Whose Anxiety is This, Anyway?

Linda Powers Leviton and Linda Kreger Silverman

Anxiety is the birthright of the gifted. You don’t have to be gifted to be anxious, but it helps. Gifted minds can find endless reasons to worry. Kazimierz Dabrowski (1970) saw a close relationship between high intelligence and emotional tension. With high intelligence comes greater awareness, and greater awareness can either motivate or immobilize. While a little anxiety can inspire action, too much can paralyze and punish us. High achievers are anxious about meeting deadlines and reaching goals. They manage their anxiety by focusing their attention, setting priorities, working hard. But everyone is not cut out of the same cloth. Some gifted people are unable to turn off their awareness of others or the pain in the world and just concentrate on their work. They are tuned to a different station.
According to Microsoft’s thesaurus, anxious is synonymous with nervous. “Nervousness is tension in the nervous system” (Piechowski, 1979, p. 28).  Dabrowski contended that the gifted are born with increased nervousness due to heightened neuronal responses to various types of stimuli. He observed strong emotional tension in gifted and creative children and saw that this tension was expressed differently in different children—through movement (psychomotor overexcitability), aesthetic appreciation (sensual overexcitability), daydreaming (imaginational overexcitability), curiosity (intellectual overexcitability), and intense feelings (emotional overexcitability).  
Dabrowski was most interested in emotional overexcitability (OE). He considered it the highest expression of OE. Emotional OE can take many forms, from intense fear and anxiety to exquisite empathy. A highly empathic, gifted man himself, Dabrowski’s heart resonated with gifted empaths. His theory of positive disintegration (TPD) describes the journey to higher levels of moral development of individuals born with the combination of high intellect and incredible empathy. These are the ones who cannot dial down their awareness. 
Empathy is closely related to compassion. Both focus on other people’s feelings and needs, wanting to connect with them heart to heart, to help them feel better. If you are compassionate, you feel sad when others suffer. You care about them and the challenges they face, the hard feelings they feel. You try to understand and you want to do whatever is within your power to help them. But, you do not actually feel their feelings. If you are an empath, you connect with the experiences of others from the times you also had those feelings. At a deeper level, you have the ability to experience their feelings directly—to actually feel what they are feeling.  
What is it like to not only understand another’s perspective, but to feel their feelings? How do you know which are your own feelings and what you are absorbing from others?  If you are born an emotional sponge with a high sense of moral responsibility for the welfare of others, how do you cope with the bombardment of other people’s emotions? How do you deal with the anxiety of the world?
You enter a room feeling fine, and suddenly you are overwhelmed with apprehension or grief or hopelessness. You just want to run away. Or you have a houseguest in the next room who can’t sleep and you wake up tired, as if you hadn’t slept a wink. This is the daily experience of the gifted empath; you feel the feelings of others as if they are your own.  And the individuals whose feelings you are experiencing may not even be aware that they are anxious. Often they are not, as this may be their normal state. But now it has become your experience. You cannot pinpoint the reason for your tension, so you do not know how to resolve the problem.
As most people do not have the capacity to directly experience the feelings of others, some dismiss this level of empathy as “inconceivable.” (Be careful what you deem “inconceivable”!) When your empathic experience is invalidated, not only do you have undefined anxiety to cope with, now you also wonder if you’re crazy, which can be emotionally crippling. 
And what if you are a child? Children believe all of their feelings are their own and their experience must be what everyone experiences. They know they feel terrible, but they don’t know why. They assume this is the way the world must work for everyone. Negating their feelings at these times makes them question their whole understanding of the world. They begin to doubt their feelings and believe that their perceptions are not to be trusted. The message that “something must be wrong with me” can lead to lifelong insecurity and self-doubt. This damage can be prevented if empathic children are helped to understand that not everyone is an empath. 
Empathy begins very early in life. Empathic children cannot tune out painful feelings of others. Children don’t know how to question the sudden emotions they feel. The experience of being shanghaied by the intense emotions of another is confusing, frustrating, and, at times, devastating. Even adults find this experience overwhelming and may become flooded; when flooded with anxiety, they may lose their reasoning skills. Gaining distance and perspective becomes a huge challenge. 
Gifted families are often emotionally close knit, and each member of the family is both blessed and cursed with abundant overexcitabilities. The good times are hilarious, witty, creative, delicious. But when all those OEs clash, run for cover! Anxiety is magnified and highly contagious. It’s like a game of Hot Potato that families play with no rules or boundaries. Anxiety is such an uncomfortable feeling that it seems intolerable unless others share it. (Misery loves company, right?) So, unconsciously, we pass it along to others we love. If someone catches the hot potato, the receiver takes on some of our tension, which yields some measure of relief. We may be completely unaware of our anxiety and equally blind to its contagious nature. So when the receiver gets upset with us, we have no idea why. 
