As an ambitious young woman in the sales industry, Emma Lake had always expected pressure to come with her career’s acceleration. What she hadn’t predicted was that much of that pressure would come from herself. Having been intensely focused on her goals from a young age, the force and all-encompassing focus with which she applied herself to both her career development and her performance was simultaneously a key to her success and ultimately draining, prompting overwork and perfectionism.
‘As I progressed up the ladder, I found myself constantly tense and always on the defensive,’ says Lake. ‘I felt my success had started to have a high emotional price, that everything mattered to an almost unbearable degree. I was heading for burnout, and I had to stop, give myself some space to breathe and recognise that much of the pressure wasn’t external- but down to my own internal world.’
For executive coach Tatiana Poliakova, Lake is a prime example of force misplaced, a misfire of a powerful natural ability that she has coined ‘toxic intensity’. To understand toxic intensity, she says you first must understand intensity. As a leading researcher on the phenomenon, she spent a year interviewing business leaders about their intensity. ‘From my research, I now understand intensity to be focus and force. It’s perseverance and a certain level of presence—because somebody could be really determined and focused, but their presence doesn’t create that type of intense impression on others. Finally, it’s also how we perceive it in ourselves—and not everyone recognises it in themselves—and how others receive it. One senior leader I spoke to said that intensity felt like ‘squeezed orange juice’.
For Poliakova, the issue of toxic intensity is a complex and nuanced one. A self-confessed ‘intense’ person herself, she notes that some people are naturally more intense than others in the way they see and interact with the world and other people. However, we can all fall into toxic intensity as a behaviour around points of vulnerability.
The perception of intensity can also hold a particular stigma—yoked to stereotypically ‘masculine’ characteristics such as ambition, assertiveness and determination, which research shows can have negative connotations when expressed by women. A recent white paper1 from the Center for Creative Leadership showed that women in the workplace are called bossy far more often than their male counterparts, despite exhibiting similar behaviours in similar circumstances.
Poliakova, herself, a former MD of an Investment Bank, notes, ‘For female senior leaders, negative perceptions of intensity can come from the cultural labelling of women in positions of responsibility as well. In my first finance role in Germany, I remember being called ‘a bulldozer’.
While it’s important as women for us to own our focus, perseverance and drive, we also must be able to ascertain when these characteristics tip over into something that may not be healthy—with negative impacts that can be mental, psychological and physical as well as relational. ‘The belief that we cannot be successful without this intensity can be hard to shake. I interviewed one leader who runs a big law firm who said, ‘If I’m an intense person naturally, then how else can I achieve success?’ says Poliakova. There is also still a pervasive belief in some corners that intense behaviours such as overwork and over-management are the only way to succeed, particularly for women who may feel that they have to work harder or longer- or be more dominant within their teams- to ‘prove’ themselves in male-dominated industries.
The crucial point of difference between intensity and toxic intensity for Poliakova is whether it comes from a place of fear. There are different aspects around how toxic intensity shows up for different individuals. For some, it might be hypervigilance and a fear that if they don’t display such intensity, they won’t succeed. For some, it’s more perfectionism-driven, organised around a fear of mistakes- or overworking, through a need to relentlessly prove oneself due to imposter syndrome. Another common manifestation is the saviour complex, expressed through someone taking an excessive amount of responsibility onto themselves, which can not only be draining- but disempowering to others, even though it may seem positive on the surface and a result of accountability or high empathy. Toxic intensity can also come in when there is a certain trigger—that could be either another person, a particular situation or the inner critic in our own head.
Being in a state of continuous overintensity is physically and psychologically exhausting- and starts at the biological level—hormonal drivers of human behaviour include cortisol and adrenaline, which regulate fear and dopamine, which is the brain’s reward system. When people get stuck in a cycle between cortisol and dopamine, as they go through the behaviours of toxic intensity, it can lead to physical symptoms of exhaustion, sleeplessness or anxiety. Psychologically you might also feel lonely and maybe demotivated, even though you’re pushing yourself.
Relationally the two main effects of toxic intensity are being in constant defensive or attack modes, which can be draining for everyone around the person and ultimately block the communication and creative space needed for great teamwork. In toxic intensity, every small issue becomes a big one, but there are ways to ameliorate it. ‘Employing a ‘yes, and’ approach, for example, it’s possible to have that ‘conflict’ of opinions from the place of inner peace as a discussion,’ suggests Poliakova.
The new superpower
Mindset and focus are fundamental to balancing this powerful force and keeping it in a positive space, preventing serious impacts such as burnout—and the answers largely lie in knowing when you need to dilute the so-called ‘squeezed orange juice’ and when full strength really is the key to successful results. As Poliakova notes, ‘Intensity is a superpower if managed properly.’
The key way to harness intensity positively is to recognise or develop the ability to turn that force into power: in other words, working on connecting with our deepest desires and then expressing them and influencing others. Self-awareness is crucial to balance, knowing what you should focus on and tuning your intensity levels to that, dialling back in unnecessary areas.
So how can you ensure that your intensity is working for you… not against?
- Increase awareness: Learn to recognise any patterns of toxic intensity within yourself. ‘The path is really through developing curiosity to one’s own behaviour and habits, and to positions of others’, notes Poliakova. ‘Often people with toxic intensity are very tough on themselves’. Curiosity for feedback and compassion towards oneself can allow us to assess whether our behaviour is helping or hindering us or others. ‘It’s about doing work on loving the self that can start to untangle this almost subconscious drive to overcompensate.’
Uncouple intensity from success: Intense people often fear their intensity is essential to their success and overcompensate as a result. ‘They think that if they become less intense, their drive will disappear,’ says Poliakova, who insists this is not the case. Success is a result of many factors, from focus to strategic action, and the most important thing is where those decisions, and that intensity, come from. ‘If we make decisions from a place of inner peace rather than fear, we can avoid falling into toxic intensity and use our powerful focus positively.’
- Recognise your triggers: Start recognising the triggers that super-charge your intensity in negative ways—the key behavioural signs that your brain is ‘preparing for battle’. Once you know, you can prepare different toolsets to deal with those triggers when they come up. For example, if you’re talking to a team member you disagree with, instead of tensing up in ‘defensive or attack mode’, consider if there is potentially 10% of the discussion where you could agree, opening up opportunities to influence the other person, but in a less controlling way.’
- Retrain your brain: Intense people have powerful neural pathways in their brains that stimulate certain kinds of emotion, depending on the trigger. To turn those pathways into weaker connections, focus on physical cues, listen to your body at the first sensations of overintensity, to know when to employ a pattern interrupt. This can be as simple as pushing two fingers together for a second and focusing your attention on the sensation of your skin. This allows you to slow down- and respond with curiosity rather than react.
- Turn force into power: Intensity has many important features, particularly for women, says Poliakova, and the key to harnessing these lies in the ability to turn force (intensity) into power (mindful actions). That starts with knowing yourself. Rather than fighting every battle or defending every position, understand what is important for you and your desires, your drivers and purpose and what you want your legacy to be. Not every moment of your life or career needs to be intense—coming at situations from a self-aware response rather than a fear-based reaction- allows you to focus your intensity where it is needed and can be deployed positively.