Have you noticed lately, that we have a label for everything and anyone these days? We have become acronym obsessed. Our acronyms have become our new coat of arms. Every disenfranchised group, every subset of a group, now has their own special alphabet soup label to identify themselves.
But really, what does labeling each other really do? Is it to say, “I’m included in this group and your not” or “let’s form a new group, find an unused label or string of all caps letters and band together to become a group.” Then followed by starting a website, printing some signs, scheduling a protest, raising awareness, gain recognition, then what? All this just to point out how different we are from everyone else, how special we are, rules for how to engage us, how to deal with us, and how we deal with you. I understand that this sounds a bit cynical, because I really do believe in diversity and inclusion and celebrating our uniqueness, but I wonder, are we all getting a little bit overboard here? Let’s dig into this some.
Some of the labels that get handed out are pejorative labels that are meant to hurt, segregate and outcast a group. These type of labels are generally all bad, and so, I don’t want to focus on that today. What I am more curious about is self-assigned labels, labels that groups of people place on themselves. By creating our own labels, are we intending to identify who we are by separating ourselves from a larger group, putting a fine point on why we are different and should be recognized. However, doesn’t that create animosity, does it promote diversity or bitterness, resentment, and hatred. Some would argue that it’s divisive, and frankly many are getting tired of the long and growing list of social labels. I’m not sure that rejecting diversity is the answer, but I do think maybe we could all be a little more judicious about adding to this growing list. So where does all this labeling come from?
Labeling theory promotes the idea that self identity can be formed or influenced by or determined by the terms we use to describe or classify ourselves. There are lots of elements at play with this theory including the effects of stigmatization attached to the label and how that effects identity or the effects of feedback from the labeled group regarding group norms and conformity and self-policing standards regarding deviation from the label norms and how that influences behavior.
Labeling can lead to self fulfilling prophecies for the labeler and the labelee. Labels categorize sets of characteristics and sometimes may seem arbitrary, yet can carry much power over the individual because of the perceptions associated with the labels. Joining certain labeled groups, in some cases, can even carry some cache. In other words, it’s the “fit in” mojo that drives us to either create or join labeled groups.
Our self-identity is heavily influenced by feedback from others. The ego identifies with the labels and the labels become our perimeter boundaries wherein we live our lives. This over identification with labels can inhibit us from living life fully and freely. Our true self, the essence beneath the subjugating ego, is in a constant state of flux through out our lives. It is not static. Yet the ego clings to the labels it self identifies with and confines us and forces us to remain with the labels we create and accept as us. We do have a level of awareness that can rise above the labels, letting go of the incessant feedback loop of opinions, boundaries and herd mentality that keeps us from experiencing our uniqueness, nested and protected within a labeled group. No one is immune from this.
We are all searching for individual congruence. Constantly trying to match our changing identity to our long held labeled identity and trying to find resonance and authenticity. Being aware of our own personal evolution can help make the trap of overidentification with a label, less of a sticking point, and recognizing some labels we accumulate are temporary and more importantly are not who we are as individuals.
So what about HSPs and HSMs? With so many underrepresented groups of people, race, gender, sexual preference, and religious groups out there, does it help our cause to educate about being an HSP individual by choosing to jump into the alphabet soup, holding our three letter acronym up proudly? And, are we really a minority group? Even though our numbers are smaller than the population at large, does this qualify us for protected group status? Since we have relatively recently just been labeled and are just now beginning to get some traction on being recognized as a personality group, what can we expect as far as empathy from the larger population?
I think we are a unique case. HSPs have been around as long as humans have been around. We are not something recently evolved. We show up culturally, ethnically, racially, and evenly along gender lines, so we may have smaller numbers but our reach is quite extensive. If you ask people and explain what it is to be sensitive in personality terms, everyone seems to know someone that is an HSP. I have often found that when asked about the HSP in their lives most people recall qualities that are often seen in a favorable light. You see, we don’t buck religious beliefs, we don’t offend sexual tastes, we don’t have our own unique physical characteristics, and we straddle all cultures. To be sure, we actually fit in nicely, even though we feel we are not fitting in sometimes, we as a group are quite adept at fitting in. Not making waves, getting along helping others. Sound familiar?
Yet, I have noticed myself that I am beginning to identify with the label: HSP. It gets broached more and more in conversation, especially when I sense another HSP is present. Within minutes, if they are not aware of the label, they begin to identify with it via the conversation with me. I have become an evangelist for high sensitivity, a recruiter if you will, of those that can identify with the characteristics of the group. I’m doing my part in educating others, even non-HSPs who seem to either want mightily to correct this “condition” at one extreme or at least understand it at the other extreme. Perhaps, the folly of this is that like any personality characteristic, it is imperative to recognize that individuals are all different and can broadly represent along that spectrum.
Being HSP is more trait than type. A trait is a broader continuum versus the more specific nature of typing. There is much diversity with the HSP community and with our heightened sensitivity the variations are large and wide. Like sexual preferences, we cover a large territory and a broad range on the sensitivity map.
One of my commenters on this blog seemed to be all flushed about the need to even add another group acronym to the alphabet soup bowl. “Why can’t we just all get along,” the reader commented. Well, although in principle I agreed with them, we should all get along, sometimes theory is harder in practice. What can we do then to promote awareness of high sensitivity without creating a victim stigma to our community and to the world? Although we have nothing to apologize about, by creating more dialogue about it, I think we all win. Especially amongst HSPs who are not yet aware of the gift they possess.
Here’s some tips for recognition and integration:
In America, we tend to see the personality characteristic of kindness (or niceness) as a weakness and not strength in men. With are jingoistic fueled capitalistic attitude we praise the notion that humans are basically selfish, self-serving creatures and revere those that make it to the top of the heap, generally stepping over everyone in their way. Altruism, kindness, and niceness are seen as fundamentally weak traits, perhaps meted out once in a while to the less fortunate, but generally not to be prized. It saddens me that we have over the last twenty years or so, have adopted this unfortunate attitude, especially with regards to men and their cultural roles.
The reality is that collaboration and kindness are basic survival skills. Without them, humankind would have been disposed of many millennia ago. Without “niceness” or the ability to put others first or the interest of the group ahead of one’s on needs, we could not have been able to build the civilization that sustained our species. This key interactive ability became the precursor to “nice.” Studies are beginning to bear out this idea that being the aggressive alpha dog is not the most efficient or effective way to succeed, lead or attract a mate. In the end, in spite of cultural biases against it, niceness is necessary and good.
HSMs are generally considered to be nice guys with our non-aggressive, gentler, kinder nature framed within a masculine exterior. Certainly, not all HSMs fit this description, but I think because of our thoughtful, considerate personalities, we tend to be lumped into the nice guy bucket more often than not. But what really is a nice guy?
Niceness is measured on personality scales as agreeableness. The characteristics most associated with niceness: are trust of others, compliance and easy going, unselfishness, easily satisfied, modest and sympathetic. All great qualities. There’s also a down side of niceness. Sometimes niceness leads to conflict avoidance and lack of problem solving skill due to confrontational ideation avoidance. It can also lead to self-effacing behaviors in the extreme, low confidence and other self-defeating behaviors.
