A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
“That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run. So I ran to the end of the road. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d run to the end of town. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d just run across Greenbow County. And I figured, since I run this far, maybe I’d just run across the great state of Alabama. And that’s what I did. I ran clear across Alabama. For no particular reason I just kept on going. I ran clear to the ocean. And when I got there, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well turn around, just keep on going. When I got to another ocean, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well just turn back, keep right on going.” – Forrest Gump
I have been on a physical journey and a spiritual quest for the past six years. I left a good corporate job, a good secure marriage and a comfortable life to pursue the elusive unicorn of happiness, right livelihood and to fulfill what destiny I had left in life. It has been full of painful lessons, foolish turns, odd shifts of fate, and serendipity, with long pauses of loneliness and seemingly empty space.
I once took a vacation to Eastern Oregon a few years back. A part of the trip was to climb a very narrow, washboarded dirt road up a sheer hillside. Driving it was scary, hardly room for two cars to pass and in some places only room for one car. Even in a four-wheel drive vehicle, the sheer drop-offs were intimidating and nerve-wracking. The first few miles were filled with anxious caution, and I knew without turnouts that there was no turning back.
Once we leveled out on the plateau above, the road widened, making the remainder of the journey a wonderful excursion. At the summit, we were just over a mile above the meandering Snake River, far down below. It was a beautiful and awe-inspiring site, well worth the heart-pounding ascent.
Such is life. Tolkien once remarked in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, “not all those who wander are lost.” I hold this thought close to me when all seems murky and unclear. Sometimes its not about finding the path, but rather allowing the path to find you.
No trail taken is ever wasted, even those that lead us on dead ends. There is truth in every turn. Just like small trail flowers along the way, easy to overlook or step down with heavy beating feet, but each a small bundle of beauty to behold, and a valued treasure if one examines closely. One need only look up and around to grasp a view so beautiful that it hurts to leave, like a view that can only be appreciated from a distance. Once seen is then sealed in the heart forever.
However, any trail can be a trial. As an HSP male, I have often wondered how well suited I am for this journey. Is it harder for me because of my inherent HSP characteristics? Am I just prone to taking these side treks or does life have to force me into these non-linear loops?
Being sensitive and a gypsy seems odd cohabitants in my personality. Or does that make me well suited for this journey? With positive HSP qualities such as awareness, creativity, empathy, appreciation, intuition, and passion, does it not seem to make me a better observer and chronicler of all that I take in? The important question is how well can I integrate, process and assimilate the lessons of the trip.
We, HSPs are complex creatures. Our life journeys often test our strength and courage. We are strong but strong like water, not like rock. Our strength is pliable, amorphous and fluid, and what seems soft, is powerfully persistent. A knife can scratch a rock, yet does nothing to water. Water, given time can erode even the hardest, most immobile and immutable rock. So, which is the stronger? The silent rock edifice standing on the shore, or the crashing, relentless wave?
Finding the nuggets on our journey is what makes life worthwhile. We are both sensitive and highly sensing which makes these shiny chunks easier to spot, but harder to process. Emotionally charged events can leave the heart heavy with doubt, remorse or sorrow. Key stressors for us on the journey are crazy zigs and zags in life when our journey deviates from the plan, and our expectations drop. Challenges tax us and having to put up with less than desired outcomes when we make personal wrong turns add to our rumination. We then ride the tidal waves of immense highs and lows. Finding the secret treasures in our journey, can rejuvenate and enlighten us, especially when we need that lift.
Allowing that mash-up of good and bad, to mix and ferment, can make the sum of the journey something to savor, a deep reflective lesson, one for growth.
Doing this with complex emotions, crammed life lessons, solitary journeys, all allowed without the ability to see far down the road, or where the path leads. You still need to step forward, one foot leading the other, not always knowing where the trail leads – bending around a broad tree, descending into a deep, dark glen. We never know for sure. The existence of the trail is a testament to the fact that others have preceded you, no braver than you. You must trust the instincts and history of the trail. Relishing every moment, fighting back the doubt, knowing that the trail is not always the destination, but the path wherein the journey lies. As Lao-Tzu, the Chinese philosopher expressed, “What is beyond, is also here.”
As for me, faith, trust, and anticipation of my destination keep me boot bound to the ground ahead of me. The power to imagine getting back home to familiar faces and longed-for places is what sustains me. Wasted and tired, beat down, but inspired, I keep looking to find my way home again. No longer the same man that left. Soon, I will know, like Forrest Gump – “I’m tired now. I think I’ll go home.”
