The longer I live, and the more varied experiences I have, I realize that my psychological wiring is inclined toward feeling the peaks and valleys of the human experience. And while not everyone will relate to quite the level of intensity that I will describe here, I do think we all have the same, basic psychological needs that swing us across a spectrum of emotions and feelings. Here I’ll explain some of what it’s like for me to be an intense person, how that drives me to find meaning in the universe, my journey away from an established religion that used to meet these needs, and circle back to what I’m figuring out along the way. I’ll even throw in some tips for avoiding cults for free.
In my darkest moments, I’m inescapably aware that I’ve got an aching soul that is fathoms deep. In these moments the adjectives are: insatiable, inconsolable, implosive. I feel like a black hole develops where my soul once was. No light can escape. I feel uncontainable.
In my most illuminated moments, I am intoxicated by the very experience of being alive. I see profundity in the minutia and transcendence in the mundane. A song can enrapture me; a book can transform me. The adjectives are: passionate, electrifying, inspiring. I feel invincible.
I am pretty sure that I am missing just a teeny bit of momentum on the pendulum swing from being diagnosable as bipolar. I rely on Collin and my other closest relationships (including my therapist sister) to gauge this for me. For now, anyway, I’m comfortable understanding myself as: intense.
Like seeks like sometimes, I guess. I’m drawn to intensity in music, art, food, coffee, wine. When I first heard Muse’s Map of the Problematique, I grieved that I wasn’t a note in that song so I could live inside of it. My soul quivered with deep relatability when I first listened to the lyrics of Frightened Rabbit’s Modern Leper. When I witness exceptional art of any kind—films, dance, song, poetry, painting, novels, sculpture, photography—I get goosebumps and could easily cry (if I let myself). I love philosophy and theory—I definitely spent more time with extraordinary, dead authors this past year than living people. They were great company. Kant is a little bit of a stuffed shirt, but definitely a stand up guy. Give me strong, dark, French Roast coffee or give me death. Okay, not really. But f*** off with your overpriced cup o’ acidic light roast dirt.
My inner life is like the death of a massive star, and I expect that I will burn out in glorious explosion at the end. I hope I don’t just slip in the shower or choke all by myself. That would be the worst. Since I hope it is many years down the road before I meet my glorious end, I am learning to accept my intensity as part of who I am rather than try to shut it down. Holding all of these vast and consuming feelings within oneself is a lot to contain, though.
Wisdom is often found just by listening and understanding what’s happening in our natural world (after all, we are part of nature too). So, I sit with my intensity, and I wait for insight.
I’m reminded of wildfires.
In the past, the thought was that it was best to just extinguish wildfires because they threatened homes, livelihoods, wineries, and other important cultural institutions. These extreme efforts to completely extinguish the wildfires have actually made them worse and changed the natural fire regime. Many fire-prone ecosystems are optimized for fire. The Ponderosa Pine has naturally flame resistant bark. The Giant Sequoias drop resin-sealed seeds that only open in fire, and the fires keep competing plant species from taking over the ecosystem. Many ecosystems need regular, destructive fires to stay balanced. In recent years, one strategy that has been working better for both culture and nature is the active management of wildfires. That is, letting them burn but not letting them get out of control. Sometimes the fire inside just needs to rage while we stand by as witness to our intensity and protector of ourselves and all those around us as we burn.
So, I manage my inner world of wildfires by running, eating well, sleeping enough, taking herbs, watching how often and much wine I drink (experiencing myopia is my favorite, but using wine too often to cope with being me is the potential pitfall), writing, reading, hiking, listening to music, constantly seeking meaning in this universe, and infusing my life with adrenaline-surging adventure and experiences.
There has not been much happening in terms of that last line item lately, though. And by lately—I mean that we have been on this mountain not venturing farther than the grocery store for 387 days straight at this point. And during the height of the pandemic, I honestly didn’t know how or when or (at certain emotional low points) if we’d ever travel or move ever again.
This sent me into regression (as described in my last post) and lead me to explore another strategy for coping with my intensity: finding meaning in the universe. Due to my intensity, and also the fact that I was indoctrinated from birth and then raised in a very all-consuming faith tradition that I intellectually left in my late 20s, I am constantly, often unconsciously looking for a replacement paradigm that ties everything all together.
While I’m not shopping for a new religion, I do have to hand it over to the institution of religion: it ticks off a lot of boxes in the psychological needs department. It can often be a one-stop shop for finding meaning, purpose, explanations, nurturing relationships, and belonging.