The joke for years has been that nice guys always finish last. The reference is to dating or romantic prowess – “the nice guy dating effect”, which states that women say they prefer nice guys, but really wind up choosing bad boys. The term nice guy often is used to describe a young male that is gentle, sensitive, compassionate and vulnerable and generates other pejorative terms in lieu of masculinity.
There even some negative claims that nice guys are unassertive, dishonest, manipulative and passive aggressive. In either case, the general rule is that nice guys are weak, ineffective, unattractive and losers. This extends well beyond dating, an into other areas of life. The perception is that niceness equates to submission so that in life the nice guy never gets the prize, whether it’s an amour or promotion or to be the quarterback, nice guys always lose.
Does the research bear this out? The answer is no. Let’s begin with the idea of the Alpha male, which would be the antithesis of the “nice guy.” We consider the alpha male to be the top dog of the pack, a dominant, strong, self-centered individual that gets whatever he wants. , the dominant player in the group.
Dominance starts at the unconscious level and at the hormonal level. The hormones influencing dominance are testosterone, cortisol, and oxytocin. Testosterone is the male hormone which influences male behavior in many ways, including physical prowess and aggressiveness. Cortisol is the stress hormone, which kicks in to create active behaviors, and finally oxytocin, the love bonding hormone. Surprised? Studies have shown that most alphas are not the brash talkers and braggarts that we expect from alphas, but instead are good listeners and not always physically intimidating. They are good social connectors and can be actually mild mannered as well. They almost sound like closet nice guys with a slight more edginess to them.
Most alphas focus on accomplishment and goal fulfillment, which requires a certain degree of “niceness” to get the cooperation of others to deliver desired results. Many accomplished CEOs are considered to fall in the nice guy category, such as the founders of Costco, Starbucks, the head of IKEA and Patagonia, Ben and Jerry’s and also the founder of Zappos, creating great company cultures, leading teams into becoming successful companies and never losing the nice guy persona. So, nice doesn’t have to mean ineffectual, or weak or unsuccessful. To the contrary, it may be the only real way to achieve sustainable success via cooperation (nice guy) vs. competitiveness (bad boy).
Alphaism is not gender confined either. Alpha females are prominent in our more egalitarian society. Indications are all around of the collapse of the old line alpha male strawman that has been the dominant mode for centuries. The economic and societal implications are profound for new roles that men can and should play in society. A lot of talk these days suggests that more and more men are assuming the beta role in family and the larger society. Now let’s be clear, beta role is not the exact opposite of the alpha. The term for that would be the omega. Omegas are in effect the weak, ineffectual and women hating male we associate now with betas. Betas are complimentary to alphas. Betas (perhaps uber nice guys) are cooperative, emotionally available, relationship savvy and conscientious about everything they do. They are good team players and do not abdicate their masculinity by portraying this role.
Alpha, Beta, Omegas but what about HSMs? Where does this leave the highly sensitive males and where do we fit in? I suppose HSMs could be any of the above. Good, conscientious alphas, cooperative and team playing betas or even, distorted and warped Omegas. The environment, upbringing, and genetics all play a role in shaping personality and like the general population this individual encoding can enhance or diminish the fundamental HSP characteristics.
One of the best strategies for success for men is to adopt some of the best characteristics of the ideal alpha, focusing on what is termed the prestigious male – one who accomplishes goals in a general way. To balance that driving goal seeking behavior, there is need to add another component, that of the generous giver. In studies where females rating overall attractiveness of males, the prestigious generous male was seen as the most attractive. What this implies is that being a nice guy can and does work, if coupled with effective goal achieving. I even believe the attractiveness factor could be generalized to the overall population and this could be a new cultural norm. The nice guy Alpha, a point of strength and decency. A true leader.
Is this another leadership opportunity for HSMs? Showing the larger male population that characteristics we come by naturally are things that men can learn and practice. Perhaps, moving forward a few more studies, more “wins” for this philosophy in business, sports, entertainment, etc., can get some attention on the nice guy personality and demonstrate that nice guys don’t always finish last.
Here’s some suggestions on what we can do to promote this new male approach:
This week’s question is what is happiness? Is it static emotional state between sorrow and joy, a neutral state of contentment, or is it ephemeral and fleeting like a forest sprite, popping in and out of our lives? I know I have been pursuing this elusive butterfly for the entirety of my life, still left with questions about what I’m pursuing. I’m not sure we will figure out the correct way to find it for everyone, but I think at the very least we can attempt to define it, look at it and give it an identifying pin on the human emotional map.
Psychologists like to frame happiness as experiencing frequent positive emotions, such as joy, pride, and high interest coupled with infrequent bouts of negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety, and anger in other words a deficit of depressing feelings and a surplus of upbeat and positive feelings. I like that there is an acknowledgement of the existence of both within the definition if for no other reason than to acknowledge that there is no perpetually happy person.
Generally, though, happy people have a special penchant for processing life events with a positive spin; especially those challenging events or perceptions of such events that might take some or most of us down. I suppose it is the optimist versus pessimist viewpoint. This seems largely a perception thing, and more or less defines how individuals interpret life events.
The outcome of those perceptions could lead to a happy person viewpoint or conversely, or it could mean someone who is largely negative processes the inputs in an entirely different way leading to a neutral or sad interpretation. Hence connecting life moments dot by dot to create could either a happy life or a sad one. All in the eyes of the beholder.
Aristotle saw happiness more in the act of doing than in the being mode of perception and receiving. The Greeks believed happiness was in a life well lived -- an aspiration, not so much a state of being. Which begs the question is happiness an emotional state or is it found in a state of living or becoming, something to strive for? Nietzsche argued that the pursuit of happiness was contemptible. Instead one should endeavor to instead focus on the difficult and challenging struggles of life. Something noble in just reaching the finish line, no smiling permitted. Perhaps, Nietzsche was not a very happy person.
Modern psychology endeavors to define happiness along two lines. Both mirror some of the ancient Greek philosophy concerning happiness. One most familiar to most of the Western world is the idea of hedonia – the pleasure principle of happiness. This concept is much like the attempt often found today of connecting the dots of happiness moments to create the illusion of a continuum of happiness. It is exploited continuously by the advertising agencies to create a desire for a product, equating the acquisition of said product with a happiness moment, i.e., new car, new house, new can opener, you get the picture.
The other Greek concept copped by modern science about happiness is the notion of eudaimonia or the well lived life. This is really translated as life with meaning, living a satisfying, contented life. This idea is less focused on moment by moment acquisition of happiness, but rather a lifelong thread of aspirational living.
In reality, both of the concepts appear to live concurrently with happy people. They seem to enjoy moments more positively and over time live more satisfying happiness producing lives. This might also be described as living life in more of a flow state with more peak experiences – focused, absorbed and active. Positive Psychology even calls out the main elements associated with happiness as the pursuit of pleasure, high engagement (see flow), satisfying relationships, meaning and purpose, and accomplishments (reaching goals).