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
The French have a term, L’Appel Du Vide, the call of the void, to describe that intrusive call to oblivion, of self-destruction or of jumping impulsively into the abyss, that we all experience from time to time. The moment happens to most of us, in a split second, standing near a ledge, or driving in a car, wherein we contemplate cutting across the line into oncoming traffic. It is like Carlos Castaneda’s ideology of death stalking us, tempting us with a moment, where we are dared to chase the reaper. A snap inner voice that says “Jump!” and for a split second, our minds drift over into the call to nothingness. A single moment of distraction, an alternate reality, and then just as suddenly back to normalcy, with a deep sigh.
We HSPs live a lot of our lives inside of our heads. Many of our self-concepts come from the conclusions we have drawn from our own deep analysis and deep processing. Many times we don’t validate those conclusions externally, because of our sensitivity to criticism and our fragile egos. We make ourselves subject to deep hurt when our carefully considered assumptions are proven wrong by expressing them to others. Deep processing does not always mean correct conclusions. In fact, I would argue that many of our conclusions are off the mark, like computer code stuck in an endless loop.
At times this can create a bit of an existential crisis with us, causing doubt about who we are, what we are and, thoughts on the possible need to construct a new model within our egos. A very conscientious individual can be severely rattled when confronted with logical holes in their reasoning or in their emotional position.
And, at that moment, does this create a metaphorical moment of L’appel du vide? You have to love the French for taking a very serious matter and give it an élan that only they can do. L’appel du vide is not always about taking the plunge, it is though a split second of resignation, passing quickly, offering a moment of liberation at the thought of no longer existing. We briefly escape our existence, jumping headlong into a dark nothingness, where we can abandon, our emotions and our hurt. Here, when our peaceful place of refuge lets us down, we can flash think into a nonexistence.
Of course, quickly we flash back to reality, shocked for the moment that the idea of nonexistence was presented in front of us. A fantasy suicide of sorts, that never happens.
Is this real? Does this scenario happen to HSPs? Are we subject to the un petite l’appel du vide thoughts? Or are we more practical, suffer the insults, process heavily, then pop our little heads out of the hole again, no worse for the wear? Suicidal ideation, fleeting thoughts, role-playing or incompletion of actually ending it all, is not so uncommon. But, it is a serious matter. Nearly four percent of adult Americans report having these moments. The underlying causes often come from mood disorders, depression or simply by feeling alone, abandoned or the stress of life. But, what I am speaking of here, is not that.
These moments of existential crisis, a moment when the individual questions if their life has meaning, purpose or value, may lead one to conjure an l’appel du vide moment. More often popping up as a spontaneous subconscious thought. Could heavy, deep processing of a bad decision, or wrong conclusion, lead one to doubt oneself or to provide too many options to choose from, lead to this same internal crisis?
Is this just a miscalculation? Can overprocessing of highly energized emotional input cause us HSPs to over calculate causing an internal crisis? Dr. Elaine Aron acknowledges to our deep processing cycles with the acronym, D.O.E.S. The D represents the HSP depth of processing, that deep contemplation of what others might see as minutiae. The O stands for overstimulation, a common characteristic of HSPs, our world of overwhelm. The E is for emotional reactivity, our energizing quality, and finally, the S is for seeing the subtle or our high marking sensitivity. Now granted all of these qualities have and can be seen as positive in many ways, bringing us the ability to be intuitive, empathetic, cautious and careful planners. But, can too much processing be a two-edged sword?
Sometimes the pain is the lesson. Suffering through deep processing should eventually lead to some type of action, but with HSPs not always is there follow through. A constant churn of revisiting, rethinking and reevaluating conclusions may not be a great strategy for solutions. Even with our need for solitude, alone time, silent reflection – in the end, a decision or action is needed. Too much solitude can lead to a distortion of perception, increased anxiety and perhaps sensory illusions.
When a computer program goes into an endless loop, it follows the code, regardless of the flaw and loops back endlessly to the beginning, only to start again. It wastes computer time and resources, perhaps generating needless output, yet never concluding. When confronted with painful reality are HSPs subject to endless loop processing?
Then, does inaction lead us to those moments of l’appel du vide? Does our deep processing lead us to wish we could let go of the processing cycle? Do we fall into an endless loop, not deciding, not concluding, but caught, lost in too much information – and in our imaginations, staring blithely through a rain-soaked windshield at the oncoming traffic ahead and flashing a moment of nonexistence for a respite?
So, what do we do? Follow up the deep processing with some type of action. Don’t get caught in the whirlpool, getting sucked down into the vortex of overthinking. Don’t let frustration get you down, heads up, keep looking to break the trend of over processing. And, if that moment of l’appel du vide comes into conscious awareness – consider it rather as a leap of faith. Yes, process as we do, but at some point face the uncomfortableness and take action to resolve. You’ll never know if you are right or wrong until you expose your thinking to the outside. Take the leap into the void of uncertainty but leave the leap from the cliff alone.