Gifted empaths need their parents to recognize that the un-nameable, intense anxiety they are feeling might be a hot potato. How? Start by becoming aware of and owning your own anxiety. Stop and ask yourself, “Am I anxious?” “Am I passing that tension on to other family members?” “Is this my own or did I pick up someone else’s hot potato?” Try to sort through your own feelings first, before you attempt to help your child. Even if you aren’t certain that you threw a hot potato, acknowledge to your child that she or he might be feeling your anxiety. See what effect it has on your child when you calm yourself. 
What do you do to lessen your anxiety? What messages do you give yourself? Do you reassure yourself that everything will be alright? Do you go for a walk? Do you go to the woods and surround yourself with nature? Do you listen to slow, calming music (e.g., Eric Satie’s Gymnopedies)? Do you do yoga? Are you practicing mindfulness? Do you snuggle up and lose yourself in a good book? Do you talk about what’s bothering you to someone who gives you another perspective? Do you get a massage? Whatever you do for yourself, teach those techniques to your children.  If you haven’t yet found something to help tame your tension, make that a priority so you can model positive recovery strategies for your children.
Empathic children need to be taught to build an invisible force field to protect their vulnerable hearts. They need to have a refuge when they are faced with highly charged environments or individuals.  To whatever extent possible, exposure to toxic environments and situations should be monitored and avoided. Even children’s cartoons, a birthday party or an amusement park may provoke too much anxiety in an empathically gifted child. If your child begs to stay home from school, observe for yourself what the sources of anxiety might be in that environment and see what can be done about them. 
When there are no ways to avoid anxious people or situations, ask, “What do you think could have made you feel this way?” and “What can we do next time to anticipate this dilemma?”  Help your child externalize both the problem (feeling and emotion that belongs to someone else) and the solution (preventing the hijacking.) Respond to your children’s behavior—especially when they are acting out—with compassion. Recognize their inner turmoil. Set boundaries without shaming them. Identify the cause of their anxiety and commiserate with their distress.
Healthy adult empaths learn to recognize whose feelings they are experiencing and what action is needed. To do this, you must gain some mental distance, much like a detective examining a crime scene. Once this observational stance is accomplished, it is possible to connect with the other person’s experience and feelings without judgment, agreement or disagreement. Instead of catching the hot potato and feeling anxious with them, you can create a space for them to find a strategy for reducing their fears. You dissipate the anxiety when you are able to step back and create a safe space in which to design and activate an action plan; this injects hope for the future.
Anxiety is actually the body’s built-in alarm system. When you begin to feel anxious for no apparent reason, ask yourself if there is something you need to know and act upon. Your intuition knows far more than your logic. If you ask and listen, you may receive an intuitive message that there is some danger you can avoid if you do (or do not do) something. Intuition has miraculously saved countless lives.
Honor your own anxiety and your child’s. Honor the possibility that your child may be experiencing someone else’s emotional burden. Anxiety is not necessarily a liability. See it as information! Learn how to interpret the information. Whose anxiety is this, anyway? Am I getting a message of something I need to fix? Is it someone else’s? Am I helping by being anxious with (or for) that person? Would it be better for me to leave the situation? Or can I step back and see how I can help solve the problem?
Turning paralyzing anxiety into a source of positive information and a potential incentive for effective action empowers us before we begin to feel hopelessly out of control.  There is much to be learned from all our overexcitabilities. If we correctly identify the source of our uneasiness, tolerate its intensity, and apply constructive strategies for protection and productive action, we might discover that our anxiety is actually a powerful resource.
Dabrowski, K., with Kawczak, A., & Piechowski, M. M.  (1970).  Mental growth through positive disintegration.  London:  Gryf.
Piechowski, M. M.  (1979). Developmental potential. In N. Colangelo & R. T. Zaffrann (Eds.), New voices in counseling the gifted (pp. 25-57).  Dubuque, IA:  Kendall/Hunt.
Linda Powers Leviton M.A. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who works with gifted individuals and families in the areas of educational, social and emotional problems, particularly individuals who are twice exceptional.  She has a private practice in Granada Hills, and serves as Director of the West Coast Office of the Gifted Development Center.  She has authored articles on education, learning differences, parenting, giftedness, family relationships, tactile-kinesthetic learners and counseling the gifted.  She currently maintains a website www.giftedandcreativecounseling.com and an advice column called “Power Tools” at www.VisualSpatial.org, to answer questions on parenting and teaching visual-spatial learners. Her book, Peace Within, Peace Between: Your Relationship Toolkit, is a practical guide to improving communication and connection, applying the work of Virginia Satir.