It’s no wonder that the Founding Fathers, particularly Jefferson annunciated this in the Declaration, a particularly popular notion of that time: “…of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And as the U.S. has become the poster child of capitalism, it’s fitting that Jefferson’s definition of happiness was interpreted to mean – prosperity, thriving and well being.
But what of the highly sensitive person population and happiness? Does our observant, cautious and sometimes timid natures, make us less likely to actively pursue this thing called happiness. Is it possible we are wired to be a bit more pessimistic, therefore a little less prone to the pursuit of elusive ideals? With happiness comes some of the most intense of emotions, including, love, joy, ecstasy, and are we more prone to shying away from that intensity? Does happiness create too much brain chemistry for HSPs? Yeah, I know it sounds absurd, but I wonder sometimes if we are most contented when we live in the neutral zone. I’m thinking joy suppression here to affect calm over emotional exuberance.
Positive and negative emotions have important evolutionary components. Neuroscience suggests that our proclivity towards pleasure is an important driver in survival. Our perception of pleasure which can be an affective state, essentially straddling somewhere between the lower brain/upper brain neurological connections, subliminal in nature, contrasts with the higher level state of conscious affective pleasure, which overlays conscious thought onto the neurological communication of pleasure seeking. These pleasure centers are all over the brain from limbic to cortical areas all acting in concert driving behavior. Each influencing either a “like response” or a “want (desire) response”, the former more primitive and the later more consciously influenced. Together they both move us towards the pleasure principle aspect of happiness.
So how does this filter through the HSP brain? Are we different than non-HSPs when it comes to happiness? Does our empathetic nature and deep processing of environmental inputs, put as at an advantage or disadvantage in pursuing happiness? Because of our “deep wiring” do we naturally form strong neural networks between the emotion centers and cortical regions and because we engage these almost continuously are we if given the proper environment in which to work/live are we more likely to be content, satisfied, dare I say, happier? Do HSPs live in the hedonia zone or are we more content with eudaimonia principles? If I were a betting man, I’d say the latter.
And what about being unhappy? Is it so bad not to be happy all the damn time? Does being unhappy really mean being sad or down? Can we be just as fulfilled by pursuing the neutrality of contentment? And is all this talk of happiness not especially useful for HSPs who live within the full spectrum of human emotion. Can we be condemned for not being slap happy all the time? Being more intuitive, more empathetic, more emotional and deep processors -- does that not lend us to getting stuck in one emotional state from time to time. Again, perhaps, we should strive not to connect and hold on to the happiness dots as a pleasure pastime but rather striving for a more balanced and satisfying life, with the inherent ups and downs associated with a well lived life. Wouldn’t this be a good overriding principle for HSPs?
We are at a point in human history where the idea of every human being having an inherent right to happiness is considered to be a truth. It was as if a resort somewhere in the tropics where once we visited has now become a desired destination of permanent residence, just because we were happy for a brief time there in the past. Not realizing that happiness, like resort living, comes at a price. A state of perpetual happiness is likely not possible, just like holding a moment in time, trying to make it last forever. Happiness comes and goes, flitting in our lives like the elusive butterfly. The idea of happiness as an elongated moment, that will last a lifetime is myth. We aspire to happiness as we aspire to spiritual growth. It is a journey, not a destination. Yet, all of it is good - even sadness, even the state of not happy.
I’ve been in pursuit of happiness all my life. An elusive and impossible dream. Looking outside of myself everywhere to acquire, befriend or pursuit it. I’m not sure I’ve ever found it for long. Does that mean it doesn’t exist – not likely, but maybe my personal definition is skewed? Maybe like the butterfly, happiness appears out of nowhere arriving for a fleeting moment. We that are living life, never know exactly when it will come. For the observant ones, we experience it outwardly and inwardly by a variety of uncontrollable means. Happiness is temporary, it comes and goes, just like the butterfly, it flies away again in jagged butterfly patterns. It zigs in and out of our lives, showing up like an omen, and then leaves without warning. We never catch this butterfly, for to do so will destroy it. But, maybe the illusion is that we can catch it and keep it for all time. It does seem there is a difference between pleasure and happiness. Yet, we get them confused.
Happiness is like art, we behold, enjoy it, interpret it, often misunderstand it, but somewhere within our souls we crave and appreciate it. By recognizing this, we can then quit making a living pursuing it; instead, live our lives with integrity and contentment. Know the art work of life that we are creating is flawed and gets weathered by life and yet perfect for us at a deep and soulful level. You see there are really no rules here, not for happiness. If we can say that at the end of life, that we lived a life in which happiness visited us many times, then surely we are blessed. The breadcrumbs to happiness are scattered on the ground where life was lived. Be happy to recognize when happiness finds you.
Note: It’s funny how the pronunciation of words can change over time. The word happiness is one of those words. I have noted in many films of the 30s and 40s that the word is pronounced by both American and British actors with emphasis on the “p” and the “ee” sound in the word happy is less like we pronounce it today and more flat like ”uh”, something like hap-puh-ness vs. happ-ee-ness. Every year around Christmas, I watch the Bishops Wife with David Niven, I notice this, don’t know why. Let’s just say it was an inspiration for this blog.
Thanks for stopping by, until next week…
Who defines masculinity in a society? Do men define it or are women contributors as well? Or is it just the most powerful influencers in the culture that set this norm? Do we have specific baseline behaviors that perhaps all societies around the world define what masculinity looks like? Or is it historically defined as an arbitrary set of rules, based on the present day cultural norms? How does Western society base its definition of manliness?
Current traditional definitions of masculinity in the U.S. tend to base masculinity on several factors. Many of them centered on physicality (read: physical strength) and acquisition of resources. So for example, a man’s prowess at providing for his family or for himself might set a picture of his masculinity. Still important may be his sexual aggressiveness in finding and selecting a mate. We still see in our cultural dialogue, the depiction of the quintessential male as an emotional isolate, who always remains in the logical, rational mindset, to maintain good decision making in the face of an uncertain world. Of course, there’s dominance in relationships and understood leadership roles in work and social activities. Finally, if you throw in a thought for ambition, pride, honor, and duty, you could pretty much sum up what we in the West would consider our ideal man.
How does this compare with other cultures around the world? With current American influence at its greatest, you might think that our masculine definitions would be more accepted around the world. In many ways, masculinity around the world can be seen as an opposite of feminine traits and in fact, that measure was used to create a scale as it were of how masculine values rate around the world. This scale known as the Hofstede Scale ranks countries around the world based on a masculinity ranking; the higher the number the more emphasis in the culture on masculine values versus feminine.
Japan ranked as the highest on the masculine scale with a score 95 out of 100. The U.S., surprisingly ranked around the middle of the countries listed, which was a good cross section of nations around the planet. Joining the U.S. in the middle were countries from the Middle East (Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, et.al), countries from Africa and surprise – Latin America. At the low end were the egalitarian Scandinavian countries (once home to the warrior Vikings). I suppose Ikea might be credited with that.