Note: Suicide is a serious matter. If you are having recurring suicidal thoughts, please seek immediate help from a medical or mental health professional. The gist of this article was to take the French concept of “the call of the void” and use it in a metaphorical way, describing a brief mental escape. L’appel du vide in this context was also used to mean responding to the call as a mental leap of faith or better yet, taking a calculated risk towards positive action, expressed as leaping into the unknown. Breaking the habit of overthinking is probably a good thing, but don’t abandon careful, considerate deep evaluation. Consider it carefully, as I know you will.
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
One thing we do know about HSP males is they typically are more empathetic than most Non-HSP males. With empathy comes more emotion, more feeling, less aggressive behavior, more nurturing – all characteristics that are typically associated with females. This leads me to think that HSP males or highly sensitive males (HSMs) are more likely to rate higher on the androgynous scale (yes, there is one, more on that later).
When I speak of androgyny, I am referring to a psychological tendency to be neither strongly masculine or feminine. Perhaps a balance between gender characteristics, referring to cultural norms and the balancing between those norms. Therefore, for purposes of this article, I am not referring to physical attributes (fashion, appearance) or sexual preferences (transgender, asexual or bisexual).
Some recent examples culturally of androgynous males appear regularly through rock music history. One of the early trendsetters was Elvis Pressley. Later on, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, and Prince were a few of the artists that presented to the world a mix of both male and female energy on the stage. All of these men were considered icons in music, equally attractive to both men and women. In acting, I can think of Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp, both have boyish good looks, seeming as much feminine as masculine. But, again, not to dwell on the physical attributes, it is projected energy or emotional processing that I want to consider.
In the arts, androgynous behavior is quite prevalent, in fashion, theater, music and other artistic endeavors. The history of androgyny goes back into ancient times, but I found it remarkable that it was even promoted by early Christian fathers, such as Origen, as a noble, spiritual balance between masculine and feminine. In the middle ages, androgynous individuals were seen as the perfect human configuration. A perfect balance between both male and female characteristics, this balanced identity was seen to be an efficient means to deal with situational issues. Here, by ignoring social convention, adaptability is considered to be paramount to solving a problem.
Dr. Sandra Bem, the developer of the BEM scale of Androgyny, has done quite a bit or research on androgyny. She asserts that androgens are more socially and behaviorally flexible and because of that can be more mentally healthy. In recent years we have seen the rise of the metrosexual, males that embrace their inner peacock, and more men are spending more time on fashion, appearance and embracing grooming in ways that in years past would be seen as effeminate.
This balancing of male/female characteristics reminds me of Carl Jung’s dichotomy of the anima (female) and animus (male) within each individual. This no doubt reflects back to the ancient Taoist ideas of Yin and Yang, the male and female energy, balanced and in harmony swirling around inside every male and female.
Bringing this back home to Western, and specifically American culture, what characteristics would make a man seem more feminine? We all have heard about the characteristics and roles we as a society expect from men and women. Most researchers would agree norms are a consequence of social rules and values. An individual’s disposition on where they fit on the cultural spectrum is largely based either on genetics, unconscious or conscious identity, and social pressures from external sources.
In the 1950s, Talcott Parsons proposed a model of family roles in which he stated that feminine behavior was summarized by the term, expressive (internal), while male behaviors were considered more instrumental (external). His subsequent list of behaviors associated with females and males is now long since been refuted and seems archaic and quaint. Everything from education, work, housework, and child care, to decision making, were all delineated by this expressive versus instrumental parameters.
One can easily surmise that internal, expressive roles, were code for emotional behavior and external, instrumental roles were code for logical and rational behavior. With women now taking a more active role in work, education, and decision making these archaic role models now seem comical. This is both liberating for women, but also, presents a liberation possibility for men.
With societal norms being more amorphous and porous these days, the roles that men play in a more generic sense are starting to blend, bend and balance out of necessity. Through continued socialization, our behaviors become molded via shifting family, spiritual, and school values that in many cases are changing due to increasing economic factors. We are seeing more trends towards less restrictive male/female models.
Yet, are we still holding on to old masculine modeling in our culture? Are we still adhering to the age-old characteristics of “me, Tarzan, you, Jane” in which male physical dominance, hair-brained risk-taking behavior, suppression of emotional response (and I would add – tender emotion), rational and logical thinking stifling intuition, rewarding aggressive behaviors, and the mindless accumulation of wealth at the expense of the greater common good, continuing to be the norm for our young boys and men? In a word, yes! This is the hegemonic masculinity that we portray in our movies, novels and other modeling forms that we illuminate and elevate as our masculine heroes. No weakness allowed here, grasshopper.
