?" or "Can you please calm down?" or "Just take a deep breath and then let's talk, okay?" But far from proving reassuring, your gently worded comments will only irritate and even enflame your partner, for in his or her eyes you're detached emotionally from what really matters — and generally don't care about the relationship at all.
And do keep in mind that behind your partner's vivid emotionality there's no placid, low-key person waiting quietly to step forth. Whether you're watching the news, discussing the day's events, or planning your next vacation, get set to be faced with continually strong feelings.
The Love Compatibility Book: The 12 Personality Traits That Can Lead You To Your Soulmate
by Edward Hoffman, Ph.D. & Marcella Bakur Weiner, Ph.D..
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, New World Library. ©2003. www.newworldlibrary.com
About the Authors
EDWARD HOFFMAN, PH.D., is a licensed psychologist in New York City and the award winning author/editor of numerous books including The Book of Birthday Wishes and Opening the Inner Gates. He lectures on self-development throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, and South America, and has appeared on numerous TV and radio shows. Dr. Hoffman has published articles or been interviewed by The New York Times, Newsday, Psychology Today, and Guideposts.
MARCELLA BAKUR WEINER, PH.D., a Fellow of the American Psychological Association (APA), is also an adjunct professor of psychology at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City and president of the Mapleton-Midwood Community Mental Health Center, a treatment center for community-living residents. Prior to her current pursuits, she served as senior research scientist for the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene where she published seventy articles. On faculty for the Institute for Human Relations Laboratory Training, Dr. Weiner has trained professionals in the United States and in countries overseas. Dr. Weiner is the author of and contributor to more than twenty books.
Visit their website at www.lovepsychology.net.
More Articles By Edward Hoffman, Ph.D. and Marcella Bakur Weiner, Ph.D.
You May Also Like
We can probably all relate to the experience of feeling divided within ourselves, occasionally against ourselves, and love will certainly induce this as handily as...
Relationships seem to be about partner matching. Therefore the apparent robustness of sex differences in preferences may largely be an artifact of the focus on sex at...
If we want to make the world a better place, we need to work on having healthy boundaries! And by this I mean… we understand that I am me and you are you and that...