By using a scale that measures masculine values (aggressiveness vs. passivity, emotional detachment vs. emotional engagement, power vs. cooperation, traditional values vs. open values, etc.) and comparing it to what is considered feminine values, the scale is measuring what essentially is the opposite of feminine. It would stand to reason that that is how we define masculinity against the baseline of what culturally we see as feminine behaviors. As the ratings drop on the Hofstede scale, there is more of a lean towards more androgyny within both sexes and a more egalitarian approach to defining gender roles.
Again, in the West, we often see portrayed in novels, film, and advertising, the depiction of the traditional male character as strong and silent, or as a tough guy, or even a great and forceful lover and physically dominant enough to qualify for Alpha Male pay. There is a certain tendency towards homophobia (more on that in a minute) and possessing domain over women. Our Western ideal male also tends to be a winner and often a winner at all costs--personal and interpersonal. The expectations are hammered in our heads as males from childhood to the grave. We never escape this ideal, yet we all know that it is entirely unrealistic to expect all men to live up to this caricature. In fact, living up to most of it is a fast lane to interpersonal issues, mental health problems, substance abuse, and violence.
Across history, especially Western history the ideal male role has been depicted as hero, chivalric and even as court dandy, all changing under the cultural shifts over time. With the rise of technology and the increase in leisure time, male roles have changed accordingly. Less work on providing for self and family, more on recreating a new vision for the male, which includes new models, i.e., metrosexuals (see 18th century court dandies), herbivore males an extreme bellwether, which seems to forsake male sexuality altogether and stay at home dads, who take on a lot of the traditional female work from home.
Many of our traditional values about masculinity have been intertwined with our religious beliefs as well. In Western culture, the influence of Christianity in a largely patriarchal church that emphasizes the importance of male dominance, including the Godhead can’t be understated. I believe today that many of those who cling to evangelical and fundamentalist views of Christianity are the most threatened by what could best be called the “precariousness of manhood” which is now threatening traditional male role values.
With the rise of the feminist movement in the 60s, followed closely by the emergence of a strong and vocal LGBTQ movement in the 70s, traditional males are feeling affronted from many sides. The fact that this country elected a demagogue like Donald Trump as our leader represents the last gasp of this traditional masculine based culture. Surprisingly, many women still support the traditional male value based ethos even if it is not necessarily in their best interest to do so. Fear of change is a powerful motivator.
And now, we are beginning to see the emergence of the sensitive male movement, although movement may be a bit premature at this stage. Highly sensitive men are starting to recognize that they are different and for good reason and beginning to find themselves in the complex world of masculinity. The world needs us now, and as psychologist Ted Zeff contends, we can be instrumental in saving this planet from runaway traditional aggressive masculinity.
HSMs are now able to, with head up, state that they are a different kind of male. We are no longer accepting labels of gay or effeminate or sissy, but showing strength with a sensitive, nurturing empathetic, cautious, non-aggressive and contemplative nature. All characteristics that even twenty years ago, would have branded them as weak and ineffectual men. And like the feminist movement and the LGBTQ movement, this idea of a different definition for masculinity is another nail in the coffin for traditional manliness. And you can bet there is going to be strong push-back.
Now, I don’t expect that traditional value masculinity is going to disappear, maybe ever; however, I think it’s going to have to move over for a wider and deeper definition of what masculinity entails. The world is changing, and as I often mention, evolution favors those that can adapt and change with the environment. The traditional male value systems are going to have to change as well. And as HSMs we can and should be the perfect intermediaries and ambassadors for that change. For many of us, we have lived in both worlds. And as HSPs, we know how to be the bridge.
What about the next generation of men, the boys of today? What can we do to shape them, give them guidance on being a man, in a world where the definition of masculinity must and is changing? We should focus on teaching them to be themselves first and to craft a new ideal for masculinity. There is no need to sacrifice strength, but realizing that strength is not just physical strength, but emotional strength as well.
Let’s not forget men still have a sexual role to play, but interpersonal relationships don’t have to be based on aggressiveness or dominance. We can be leaders without sacrificing compassion; we can be active without forsaking contemplation. And yes, we can still be rough and tumble, get dirty, climb trees, be adventurous and at times androgynous, without losing our sight of the new masculinity. There is much to learn here for boys and men, and for that matter women who influence us so much.
Here are some ideas on raising our boys, both HSP and non-HSP boys:
Footnote: A rather attractive grandmother came by the house recently to pick up a chair she had purchased from us. Her husband, a tall, quiet man was with her as was her three year old grandson. I remarked about how sharp the little boy’s cowboy boots looked. The grandmother proudly reached out for her grandson to gather his attention and she said to the boy, “that’s why we won’t to be a cowboy, isn’t?” the little boy shuffled around with his head down. The grandmother repeats to him, “and we want to be a cowboy because cowboys don’t cry, right?” the little boy thought a moment then silently shook his head in acquiescence. Grandmother was a traditionalist and just did more harm than good for this child. It was not her intent to harm, but the firmness with which she stated emphasized the ideal that men don’t cry. Shame. But, it’s the Texas way. I didn’t bother to ask her if she saw Brokeback Mountain. Seems that cowboys do cry.
Thanks for stopping by, until next week…
What does it mean to walk the path of fear? As Carlos Castaneda once said, and I paraphrase, that walking a path of fear is walking as if death is stalking us, always worried that one wrong move and death will overtake us. It’s a subconscious thing. Fear is our warning system, planted deep within in our minds, throttled by our amygdala, and embellished by our conscious minds. Fear is about warning about an impending, imagined death. Surviving is avoiding death.
But, how does this affect our ability to live genuine, authentic lives? Is living a life well wasted, ravaged by fearfulness, really a life? Our mission in life is simple: learn, grow and for the spiritually minded, love. Everything else is gravy. It doesn’t matter how each of us filters the world, filters wide open or mostly shut, we all have to bend to the mission.
Fear is a driver. Fear is a healthy impulse. Fear can be learned and it can be imagined. Our reactions to fear are often comprised of four actions: freeze, to ponder the circumstance; Fight – to resist the threat; flight to escape the threat; or fright – to internalize the threat, in which case it can become overwhelming. For many HSPs, the last action is simply too often the case. And we are driven back to the comfort zone, that place where the threat is controllable or no longer there.
But what are we really afraid of? To die, to be hurt, to be misunderstood, to be shamed or made fun of? To be afraid to learn something new or grow? Perhaps, we fear the growth we may experience will be the death of who we are, a kind of existential death. Death of self and the dismantling of our ego, our essence. Or is this just an overwhelm thing? Do we fear the onslaught of too much threatening information, too much to process with a rush of adrenaline? Is overwhelm like drowning in a tidal wave, out of control and rushing into the unknown?
HSPs often find themselves walking in this pathway of fear so that it seems fear is a driver of our behavior. Is fear avoidance a personality characteristic of HSPs? This is not to say that HSPs can’t brave or courageous or don’t do things that require overcoming fear. But we live so much in our heads that before the threat is even real we have imagined endless possibilities, some not so positive. Its no wonder that many HSPs are threatened when their comfort zone is questioned. But the comfort zone is not an expansive mechanism, restorative, yes, but not the ideal mechanism for growth.