That is a helluva a lot to expect from any one person. And, although, I would never discount the pressures on women, especially single mothers, there is enormous pressure on men to live up to an archaic role model that is literally killing us. The number of males over 50 committing suicide is increasing yearly. We lock men into unrealistic expectations and then give them no outlet to release this pressure. I still believe that a boy called a “sissy” is under incrementally more pressure than a girl labeled a “tomboy”. I’m not saying that it’s always easier for females displaying male characteristics, but the pressure for boys to conform, which is mighty, comes smack down on their little heads to drop their gentle ways and man up. Often this comes from the father, typically the stern disciplinarian in the family, who expects the son to live up to his own manly definitions of what a boy is supposed to be. For girls, I would argue that their tomboyish ways are considered a passing phase and seems to be more tolerated. Hence, the pressures start early for boys and lay with this in our conscious awareness and buried deep in our unconscious.
If we are seeing more androgynous behavior, is this tendency towards moving to the middle (balanced characteristics) within an individual’s personality a genetic trait? Is there a genetic predisposition towards this? Do HSMs have by nature that trait, by virtue of our gentler, more empathetic ways? Is it a bits on, bits off configuration in our genes that make us seem more androgynous?
At the core of our personalities are HSMs a combination of both male and female attributes that allow us to be more empathetic, more nurturing, more emotionally driven? And if so, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Does it make us more vulnerable? Or, can we argue, as Bem said, that we are more flexible and stronger because of it?
Should we as HSMs, see ourselves as the new model for males in a society that is changing for both male and females. The rapid technological changes in our society must be moderated by human adaptations that continue to emphasize the human characteristics that focus on sensitivity and empathy. Culturally we need to show clear sensitivity to our effects on the environment, on society, on perpetuating the population and to emphasize equality.
I would argue that there is a shift in energy going on now. A world too dominated by Yang energy is breaking down to allow the Yin energy to bring in balance. This may seem troublesome for some men, but HSM men will lead this effort and embrace the change. We are perfectly suited to this task, although we need to recognize opportunities when we see them.
Now as I say this, ironically, I am finding that as I get older, I seem to become more anchored in masculine energy. I don’t know if it’s a function of age, resignation or just my comfort level with more balance in my personality, which would allow more of my masculine side to come through. Nevertheless, I do embrace the changes ahead as I imagine the yin/yang fish endlessly chasing each other’s tails, striving for perfect balance, that constant motion, melting into perfect harmony.
P.S. I took the Bem Androgynous Scale test. My score was a 12, which according to Bem is Nearly Masculine. If you think of this as a continuum, then that would sound about right for an HSM male. I do think it shows an evolving balance between Yin and Yang in my own personal growth. Here’s the link if you want to try it: http://www.bemedialiterate.com/uploads/1/7/2/2/1722523/bem_androgyny_test.pdf
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
Are HSPs any better or luckier in love than non-HSPs? Because of our affinity to emotion are we better lovers or more inclined to better, more loving relationships? You would think we’d be all-stars at love – compassionate, caring and nurturing souls that we are.
The research doesn’t seem to support this. According to Dr. Elaine Aron, we have a tendency to be less happy in our romantic relationships. Simply put, we tend to be too idealistic, too caring; too easily focused on the needs of our partners, that we often fail to get our own needs met. In fact, we are typically drawn to people who have problems and these people tend to drag us down into their own insular world, leaving us to abandon our needs in favor of theirs. This deep focusing on pleasing our mates is known as mate sensitivity or finding what pleases our love interests and giving them what they need at all costs.
My own experiences, when it comes to love bear this out. It’s not that my selections were all bad; it’s that I was badly suited to their needs and them to me. Yet, someone in need almost always draws me in. Two failed marriages, several failed recent relationships highlighted that I have not been where I needed to be, to truly have love or to share it.
But what special needs do HSPs have in regard to garnering a fruitful and successful love relationship? For one, it is always best to spend some time determining what your needs are. Take the time and dwell deeply on this.
This goes way beyond the physical and the initial attraction. Take time to get to know the other person. Know who they are at their core. It’s easy to fall prey to the notion that the physical will overcome in some way any of the other components of a person’s personality that are not clicking with you. That never works, no matter how good the physical relationship appears.
