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Dealing With Big Feelings? You’re Not the Only One

By Youssef Sleiman Oct. 31, 2023

A cosplayer dressed as a Vulcan reads a book titled "Living With Intensity"
A bald man named Youssef Sleiman smiles at the camera.

Quirky, wordy and lightning-fast at the keyboard, Youssef Sleiman is a professional writer and brand journalist working in Dallas, Texas. He’s a quick study, a systems thinker with an investigative and creatively divergent mind. His career-defining mission is to “make the important interesting.” His years of experience on the street as a local newspaper reporter in the Pacific Northwest shaped his natural curiosity and insight, sparking his drive to push for a more equitable society.

Overwhelming emotions can paralyze and control you — and they can be rocket fuel to unlocking your potential.

Let’s talk about Vulcans.

Even if you’ve never seen a Star Trek episode, you probably know the pointed ears, raised eyebrows, and expressionless faces.

The Vulcans, an alien species from Star Trek, come across as unfeeling, cold and logical at first glance. The most well-known Vulcan, the cultural icon Spock, symbolizes the emotionless intellectual archetype to millions. However, that’s not the whole story. Vulcans actually experience intense feelings. Feelings so intense their whole society could lurch into lawless, violent anarchy. So their entire culture is devoted to emotional discipline to keep their feelings from controlling them. It’s a compelling concept. If you’ve ever wished you could feel a little less strongly, well, you’re not alone in the world — nor the galaxy.

As a people, they’re Living With Intensity.

Then there’s Spock himself. Fans have watched Spock since 1965 struggle with overexcitabilities, specifically intellectual, psychomotor (Pon Farr, anyone?), sensual — and emotional, of course.

Spock isn’t actually Vulcan. He’s half-Vulcan, half-human — an alien aboard the human starship, an alien on his homeworld. Throughout the whole franchise, Spock is on a sometimes-understated, sometimes-plot centric journey to know himself.

Should he do what’s logical or what feels right?

Should he purge all emotion with an alien ritual?

Can he trust his feelings to guide him?

What would happen if he lets his control slip a little bit? Well ...

The late actor Leonard Nimoy said he portrayed Spock as a man “constantly on the edge of losing it.” It’s the logic versus feeling dichotomy in one leading character. The stoic, inexpressive science officer aboard Star Trek’s Enterprise is arguably the central figure for the franchise.

He’s on a journey to reconcile his human heart and his Vulcan logic. This quest characterizes his whole character arc — and the series never offers a final answer.

In the Star Trek 2009 film, young Spock, uneasy and lost, even questions the logic of his father marrying his mother. Nimoy, in the original series, portrays a man ambivalent in his two natures, surefooted as long as he holds a precarious balance. The wrong alien spore, believing his dearest friend and captain is dead, or even the trilling of tribbles — Spock rushes back to his balance between feeling and emotion. Then in 2009 and 2013, Nimoy brought viewers a version of Spock who’s wizened, both intellectually driven and emotionally affected by the events around him. His Vulcan exterior intact, he also expresses relief, disgust, sorrow and hopefulness. In his advice to his younger self, he encourages a younger version of himself, played by Zachary Quinto, to pursue a career and trust others to rebuild a lost homeworld. “Spock, in this case, do yourself a favor: Put aside logic. Do what feels right.”

Did you notice this? “In this case.”

Even as an old man, Spock is weighing, choice-by-choice which part of his identity to trust, feeling or thinking? By the end of his life, he’s both human and Vulcan, not half-and-half. If you’re watching for a tidy, final answer to Spock’s lifelong search for Spock, you won’t find it.

Spock never “gets there.” That’s not his arc. Instead, Spock’s character arc is about accepting (and working with) his intensity.

In his theory of positive disintegration, psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski described overexcitability as a heightened sensitivity that can affect how certain people perceived reality. As in, more intensely.

However, that’s not the full theory. Those overexcitabilities can drive a person to wrestle with different questions and come to new conclusions. Because their sensors are calibrated differently, they can make different choices — choices that put them at odds with their family and friends. They feel their angst richly when they’re compromising a value, and their ebullient joy and insatiable curiosity can drive them to ask painful questions their neighbors don’t comprehend.

All Vulcans face an overexcitability — and it has an easy answer: Their cultural preference for logic.

Spock’s intensity is qualitatively different.

For Spock, logic isn’t enough. Unlike his Vulcan brothers, sisters and fiancee (ouch!), Spock is driven to explore the fascinating and understand his place in the galaxy. He makes emotionally driven choices shrouded in logic. He’s compelled to empathize with a rock. He’s driven to the ends of the universe and back. When it comes to that existential angst, there’s one Spock moment I think of.

In Search for Spock (1984), we see a young version of Spock on his knees with growing pains, screaming as a planet breaks up around him. He’s made hard sacrifices (in a previous movie) and literally undergoing rebirth.

And it’s compelling to watch him work through dynamisms, as in the reactions and choices that reflect a developing identity. It’s so compelling that Spock’s become a cultural icon, symbolizing logic and scientific curiosity for about 70 years.

Watching Spock, viewers without overexcitabilities can witness what the struggle feels like. Perhaps they can identify with them or empathize with the intensity.

And then for those of us in the throes of such intensity, perhaps Spock does for us what Star Trek has always done: Inspire us to hope for a brighter tomorrow.

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