For humans habituation to fear is hardwired. This ability to habituate to the thing we fear is what allows us to try novel and new experiences. It increases or capacity for survival. This is not just for the HSP world to ponder, but for all humans. Avoiding the thing(s) we fear, prevents this habituation, this getting used to the fear and the repeated retreat into the comfort zone, does not relieve the fear. It avoids it, allowing the fear to anchor within.
The only way out, is through the fear, says psychologist, Noam Shpancer. This requires expanding the comfort zone enough to repeatedly face the fear and overcome it. Experience brings confidence. Confidence is expansive and grows your comfort zone.
So, where is this root of fear? Is it in the amygdala, the brains warning system? A limbic to cerebellum circuit that takes the subconscious warning signal and embellishes is with conscious emotions, creating fear and sometimes anxiety. With HSPs because of our sensory sensitivity is much greater than the population at large, we seem more prone to excessive fears and overwhelm because of our circuitry.
According to Dr. Elaine Aron, we need to pay attention to where we feel the fear, generally in our bodies. We will register sooner than most. In that moment of freeze, mentioned above, it is our opportunity to consider the odds of our perceived threat happening and then act accordingly. We often confuse the arousal of the stimulation with the fear or emotion of the situation. But when it is time to act, we need to consider a thoughtful strategy and go with it.
Consider the attributes of courage. No one that is courageous is fearless. Realize your vulnerability, acknowledge the fear and allow yourself to be exposed to the fear, the exposure will give you experience, valuable experience. Stay positive, sometimes, just saying the right things at the right time can help to associate positive actions with negative stimulus, helping you overcome the fearful thoughts. Practice bravely going beyond your comfort zone and you will grow as a result.
So often we HSPs think that our comfort zone is the place where we can handle the fear. Our fortress, our mailed armor, our protection. Yet, staying solidly in the comfort zone for a lifetime without altering it, will keep us walking the the path of fear. I think we need to consider going beyond, risking the imagined type of “death” we fear so much and expand and rebirth that comfort zone.
So, here’s my tips for overcoming that fear of which I speak:
Thanks for stopping by, until next week…
Birds and meerkats are about the most alert, vigilant creatures I have ever seen. Their attention is attuned to their real world, a world where they can easily be prey with a careless moment of inattention. Their lives depend on staying vigilant. People in the modern world seldom need that type of vigilance to survive, yet we live like we do. Looming in our minds are the thoughts of crime, violence, terrorism, and aggression. Although it’s possible to be a victim, the general probability is low. Yet we all live in a state of heightened awareness of our environment, in an almost perpetual state of fear. Watch the news at night for a daily downloading of fear based information and it’s no wonder that we live our lives in a fearful state.
The average person feels that real fear. They may not carry it around in conscious awareness, but it lingers in the subconscious, activating the preamble to stress – the call to flight or fight. Yet, non-HSMs don’t generally find the need to retreat often to an imaginary comfort zone in order to cope with this underlying stress. They often deal with fear by becoming more aggressive, focusing outward: buy guns for protection, vote Republican, join the military, and think of protection in a moderately to heavily aggressive way often externalizing their individualism, pointing outward to deal with the stress or threat.
HSMs, on the other hand, especially the ones that I know, don’t place as much attention to the fear of attack by a dark other, but rather fear the destruction of the planet, the demise of species, the spiritual decline of the population, and perhaps, jokingly, the aggressiveness of non-HSPs. They fear things of an existential and abstract nature, things that are deeper and more pluralistic. Instead of living in a pride of lion hunters, alert to threats and ready to attack, HSPs are more like meerkats. It seems that we are always, vigilant, alert, aware, highly charged and sensitive to the environment, looking just beyond the tall grass to see if there is something coming, ready at a moment’s notice to herd the gang back down the hole into the comfort zone of underground.
We internalize the perceived threat and thinking of self and others. Balancing that world of vigilance, watching the world for outside threats is always a compromise between risk avoidance and risk taking. Determining which is the greater risk: starving (dynamic change) or being annihilated (static sameness), much like the meerkats, we have to determine to either move forward or be safe.
We all know that lions are aggressive hunters. They have often been characterized as kings or queens of the jungle. They are at the top of the food chain and they rightly fear nothing. They are comfortable and in the flow. They eat what they please. The meerkats, on the other hand, are far less aggressive, and instead are vigilant and watchful. They display sentinel behavior and alert the group to imminent danger. There is always someone on point to watch the surroundings. We, my HSP friends are like that, in a metaphorical sense. Certainly, we are not meerkats, but our nature is to be cautious and watchful and alert. We do not attack first and ask questions later, we usually find a way back to our comfort zones, our cocoons, our burrows, when something threatens our comfort level.
Now with that said, is one of the two species better adapted to survive? And speaking of comfort zones, does it even seem that lions can be bothered with having a comfort zone? Would it be fair to say that in comparison, that only the meerkats are concerned about safety first – a kind of comfort zone mentality? And, if so, does that make them less adaptable? When adaptation helps form an ecological niche, a way to live and cope with an environment, is living in a comfort zone a true adaptation?
From a survival standpoint that would make sense, replacing brute strength with vigilance and self created protection zones. But does that favor long term evolution? Maybe. It should be noted that the one of the few survivors of the last mass extinction of dinosaurs was a furry little rodent like creature-- the first mammal. Smaller footprint, smarter, more cautious, better design, better adaptation characteristics.
So why do comfort zones have anything to do with meerkats and lions? Last blog we talked about expanding the comfort zone. What then would it mean to leave the comfort zone for longer durations? Can HSPs even manage to do this consistently? Some of you might say that it’s a maladaptive strategy, akin to walking amongst the dinosaurs for a small defenseless and cautious mammal. Why risk it, when we are safe in the comfort zone? My point has always been that as individuals, not just HSPs, but as individuals, we have to expand our comfort zones to grow. As HSPs, we often strategize not to push those boundaries, because we become overwhelmed so easily.
But, by expanding our comfort zones we hand over that additional information and processing to our unconscious mind, which learns the necessary adaptation for our particular nervous system. Overwhelm occurs when the conscious processing lacks the experience to cope with the overload or new information. But the unconscious will adapt if we let it. Because of the lack of experience with stressful new environments, we can literally through experiencing, however stressful, expand our comfort zones to grow our experience. Repeated experiences will encode new learning, new pathways of experience, and a new expanded comfort zone.
In an aggressive and distracting world, HSPs need sanctuary for recuperating our psyche. This, I believe, is different than our comfort zones. Comfort zones are defined by fear boundaries, ego bound perimeters where safety, sameness and familiarity reign. This is our perimeter fence staked around our external lives and how we face that aggressive world. When I say we all need to learn to expand those boundaries, it is not about abandoning the sanctuary, it is about moving the fence outward for growth. I think we all get that confused. One need not abandon the sanctuary or move far from it to expand the comfort zone of experience.