It’s also important to set boundaries early on, on how much you give, how much you take. Locate the perimeters of those boundaries in regard to respect, your privacy, your solitary time. Focus on how you communicate – the style, the intensity, the frequency. Note how sensitive they are to your sensitivity, do they accept your peculiarities, your intuitive ways, your skills of anticipation. Do they exploit your willingness to dive in on their problems, do they begin to focus only on their needs, do they minimize you. Stay close to your intuition here. And by all means, get this on the table early on.
You need a relationship that will bolster your self-esteem and build you up. If you find yourself creeping around on eggshells, every cracking egg should be a warning to you that the environment for love is not there, not for you.
And if the “other” is a vampire, an emotion sucker, run like hell to the nearest exit. Note how you argue/disagree with the person, note how quickly it gets emotional or worse yet, hysterical and or violent – either physically or verbally. These should all be big red flags. If the conflict becomes attacking and personal, then get out quickly. You CANNOT fix their underlying issues.
Being a hopeless romantic, an erotic idealist does not make this any easier. The romantic part never prepares you for the practical matters of love. The day to day existence, the support when you are down, loving you between the poetic lines, understanding of your deep needs for space, for privacy, for emotional expression – the grind that a long-term relationship brings.
Then, dealing with the inevitable conflict that living with someone brings. Our penchant for avoidance of conflict, or shying away from blunt speaking of truth, which often brings accompanying accusations of lying when withholding our conflicted truth. To be honest or to hurt, tumbles around in our heads; two options that typically slay us in our bewildering internal map. And conflict brings a disrobing of our idealized self, often cloaked in secrecy – that sometimes reveals dark, deep warts, or exposing tender spots of vulnerability. Sometimes exposing our truth, lying deep within, withheld and festering, comes a dark moment of realization, looking starkly at the reflection of who we are in the real world of romance.
What we are ideally suited for is the romancing, the conscientious lover part, the creative artistic part of love. Yet, we are not practical lovers. Are we just romantic dreamers that once confronted with the real world, melt and fade away or leave, looking for that next impassioned high. Do we love too much for our own good? Are we addicted to the biochemical reaction of love, the brain-altering and heart-shaking love of first taste romance? Do we love the endorphin rush, the dopamine bomb, the oxytocin fix we all crave but rarely find?
Can Everywoman understand us enough to live and cope with our highly sensual natures? Does Everywoman match up to our idealistic constructs of the perfect woman? Do we all push through the existential pain of unrequited love of idealized love that seemingly we seem to all walk through – the deep loneliness that our personality makes for us? Or is it just me?
I wonder if we should just search for HSP lovers, those like us, who share our deep caring ways, our deep inner world or could we not stand to be around someone like us? Would too many HSP characteristics slopping around in the tank, make the whole engine guck up and freeze?
Finding your ideal lover is unique for all of us. Some will find their mates early on, stick with them and mate for life. Maybe for others, it’s the rebound of a second chance. The opportunity to learn and correct past mistakes. And there are those of us who are just seekers of experience. Drunkards for love. We are intrepid souls that enter other’s lives, with good intent (“yes, this time, its right”); we love them like no other and by circumstance or our own making, leave or move on, still yearning, still aching for perfect love.
In the wake of our search are those that we touch in our lives, and because we are not heartless bastards, don’t leave them without something of a glance of what a real caring lover can look like. But because of our betrayal, we stab them unintentionally, to loose us from our bond, so that we, ever seeking, can move on. The life of a gypsy is a lonely one and along the way, the fences all have barbed wire leaving trace scars on our hearts.
No, don’t date Everywoman, HSM men. You will likely fail unless she is a rare gem. You are not Everyman. You are both better and worse than that. Stephen Stills once said in song, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one your with.” And, I would add, until you find the right one. That elusive unicorn of love, that always sits at the edge of the horizon, where the sun is setting, silhouetted and motionless, directing you towards them. You need that special lover. They are rare indeed. You will have to look hard to find them, but with diligence and persistence, you will meet your special one. She may be looking for you now. Have faith.
P.S. To all my lady loves, I thank you. You have taught me both joy and pain, love and disappointment, hurt and ecstasy. I am far from perfect; forgive me my wonderings. You were all my muses. Thank you for the time together.
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
Growing up in the South in the sixties and seventies, there was no such thing as a highly sensitive male moniker. Men who fell into that category were labeled wussies, sissies or presumed to be gay. Needless to say, this created great angst for me as I did not routinely measure up to the gold standard of what boys and/ or men were supposed to be.
