The Power of Super Feelers: Understanding Intense Emotions and DBT’s Approach

Then I looked down at my baby and thought: Ah. You are not crazy to be heartbroken over the polar bears; the rest of us are crazy not to be.

Tish couldn’t go to recess because she was paying attention to what her teacher said. As soon as she heard the polar bear news, she let herself feel the horror and know the wrongness and imagine the inevitable outcome. Tish is sensitive, and that is her superpower. The opposite of sensitive is not brave. It’s not brave to refuse to pay attention, to refuse to notice, to refuse to feel and know and imagine. The opposite of sensitive is insensitive, and that’s no badge of honor.

Tish senses. Even as the world tries to speed by her, she is slowly taking it in. Wait, stop. That thing you said about the polar bears . . . it made me feel something and wonder something. Can we stay there for a moment? I have feelings. I have questions. I’m not ready to run outside to recess yet.

In most cultures, folks like Tish are identified early, set apart as shamans, medicine people, poets, and clergy. They are considered eccentric but critical to the survival of the group because they are able to hear things others don’t hear and see things others don’t see and feel things others don’t feel. The culture depends on the sensitivity of a few, because nothing can be healed if it’s not sensed first.

But our society is so hell-bent on expansion, power, and efficiency at all costs that the folks like Tish—like me—are inconvenient. We slow the world down. We’re on the bow of the Titanic, pointing, crying out, “Iceberg! Iceberg!” while everyone else is below deck, yelling back, “We just want to keep dancing!” It is easier to call us broken and dismiss us than to consider that we are responding appropriately to a broken world.

My little girl is not broken. She is a prophet. I want to be wise enough to stop with her, ask her what she feels, and listen to what she knows.

Untamed, by Glennon Doyle, 2020

Let’s Talk About Super Feelers

The term “Super Feeler” is not a clinical or official term used in psychology or psychiatry. It is a colloquial expression often used to describe individuals who experience emotions with heightened intensity and sensitivity. These individuals tend to have a strong emotional reactivity, feeling things more deeply and profoundly than others.

While being a “Super Feeler” is not a recognized psychological diagnosis, it is sometimes associated with traits commonly seen in people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) or those who have traits of emotional dysregulation. People with BPD may experience emotions more intensely and struggle with managing their emotions effectively.

Signs You May be a Super Feeler

Being a Super Feeler may involve:

Intense Emotions: Super Feelers might experience strong emotional reactions to various situations, sometimes without an easily identifiable trigger. You can feel happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and other emotions at a more heightened level than others.

Empathy and Sensitivity: Super Feelers often have a heightened sense of empathy, being able to understand and resonate with others’ emotions deeply. You may also be more sensitive to criticism or rejection.

Emotional Instability: Super Feelers may have difficulty regulating their emotions, leading to mood swings and rapid shifts in emotional states.

Fear of Abandonment: Due to your emotional sensitivity and a fear of rejection, Super Feelers may have a strong fear of being abandoned or left alone.

Impulsivity: In some cases, Super Feelers may exhibit impulsive behaviors, especially during times of emotional distress.

It is essential to note that while some individuals may identify with the concept of being a “Super Feeler,” experiencing intense emotions does not necessarily indicate the presence of a mental health disorder. Many people naturally experience emotions deeply, and it is a normal part of the human experience.

In short, feelings are not the problem. In fact, emotions play a crucial role in showing us what is important, communicating with others, and motivating us.  It’s when feelings are the only one running the show. Like in the Ted Lasso scene when Roy Kent says, “I can’t control my feelings,” to which Lasso responds, “Then by all means, you should let them control you!” (sarcastically, of course). 

A Brief Note about Borderline Personality Disorder (and Diagnoses in General)

I have to admit that I really dislike the name of the diagnosis Borderline Personality Disorder. It’s so incredibly pathologizing. In my role as a neuropsychologist who does assessment, I help people make sense of their symptoms by giving them a label or diagnosis for the purpose of identifying the right treatment. For many people, having a diagnosis is a relief because it puts a name to an experience. However, those labels – again, that are meant to help people find the right pathway forward – can also make people feel like something is wrong or broken about them. 

The way that psychological and neuropsychological disorders are diagnosed is far from perfect. And BPD strikes a particular cord for me. So while BPD is an official diagnosis and Super Feeler is not, I opt to use the term Super Feeler with my clients who meet criteria for BPD (after educating them about their official diagnosis). What I like about the term Super Feeler is that it explains the what without the pathologizing of a personality disorder. Because demonizing feelings is the foundation of the field of psychology that was built by men. Feelings are not the problem. It’s when we let feelings be in the driver’s seat and act in ways that cause lasting problems for us that we need to take a closer look.

Where Does Being a Super Feeler Come From?

According to Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)/ being a Super Feeler arises from a combination of genetic, biological, and environmental factors. DBT, developed by Marsha M. Linehan, is a therapeutic approach that aims to help individuals build skills for coping with intense emotions and improving interpersonal relationships.