The comfort zone, therefore, is the distance from one burrow entrance to the next, to continue with the meerkat analogy. The boundary of your comfort in the external world. Is it safe? Can I make it? How far can I push my limits? Sanctuary, on the other hand, is the burrow. The place of retreat in the internal world of our own undergrounds. They are not the same. HSPs need the sanctuary and we need to occasionally expand our comfort zones. One is our safe room, our re-energizing spa, the other marks our boundaries in the external world.
One final example. Living in a big city is stressful for most everyone, but especially for HSPs. After a day out in the world, we retreat into our sanctuary, likely our home or apartment, and relax and rejuvenate. If we are new to the big city, the first months will require an adjusting period. Each day we face the same stressors, each day we gradually adapt and learn to live in the hustle and bustle of the big city. At some point, we have expanded our comfort zone to live and work in this environment, it may have been hard, but we did it. Yet, we never abandoned our sanctuary, our place of rejuvenation. There I believe lies the difference. Something to think about.
Thanks for stopping by, until next week…
Note: this post is part of a series on dealing with the comfort zone.
Glancing through the internet the other day, I noticed several blogs by HSPs that showed a defensiveness about expanding or leaving their comforts zones. There was a general attitude about being forced out of their safe space and facing new expansive challenges outside of the comfort zone. As an HSP, I get this, but it’s not a good place to live life.
Yes, for HSPs the comfort zone is our safe harbor, our haven for processing or re-energizing. When we need it we go there. But, to bristle at the idea of leaving or expanding that same comfort zone for growth purposes is absurd. Unfortunately, our comfort zone is a place of pattern and routine, a place where change is often absent. It is not the place for challenging new growth or real expansion. It seems so many HSPs fight that notion, in spite of the fact that at some point they know they are inherently wrong. Hence the defensiveness.
Living outside of the comfort zone for HSMs or HSPs for that matter is especially vexing. We sometimes live in our bubble and this cocoon can protect us even from the normal external elements we face each day. We live in predefined boundaries that keep us safe and secure, but can we really thrive or reach our optimal potential if we don’t stretch those boundaries?
According to neuroscience, the answer is no. Lack of variability leads to rigidity in the brain. Variability comes from experiences largely outside of our bubble. Without experiencing at some point the departure from the comfort zone means that we are relaxing in our unchanging, invariant secure environment. Now don’t get me wrong, that comfort is a necessary part of the HSP world, but it doesn’t teach us much about growing as individuals if we use it as a fortress.
The brain is a highly adaptive organ, a neuroplastic engine that is designed to adapt, designed to grow and expand neural networks. In spite of how we perceive the world, or in our case absorb the world, we still need to move into the occasional uncomfortable space, where real growth and new experience lives.
We know that HSPs are evolutionarily designed to be cautious creatures. More input to us means more likely more hesitation to move into the unfamiliar. But, how do we cope with this cautious nature, in a world where adaptation is an evolutionary necessity, and we have a brain that is also perfectly designed to expand and grow? Can we still live within our cautious nature and yet occasionally explore beyond it freely from our customary boundaries?
I think most certainly. But, it’s going to be a bit different for most HSPs. Questions about how far and how fast we push boundaries before we hit that exhaustion point that many of us fear, linger deeply within all of us. Another consideration-- does the usual pushing of boundaries always lead to expansion of boundaries, or could too much pushing lead to the retreat of those boundaries? Is there a risk/reward equation that we need to examine before proceeding? Can we really devise such an algorithm, or do we always subjectively bias that equation to err towards caution and back into the land of comfort.
Something else to consider: is it better for HSPs to focus more on growing inwardly, deepening our awareness of self and self- in-universe. Or should we expand outwardly, looking to external experiences to shape and move us forward in our growth? I think many HSPs believe that going outside of the great walls of our CZ is equivalent to mind numbing exhaustion and overwhelm; always seeking the comfort of a personal space, such as described in Brian Wilson’s song, In My Room. Perhaps, that line of thinking comes from being pushed by others, even well-meaning others to go outside of where you are comfortable thus; leaving you feeling like someone else is in control.
I think it’s a little of both. All people seek comfort, although it seems HSPs are most comfortable when in the comfort zone. But life in our brains is a biochemical mix of fear versus homeostasis or comfort. It is the great yin and yang balancing act of life. The fear aspect can be a great growth stimulant for us HSPs. It’s called optimal anxiety, where performance and productivity apex. I’m not so crazy about that name, but fear can be a powerful motivator and so can discomfort. Fear and uncertainty can produce a state of productive discomfort, which drives us toward achieving a certain competency. This competency leads to a state of comfort or homeostasis again, which completes the cycle of learning and growth. The greatest source of confidence comes from experience, not rumination.
A key here may be in dealing with the anxiety in a controlled way. This is the difference between attaching a fire hose to a fire hydrant versus opening up all of the ports of the hydrant at once with no controls. Humans are goal seeking creatures and goals require an expansion beyond mere comfort to deliver real growth. I see no way around that.
What we should be talking about is growing the comfort zone to include new experiences. This contrasts with HSPs notions of leaving the safety of the CZ and I think is a more palatable notion to HSPs than saying you have to live outside of your comfort zone. You can overcome acrophobia from flying in a plane, without having to skydive out. It doesn’t have to be extremist to be valid.
I know from personal experience that comfort zones can expand. They don’t have to be static and unchanging sanctuaries. What I am now comfortable with was not the same ten years ago, or twenty years ago. And it required being placed in uncomfortable situations to make this happen. Places which I hated at the time, but in later reflection appreciated.
So what is the best approach for HSMs to begin expanding? Toe dipping or diving in? It depends on the individual. We all have had our experiences of being initiated into the traditions of manliness in our culture, most often put in uncomfortable situations with things we are not especially suited to or prepared for. Here are some general tips on expanding your comfort zone and maybe learning something new in the process:
Thanks for stopping by, until next week…
Arriving at a decision time expectations have shrunk in the past thirty years, as our technology speeds have accelerated. This is largely due to our reliance on instant technology; technology that can either produce near instant results or produces the illusion of instantaneous gratification. This quick decision making has in many ways rewired our brains to expect hasty decisions, often based on little information inputs or with wide information gaps.
With text messaging and social media, we get faster response times and now our society looks for leaders particularly to make instant decisions. Technology is beginning to rewire our brains to expect more instant response decision making and teaching us to almost make battlefield decisions without the benefit of inputs or training can leave everyone feeling battle fatigued.
This type of decisioning seems to lack reflection and appeals mainly to our more primitive limbic emotional processing systems. With technology accelerating communication, decisive responses are now expected, too. From that we can see more and more bad decisions being made across the society, from teenagers to seniors, from politics to religion, from corporate to private worlds, it’s happening all over.
I’m not saying it’s all bad. There have and always will be times when quick decisioning is imperative, think of an emergency room, in NORAD’s control center, or while flying a plane in bad weather. But more often now, we see decisions expected quickly for times when more reflective thinking is required.
This carries over into the realm of business, and in the field, I once worked in Information Technology it is rampant. We have created a great and ponderous beast, called the internet and it requires 24/7 attention and feeding. All of our technology is tied to that, one way or another; a giant communication network with billions of nodes and requiring perhaps as many or more decisions every day.