I was not much for roughhousing or being loud and rambunctious or breaking things – I was seen as a shy, quiet boy, different and maybe a little bit weird. I liked playing in my room, using my imagination to create a rich fantasy world with my toy soldiers (complete with complex dialogue) or doing solitary tasks like reading the World Book Encyclopedia from cover to cover. Once I traced the British monarchy from Alfred the Great to Queen Elizabeth II, just because I could do it. When friends came over I often feigned headaches, stomach aches and the like to forego going outside, just so I could complete one of my projects. At one point, my friends quit asking if I could go out to play but rather asked if I had a headache or stomach ache today. Clever lads they were.
It did seem to make me a bit of a “weirdling” amongst my friends, which also created some friction between myself and the neighborhood boys. I started then to begin to question about who I was since I was so different from the rest. I avoided fist fights or wrestling (rastlin’) matches or any opportunity to lose my teeth. Although the more I became acclimated to the neighborhood I began to do acts of bravado, like jumping from a huge rock and grabbing a supple young oak sapling to reverse pole vault to the ground. In hindsight, that one was pretty stupid.
Oddly, enough, I was a pretty good athlete. Considering that my father was voted most athletic of his high school class, I must have retained a bit of the good genes for sports. My little neighborhood in suburban Columbia, South Carolina, would become a kind of “Little Rascals” world, in which I could help lead a group of boys into various adventures, with my burgeoning planning and leadership skills.
We marched down to the bottom of the neighborhood near the river, lawnmowers and swing blades in tow and crafted a right nasty little football field out of an abandoned lot. To be sure there were potholes on the fifty-yard line and one side of the field was lined with a muddy creek, in which I found myself being tackled into on more than one occasion. As a sandlot quarterback, my superpower was my ability to avoid being tackled with some pretty smooth jukes and head fakes. It really was a strategy to avoid getting creamed, but it made me popular with the kids.
I never translated this into organized sports, mainly because of the coaches, good ol’ Southern boys, trying their best to be Bear Bryant or Woody Hayes. I sometimes felt they were frustrated drill instructors, who relished the opportunity to berate and yell at anyone who didn’t perform to expectations. In fact, in the South, yelling at young athletes is somewhat of an art form. As a young HSM, I hated that. Vein busting, blood-curdling screaming was not my idea of fun. For many Southern boys, though, it was a rite of passage, an initiation of sorts.
My dad, an unrecognized HSP, would try his best to push me into Little League or Pop Warner football, but I resisted. I always found some excuse not to try out or if I did, find a way to quit before the yelling starting. He always tried to toughen me up with phrases like, “are you a man or a mouse?”, or giving me some rugged nickname like “Rock” or the generic Southern “Bubba.”
At some point, behind prodding of my fellow neighbor friends, I enlisted into the Boy Scouts. I stuck with it until I made First Class scout but found the regimented quasi-military environment, not well suited for me and it was becoming a little uncool for the late sixties. Our troop was a bunch of rabble-rousers anyway, we rarely went hiking or camping and when we did, we often found ways to be a little less like boy scouts and more like marauders. My patrol, the Hawk Patrol, would, after taps, go raiding other patrols campsites and pull tent pegs from their used army surplus pup tents or pillage the food trailer for late night snacks. Yet, none of this Tom Foolery transformed me into more of a prototypical boy. I was an outlier and I knew it.
In spite of my Lost in Space attitude, I did begin to display some leadership skills and helped organize the neighborhood activities. There were the neighborhood football and baseball games, complete with neighborhood cheerleaders (I thought that showed promise), camp outs by the river in a campground we scratched out with our bare hands (rakes, hatchets and all). We even built a miniature golf course crafted out of pilfered wood (from nearby construction sites), which we later were forced to dismantle by one of the neighbor moms who caught us red handed. We were entrepreneurial in a Casa Nostra kind of way.
But none of this prepared me for what was ahead. If being sensitive and being male was not bad enough, adolescence was a time bomb compounding jolt of new reality. Everything changed the rules, the players, our bodies and the tantalizing introduction into adulthood. At that time, I was becoming a man and the rules, regulations and the messages were pretty clear – don’t be sensitive. And, this was the 70’s – a time when long-established rules about gender role models were shifting daily. There was no compass, no roadmap, no Elaine Aron (well, she was there, but hadn’t written her seminal work) to guide a confused and deflated young man.
I had no idea at the time there were other boys/men like me, who didn’t fit neatly into the bucket. My parents, both HSPs, really didn’t know how to raise an HSP male child, although they tried. They had no roadmap, no guide on how to parent me towards success, considering my sensitivity introduced a new element into all of their hopes and dreams for me.