DBT suggests the following factors contribute to being a Super Feeler/having BPD:

Biological Factors: There is evidence to suggest that being a Super Feeler has a hereditary component, meaning it can run in families. Some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to emotional sensitivity and reactivity, which can increase their likelihood of being a Super Feeler.

Invalidating Environment: Early life experiences and childhood environment play a significant role in the development of being a Super Feeler. Individuals who grow up in invalidating or emotionally unstable environments may not learn healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with emotions effectively. Emotional invalidation refers to the failure to recognize, understand, or accept an individual’s emotional experiences, which can lead to the invalidation of their feelings and emotions.

Emotional Vulnerability: Some Super Feelers have a heightened emotional vulnerability, making them more susceptible to experiencing intense emotions. This vulnerability can result from a combination of genetic predisposition and adverse early life experiences.

Traumatic Experiences: Traumatic events or experiences, such as physical or emotional abuse, neglect, or significant losses, may contribute to the development of BPD in some cases. Psychologists debate whether trauma leads to BPD or whether being a Super Feeler increases the likelihood of exposure to trauma/experiencing something as traumatic. 

The DBT Response to Common Challenges of Super Feelers

When I meet a Super Feeler they share about the ups and downs of having such intense emotions. They have higher highs and lower lows. When they are feeling their emotions so intensely, it can be extremely challenging to think rationally. They struggle with relationship instability, consequences of impulsive decision making, unstable self-esteem, and sometimes addiction. 

The four core components of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) – mindfulness skills, emotion regulation skills, interpersonal effectiveness skills, and distress tolerance skills – can be highly beneficial for individuals who identify as Super Feelers or those with heightened emotional sensitivity. Each component addresses specific aspects of emotional dysregulation, providing tools to manage intense emotions and improve overall well-being. Here’s how each component helps Super Feelers:

Mindfulness Skills: Mindfulness involves being fully present and aware of the present moment without judgment. For Super Feelers, who experience emotions intensely, mindfulness can help them observe their emotions without becoming overwhelmed or reactive. By practicing mindfulness, Super Feelers can learn to accept their emotions nonjudgmentally, allowing them to process and understand their feelings without being consumed by them. Mindfulness also helps improve emotional regulation by teaching Super Feelers to stay grounded and centered during emotional highs and lows.

Emotion Regulation Skills: Super Feelers often struggle with regulating their emotions, and this is where emotion regulation skills become essential. DBT’s emotion regulation techniques help Super Feelers identify and label their emotions accurately, fostering emotional awareness and understanding. They also learn strategies to reduce emotional vulnerability, such as increasing positive experiences, self-soothing activities, and opposite action (acting opposite to the emotion when it is not justified). Emotion regulation skills empower Super Feelers to respond to emotional situations more effectively, reducing impulsivity and reactivity.

Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills: Super Feelers may face challenges in their interpersonal relationships due to their intense emotions and sensitivity. Interpersonal effectiveness skills aim to improve communication and assertiveness in relationships. By learning to express their needs and boundaries effectively, Super Feelers can establish healthier and more fulfilling relationships. These skills also teach validation techniques, helping Super Feelers validate both their own emotions and those of others, promoting empathy and understanding.

Distress Tolerance Skills: Distress tolerance skills are particularly relevant for Super Feelers who may find it difficult to cope with overwhelming emotional distress. DBT’s distress tolerance techniques offer practical strategies for managing crisis situations, reducing impulsive behaviors, and navigating through intense emotional episodes without self-destructive actions. By building a distress tolerance toolbox, Super Feelers can turn to these skills when faced with distressing emotions or situations, helping them tolerate and navigate their feelings more effectively.

Overall, the four core components of DBT provide a comprehensive approach to helping Super Feelers manage their intense emotions, develop healthier coping mechanisms, and enhance their emotional well-being and quality of life.

Conclusion

Being a Super Feeler can be both a gift and a challenge. While experiencing emotions deeply can provide profound insights and empathy, it can also lead to struggles in emotional regulation and interpersonal relationships. However, if you identify as a Super Feeler, I want you to know that you are not broken. You are sensitive and that is your superpower. And just like all superheroes need to learn how their powers work and how to harness that power for good, there is a great training for Super Feelers!

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) offers a valuable approach for Super Feelers to develop essential skills for managing intense emotions and fostering healthier interactions with others. By embracing mindfulness, emotion regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, and distress tolerance skills, Super Feelers can navigate their emotional landscape with greater resilience and self-awareness. Rather than viewing emotional sensitivity as a flaw, DBT empowers Super Feelers to embrace their uniqueness and recognize the vital role their sensitivity plays in understanding and healing the world around them.

Find Your Next Read:

How Your Brain Lies To You: Cognitive Distortions and How to Reprogram Your Thinking

When to Seek Therapy and How to Find the Right Psychologist

Stress vs. Anxiety: Unraveling the Differences and Finding Balance