HSPs don’t work this way. We are deep processing thinkers and we are also observational, receiving high quantity of multiple inputs from multiple sensory paths. Instead of bypass processing, we are absorbed by all the inputs and have to sort, categorize and process the data. This takes time and runs contrary to modern cultural expectations. “I’ll get back to you”, doesn’t cut it today. Leaders expect workers and workers expect leaders to instant process to decisions – no rumination, no mulling, and culling, just get the answer…NOW.
Part of the stress that working HSPs that are in industries that require this type of quick thinking has to do with the expectation of making decisions on unprocessed information, hastily sifting through the inputs and creating a less than perfect output. HSPs are highly conscientious individuals and doing this kind of half-baked thinking goes directly against our wiring. The stress comes from the pressure to decide and not being given ample time to process deeply.
Now, we can do this like everyone else, but it’s not comfortable. To be asked to do this all the time can be almost debilitating. Going against our nature is what we are expected to do all the time, and indeed, not doing that, can have real world consequences for many HSPs in the workplace. The increased pressure and stress can even at time short circuit our processing, delaying further decision making or in some cases shutting us down.
And, the world is not changing for our needs, at least not anytime soon. If you want to work today, you’ll need to find a way to cope, adapt or join in the fray, to deal with the pressure to move more quickly. Adaptation is the key, but with all things for HSPs – self-preservation is the lock. You’ll need that to stay secure.
Let’s look at some things that may help:
Thanks for stopping by, until next week…
So much attention is placed on money in our society and making said money. We equate having or not having it with our own value, self-worth, power, freedom and respect. And what is money-- is it just a unit of financial significance, a measurement of success, or as some billionaires says, a way of keeping score. I really believe it is none of these. We are so focused on the score of the game that we often overlook the game. I think it is clear that we as a money obsessed society miss the whole idea that money is simply energy with enormous work potential bundled around it.
We have attached too much superficial meaning to the accumulation and procurement of money that we fail to see that we have enslaved ourselves to this concept to the extent we are not participating in the game, i.e. life. As HSPs, we inherently understand the fundamentals of money acquisition and possess many of the characteristics needed to acquire money, but more often than not, refuse to play the game or participate because of the taxing nature on our personalities. Let’s look at this.
HSPs are by nature, cautious creatures. That makes us less likely to be willing to engage in behavior that risk assaulting our sensibilities. We are in many ways risk averse. However, according to Dr. Tracy Cooper, about twenty percent of HSPs are high sensation seeking individuals. So, we are not entirely a tribe of non-risk takers. Those high sensation seeking HSPs are like other risk takers, looking for novel experiences, able to disinhibit long enough to engage in risky behavior and can get bored easily with the same old, same old. And HSPs are naturally curious and creative souls that like connecting disparate dots to make new ideas happen.
So, why don’t more HSPs become prominent in business or startups or in the art of making money? Why aren’t we front and center on getting promotions at work, implementing our ideas in the marketplace, making sales, pitching our ideas to investors, sticking our necks out there, and risking everything for an idea that has money making potential? Oddly, I don’t think it’s the risk that factors in here.
One has to consider the nature of business, or the nature of making money. One is either in the business of labor creation or in the business of labor offering. The motive of all business is to make profit for the enterprise. Economic purists would argue that this is a noble and time honored task. To profit in a business is to be efficient and innovative – two things HSPs are fairly good at. To profit in business is to be able to provide rewards to shareholders and owners and to perpetuate the business as an entity.
Much like evolutionary survival, a strong, profitable business thrives and continues. And much like a true reflection of Darwin’s evolution of species; modern, capitalistic business, must compete to survive. And, survival becomes the prime objective. Think of crushing competition, dominating the marketplace and hoarding resources this is what we prize in our culture. It’s what we deem as winning (watching the scoreboard).
This applies equally to individuals at a micro-economic level, too. And it comes back to how we earn, acquire and accumulate money. It’s how things get done and it’s rampant in our culture. There is a little lechery in any business that is purely out to make money, in spite of high moral posturing with mission statements and company visions. Does this put off HSPs? Surely, for some of us. Does it intimidate us? Quite possibly, for many of us. Do our collective moral compasses steer us away from being business “savvy”, and drawn away from the whole proposition of making money? Well if you think about, social Darwinism, an unwritten credo of modern big business, is so non-HSP. Is this how HSPs define winning? I doubt it.
What drives entrepreneurs? What types of personality characteristics make for a good startup CEO? Most sources agree that successful entrepreneurs are risk takers, highly confident, and have a love for learning new things. They, also, are wired for failure resiliency, perhaps aided by an undying passion for their endeavor and a high degree of adaptability and tenacity. In addition, they display great social skills, like networking for results, money management skills-- which require an “its just business” attitude, and self-promotion and charisma.
How does that match up with generalized HSP characteristics? Well, in some places well. We are creative and innovative thinkers, and as noted some of us like risk. We love to learn and appreciate novelty. Where we fall short are those areas where quick decision making, supreme confidence, the gift of bullshitting your way into someone else’s pocket book without guilt and an outward focus on output with an inward drive on self-aggrandizement. In other words, welcome to ego El Supremo. It’s rare to find a consciously aware billionaire, maybe even rarer to find an HSP billionaire.
So are we HSPs doomed to being poor or at least living a frugal life, because of some ineptness or inability to override our moral convictions to make “good” money? Do you think there’s an alternative universe out there that allows for doing the right thing and becoming wealthy as a result? Is the nature of profit simply access to excess? Really folks, is there something inherently wrong about making money that makes money distasteful and disgusting?
Perhaps we need to re-frame the whole question. Is money or having money dirty, unsavory and undesirable? Frankly, I think it’s placing a value judgement on something that can’t be categorized that way. In and of itself it’s neutral. Having money or lacking money is neither good nor bad. Money is simple energy potential. It’s an agreed upon denomination for exchange of goods and services and represents energy.
Greed and selfishness, often associated with money are bad, but they are not money. Big Pharma extracting huge profits off the backs of sick people is bad, but the money they extract is not. It’s neutral. Doesn’t make it right, it’s still neutral. Yet, is it really noble and honorable to be materially bereft only to miss many of the material experiences your life could benefit from?
Where does this attitude or aptitude for not making money come from? By the age of seven money habits are formed in children that will last them a lifetime. Children learn their attitudes towards money from their parents. HSPs being the sensitive, intuitive and inquisitive types that we are, no doubt, pick up on many subtle cues from our parents that other children might miss. “We can’t afford that” or “that’s too expensive”, or “easy come, easy go”, might carry extra influence on HSPs because of the added emotional content our deep processing might add.
Because money has so many emotional implications in our lives, we as HSPs may grasp significance in terms of lack or abundance depending on how our parents framed money in their lives. This may in addition to the uncomfortableness of acquiring money, help shape HSP’s world view of money in their own lives. Or conversely, could HSPs override all of these apprehensions about money, due in part to an upbringing that emphasized confidence in money acquisition and success? Since money is our cultural barometer of success, could an early belief in ones self-worth and confidence, make one more likely to become more successful from a monetary standpoint, regardless of personality temperament or makeup?