It wasn’t their fault, like most parents they wanted me to fit into the stereotype, with hopes that I would assimilate, prosper, be happy and healthy. I mean, who didn’t want that for their kid? Yet, it would be almost twenty-five years later before Elaine Aron would publish her book on the Highly Sensitive Person and literally put a billion people on the personality trait map. Her extrapolation of Sensory Processing Sensitivity into an approachable oasis for 20% of the human population has validated and vindicated our sensitive ways and established a criterion for researchers to continue to study in scientific and clinical terms that continue to give us a measure of legitimacy and respect.
Now if we could only get our own flag or coat of arms or something to rally around. Of course, I’m kidding.
Well, back to this week’s title. Had I known then, what I know now, I honestly believe I could have and likely would have made better decisions about career, education, life direction or purpose, relationship decisions, partners, business decisions and so much more. I could have made better decisions for me that fit me and would have led to a more productive and happier life. It would have been nice to have a sixteen-year-old me, reading a guidebook about my deepest nature, a roadmap if you will.
No it would not have made my decisions for me, and yes, I would have still made boneheaded decisions, but the idea that my uniqueness, coupled with the HSP aspect of my personality could have benefited from the extra insight and the filters I use to process my experiences. Perhaps, more research is needed to produce such a work, to add and build on the work of Dr. Aron, Dr. Ted Zeff, and researchers such as Dr. Tracy Cooper, but I really believe it would be useful, particularly for HSP males.
Here are some things I think this all in one practical guidebook should contain (please add more in the comments section if you see fit):
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
We are a peculiar bunch, we HSPs. Some might even say we are a bit eccentric. This is especially true for Highly Sensitive Males. We HSMs are a small percentage of a small percentage of the human population and we just don’t meet, for the most part, the stereotypes of the modern western male. But, eccentric?
Dictionary.com defines eccentric as adj.: deviating from the recognized or customary character, practice, etc., irregular erratic, peculiar, odd. Noun: A person, who has an unusual, peculiar or odd personality, set of beliefs or behavior patterns. The word has its root from the (Medieval Latin) eccentricus from the Greek ekkentr(os) which is to be out of the center. It is used in Geometry and Astronomy to describe something that is out of center or not concentric. In other words, something that lies on the outside.
Eccentricity is often tolerated or even revered in the very wealthy or those who are celebrities. Their odd ways and behaviors can become fashionable amongst the masses, and are sometimes talked about as if these eccentrics were geniuses or acceptable outliers. In that regard, eccentricity can be a favorable quality, making one a leader or a trendsetter by walking a different path.
But what makes us HSMs seem eccentric to others? Is it the emotional aspects of our personalities, our broad accepting worldview, or our internal conflicts about our masculinity? What about our aversion to overstimulation, the hermitic deep processing of our experiences, or the masculine/feminine polarity, that many HSM men wrestle with? Are we too moody, too quiet, too sensitive to criticism, too introverted? We can be too empathetic, too observational, and too persnickety to environmental changes, but are we that different? Do we appear to the outside world to be outliers, strange, hard to figure out and hard to live with? In some cases, do people just want to throw up their hands and give up on us, because we are too much work?
But does that make us eccentric? Maybe. Eccentricity, also known as quirkiness, is not necessarily a maladaptive behavior. But, yes, we can be a bit off center from mainstream personality and behaviors. Many HSPs have an intellectual giftedness and curiosity, and a propensity for original and creative thought. That’s what makes many of us talented poets, actors, authors, painters and visionaries. We see things differently via our peculiar and unique perceptive lens. But are we eccentric?
The psychologist, David Meeks states that eccentrics are less prone to mental illness than the general population. Doesn’t that seem odd? Perhaps if you look at some of the other defining characteristics of eccentrics, it makes more sense. Eccentrics have an enduring propensity for non-conformity, they are creative (sound familiar?), have a strongly motivated curiosity (and I would add observational skills), an enduring sense of differentness and embrace this wonderful idealism that drives them to want to make the world a better place to live. In addition, eccentrics are intelligent, outspoken and have a quirky, mischievous sense of humor. With that battery of personality characteristics, it would seem eccentrics are well armed for survival in uncertain times, does it not?
Because we HSPs have an increased awareness and sensitivity to our environment and we do very deep and thoughtful processing, it makes sense that we may seem to the majority of the non-HSPs world to be a bit different, because of our peculiar way of looking at the world. And what about our tendency towards overwhelm, how we can so easily be affected by other’s moods or emotions, then retreat to our voluntary isolation, our emotional caves. We are prone to unrealistic perfectionism at times, which sometimes causes us to live out of sync with our environment and the people around us. So with our enhanced qualities of sensory detail, nuanced expression, and meaning, our emotional awareness which leads us to greater empathy and an expression of creativity, could we not be seen as eccentric?