When one departs from the core elements of their religion and henceforth their religious community, it can be disorienting. There’s an unraveling that happens as one walks away from the faith tradition of their youth. You take one, big step, you lose your explanations. You take another few steps, and you’ve lost your meaning and purpose. You take a few more steps, and you’ve lost your nurturing relationships and sense of belonging. It is just like Weezer and the sweater song. Soon you find yourself miles from church and naked—metaphorically speaking (possibly literally too). And then you realize: wow. I have a lot to figure out.
The thing about psychological needs is that they are real and we all have them. To be aware of our needs means that we can be informed about how we meet them. Denying that we have them or letting others dictate how we may and may not meet these needs often doesn’t make things better. And yet, sometimes it’s so tempting to meet the needs for belonging, explanations, and meaning, and purpose that we buy these needs at the expense of self expression, authenticity, and our critical thinking.
When an ideology or institution pressures people to suppress one, basic psychological need in exchange for another (say self expression and authenticity as expressed in one’s sexual orientation or gender identity in exchange for a sense of belonging) this is not healthy. And it’s also just people making stuff up. There are few universals; the rest is culture. And when a culture becomes too rigid and imposing, it can become oppressive. Worst case scenario, it could become a cult.
As for me, I’m always trying to avoid the cults. I admit that I am attracted to all-consuming groups and ideologies—at least in the beginning. I think it’s a relic from my past combined with my intensity-driven desire to be consumed by something bigger than myself. I used to want to live on a commune, and I was willing to give up a lot of myself to do so (especially if the commune would have been some sweet destination like Europe or a small island off the coast of New Zealand). I have to remind myself not to get too swept up in any one thing too quickly because I also have an analytical mind, and fortunately that always wins in the end. So it’s just a matter of time until someone says or does something that I think is madness, and if and when the group majority just goes along like everything is fine, well, that’s when I usually am like, “Dang it. I almost accidentally joined a cult again.”
Here are some pointers I now keep handy for avoiding cults:
- Practice thinking analytically and try to come up with your own opinions incorporating real life (not just whatever the sacred text aka handbook is). Shop your ideas around a bit. See how people react. If they tell you that you aren’t “anointed” “enlightened” or whatever their special term is for “right” whenever your opinion is different than theirs—GTFO.
- Listen to whatever music you want. If someone tells you can’t GTFO.
- Wear whatever clothes you want. If someone tells you that you can’t: GTFO.
- If someone tries to get you to burn something to prove your commitment—money, music, books, photos, etc—just GTFO.
- If they try to control your body—including (but not limited to) your sexuality, GTFO.
- If you are noticing that there’s social punishment for authentic self expression: you may be in a cult and you need to GTFO.
We all have basic, psychological needs that compel us to seek belonging, meaning, explanations, etc. Different cultures and ideologies seek to address these needs in specific ways, but as we become a more global and integrated world—we can observe that these cultural expressions for solutions to our needs are not the universals in themselves.
So all of this to say—psychological needs are real and important and part of humanity. Humanity is part of nature. As Carl Sagan once said, we are all made of star stuff. The iron in our blood, the carbon in our muscles, the oxygen in our lungs: it was all made inside stars before the earth was born.
So yes, when I say that my inner life is like the death of a massive star—it’s metaphorical and possibly literal too. And rather than try to fix myself or escape myself, I’m learning to love myself as I love the stars, the mountains, the rivers, the ocean, and all the lovable beings that live among us. I would never consider a raccoon evil. Raccoons can lash out in defensive aggression when they are afraid. It’s the same with humans. We are not evil—sometimes we lash out—unfortunately in tragic and dangerous ways at times—when our psychological and physical needs are unmet. But underpinning all this, we all have the needs to belong, to find meaning and purpose, to self-express authentically, and among other things: to be loved.
As I continue on in my journey of being an intense person who is trying to live an authentic, integrated life, I circle back to the value that has always served as my polaris: Love. Even my concept of Love has evolved through the years. I used to think that Love meant holding onto people never letting them go. But sometimes love means releasing people and encouraging them to evolve and become who they need to be. Sometimes love means noncooperation with unkindness or injustice. Sometimes love means laying down your life for others. Sometimes love means finding your own path and flourishing so that all those around you can be better for your flourishing too. Sometimes love means sharing your truth, and sometimes love means holding back when someone can’t handle it. Sometimes love means finding common ground, and sometimes love means creating distance.
Love is a vital and dynamic force, so it takes practice and discernment to figure out what it looks like in different scenarios. And growth mindset: making mistakes is how we learn! I do think, however, that we are all equipped with the innate wisdom to connect with finding what the Loving path is when we quiet our souls and listen. Because after all, in the words of Juvenal “Never does nature say one thing and wisdom another.” If we are part of nature, then we have that innate wisdom within.
I wish you all love and light, and may the fire of your massive stars within burn bright.