I keep hearing over and over that HSPs tend to gravitate towards low wage earning jobs. In the end, is this a nature vs. nurture question. Is it our nature to go for easy flow, low paying jobs, or do we tend to move towards work that is part of familial or societal expectations and just gut it out? It would seem that many HSPs would avoid high profile money jobs because of the stress of it all. It doesn’t mean we couldn’t do it as many of us have.
Are HSPs so laid back that we only prefer low paying jobs and forego the high price of high wage jobs? Perhaps, generally, we tend towards simple life situations, with lots of quiet time, less money, but more personal freedom. If you follow our worries, you will see where our priorities are: ensuring downtime, are we close to nature, time for creativity and how to get personal peace. We then can smugly eschew the greed and selfishness of big profit jobs and business and revel in our low wage art gallery job, or a counseling job for a non-profit or writing a children’s book (that has sold millions of copies and been made into several blockbuster movies, re – J.K. Rowling). It can happen.
Some things to ponder:
Thanks for stopping by, until next week…
I am at times both health maven and junk food junkie. It, of course, depends upon the mood. Right now I am in a cycle of diet and health focus, so I am doing my best to avoid junk food. But as is the cycle of life, I imagine I will once again fall into the clutches of fast foods and a maddening desire to satisfy a genetically inherited sweet tooth.
At times, I wonder if because of my sensitivity or heightened sensory awareness, does this make me more prone to indulge in the pleasures of junk food? Is it just about the sensation of taste, smell and mouth feel or is there brain chemistry involved as well. This week’s topic is about the HSM and being junk food junkies.
Ever since I was a kid, I have been a bit of a junkie for the foods that today we know contribute to multiple health issues. It seemed I could soothe a disappointment or overcome a hurt feeling with a sugary soda (Pepsi) or a sweet and crunchy candy (Chick-o-stick). It was always seemed to be a reliable way to soothe raw emotions.
I grew up as a tall and skinny kid, active and always in motion, so eating junk food never dealt me the same misfortunes of those that gained extra weight with over consumption of sugar. Back then High Fructose Corn Syrup was not as prolific as it is today, so I had the good fortune of most of my generation of consuming good ol’ straight sugar, made from beets or cane. This only lessened the blow by a degree or two, but I do think kept us from becoming a generation of obese sugar junkies.
Today things are different. Junk food is designed with the intent of making you addicted or as the manufacturers would prefer saying -- craving more or their product. Their foods and I use that term loosely, are specifically designed to appeal to the brain and the senses. The appeal is more than a quick treat, it is made to continually keep us coming back for more.
Working with food engineers, manufacturers carefully design junk food to elicit neurological, psychological and physiological responses in the consumer. Things like dynamical contrast, where a hard shell of a candy contrasts with it’s soft, gooey inner layer; salivary response, just the thought of the food brings forth a physiological response; vanishing caloric response – a fancy way of saying, because of the “lightness” of the food fools the brain into thinking you are consuming less calories, you eat more; sensory specific response – satisfying a brain need for food variety, the food is designed again to fool the brain by not providing too much satiation to prevent a dulling of your senses and a future avoidance of that food; engineered caloric density – a way of mixing ingredients to pass the brain’s food test, but not enough to pass the “full” test; and finally, past memory association – this is the psychological part, where your brain associates this food with some pleasant past experience.
Now I added all the above verbiage, to illustrate a point about how junk food is designed to be addictive. If you have a personality that is prone to addiction, it is easy to fall prey to this game played with your body and mind by food conglomerates. This falls easily into the category of food addiction.
As a hypnotist, I have worked with many people over the years looking for help in losing weight. One of the main components of the weight issue is the ease with which we become addicted to certain foods. This is no accident. The emotional ties we have to food, especially foods we consider to be comfort foods is very strong and difficult to break.
Many of the triggers for food addiction are physiological, the interaction from the brain to the body, brought about by the ingredients in the food we are consuming. This is a complex interaction and can involve the brain and the gut, both centers of neurological control. When food is engineered to affect a response in the consumer, you can see the danger. In addition, food addiction has a psychological component, largely emotional. Food as self-medication has at its root the use of food for coping with difficult life situations. Then throw in social pressures: family, friends, media, social occasions, you can see how pressures within and without can push us over the line.
The pull of sugar on behavior is very powerful, as are starchy carbs, which ultimately are turned to glucose in the body; creating this cycle of repetitive behavior. Indulging in the junk food of choice, creates a body response, a kick of dopamine as a reinforcer, a rush of sugar into our bodies, creating a sugar high and then within a short period, a drop off of energy and crash. What happens internally is even more devastating. The continued pumping of sugar producing foods into the body leads to more insulin production, which is used to absorb the energy into the cells and at some point a saturation of the cells occurs leaving the body to store the excess as fat. This condition can lead to insulin resistance, which is a precursor to a whole host of diseases. Not good for your long term health outlook.
Does this affect HSMs or HSPs more so than the general population? I think it can. Because the research supports that HSPs are processing more sensory data and are prone to overwhelm more often, it would seem to reason that HSPs are operating under more stress than the general population. Not necessarily under the greatest stress, but as a group, stressed more often, and could this be a motivator in turning to junk foods for a calming effect.
Recent studies have shown that a select group of high stressed females ate more “comfort foods” to alleviate stress, than individuals with less stress in their lives. The high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, creates an increase in cravings for sugar, carb, fat types foods and the consumption of these foods did lower stress rates, albeit only temporarily. Could HSPs also be more prone to doing the same thing? Certainly, some of us do.
Since more HSPs tend to present more intense moods as a result of our sensory processing sensitivity traits, food also can heighten mood expression from a biological standpoint. Should HSPs avoid sugar and processed carb foods to help throttle down some of our emotional responses? The consumption of sugar in particular, can suppress activity of a key growth hormone in the brain; brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which when levels are low corresponds with depression and schizophrenia. And increased sugar consumption can affect blood sugar levels in the body effecting mood. There is enough enhanced brain chemistry naturally with HSPs, no need to flood our systems with junk food highs and crashes.
To top this all of off, someone has studied a correlation between personality types and preferred junk food. Although HSPs were not called out as a personality type, I could surmise from the personality descriptions where HSPs might fall. The criteria for snack foods, aka junk foods, were largely in the processed carb category, but traits like – loyalty, integrity, perfectionism and thoughtful kind of fit into the HSP wheelhouse. The foods corresponding to those categories were: meat snacks, cheese curls, tortilla chips and crackers. No chick-o-sticks…bummer.
Here are a few thought for HSPs on junk food consumption:
Thanks for stopping by, until next week…
Bill Allen lives in Bend, Oregon. He is a certified hypnotist and brain training coach at BrainPilots.com. He believes that male sensitivity is not so rare, but it can be confounding for most males living in a culture of masculine insensitivity which teaches boys and men to disconnect from their feelings and emotions. His intent is to use this blog to chronicle his personal journey and share with others.