Think about this: the following people have been associated with the quality of high sensitivity or Sensory Processing Sensitivity – Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Orson Welles, Edgar Allan Poe, Salvador Dali, Picasso, Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, Nicole Kidman, Katherine Hepburn, John Lennon, Elton John, Alanis Morissette, Neil Young, and Dolly Parton. And, my personal favorite, Robin Williams. That’s a pretty quirky bunch, wouldn’t you say?
Eccentric – well, yes, in a lot of ways. But, they turned that eccentricity into beautiful art. They are beloved by millions. And perhaps their sensitivity played heavily into their creative process. For some, it might have been a way to mask and protect themselves, for others it might have been a way to reach out and find common ground with the world. But for all of them, they risked being called eccentric and to rise above criticism to be themselves.
So, if we HSPs are that quirky, strange or weird, then what do we do about it? Is some eccentricity really good for HSPs? I mean, is eccentricity just really being different? But, wait, aren’t we different? Don’t we already admit that? I would say rather, how do we embrace our eccentricity? Can we stop worrying about what others think about us? Should we be promoting and socializing our uniqueness? And as people learn more about our nature, our personality our SPS secret, will they better understand us, and with that begin to normalize us?
Here are some things to think about concerning our “eccentricity”:
A blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the worldview of a High Sensing Male
This blog is and has been one highly sensitive man’s opinion, perspective, and worldview filled with my own speculation, conjecture, and wonder, with evidence-based studies sprinkled in to lend some credence to my opinion.
It is not intended to be a one-stop source of information on sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) (see the byline). It is filled with questions that have not been answered by mainstream scientific study or compiled by knowledgeable sources in handy guideline books written for Highly Sensitive People (HSP).
The point of the blog is to share information and opinion about experiencing life through the lens of SPS; the filter that all HSP’s share as common ground. In that, I believe we find common experiences that many of us share.
That is not to deny individual differences or to insinuate that HSPs are all alike. That would be foolish. Yet, I believe that some generalization is needed when exploring new ideas and concepts, especially when you consider the newness of the SPS concept. Although there has been some great research done on the neurological side of SPS, I think there is much more research needed to be done.
Human behavior is one of the most difficult things to predict. Often observable generalizations are used as hypothetical constructs for studies in Psychology. Nevertheless, even with rigorous American Psychology Association guidelines, psychological studies based on subjective criteria are sometimes woefully unable to predict with precision the reality of human behavior. This is often due to inadequate sample size, improper study design or the inability to produce repeatable results. When I was an undergrad in Psychology, I often heard that Psychology is not Chemistry or Physics; it’s considered a soft science at best. And believe me, at the time, those were fighting words to me. That makes research in Psychology sometimes a little squishy.
Now, I’m not anti-science, or for that matter anti-Psychology as a science, but I do feel sometimes folks in those areas get a little full of themselves. As if they are the only source of information and that the general laity cannot learn from their own experiences or the experiences of others.
Yes, I believe in rigorous study, especially in the field of human behavior, but I also know the frailties of science when it comes to the study of human beings. Yet, I think from experience we learn and yes we can conjecture and generalize on that experience and sometimes that can be relatable to others. This can be a source of inspiration and comfort to those that may be confused about what we don’t know about things we don’t know. A place where perhaps science has not yet trod. And one can dream, maybe a tantalizing lead for further research.
I am in awe of what Dr. Elaine Aron has done with her books and her research. She has done a mighty good for many of us, who had no idea why we were so sensitive, so different than others. It has in many ways freed HSPs from self-condemnation and being misunderstood because of their sensitive ways. I know for me, this has been liberation at its finest. And there are many more out there like me. Look at the number of blogs, articles, and publications now versus twenty years ago. It is legion. People are writing about SPS and taking many, many viewpoints. Many of these folks are not mainline scientists or therapists, just people trying to announce their arrival as HSPs and looking in true HSP form to help others understand and accept this wonderful trait. This will not go back in a box.
Two highly respected guardians of the HSP/SPS community have recently condemned the expression of these independent-minded outlets on social media as being too generalized, or unqualified as if there was some conspiratorial agenda of unknown origin. I find this sad, as I do respect their research and work.
This reminds me of a dilemma that the founder of EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique, aka Tapping), Gary Craig, was experiencing a few years back. EFT was his simplification of other tapping techniques that he had learned for his own edification. His simplification of the process made tapping accessible to many people who would otherwise have not been able to use this technique. And, he gave it away for free to whoever wanted to use it. It began to catch fire and spread worldwide. It was used by therapists of all stripes, counselors and just regular folk.
With its spread, people began experimenting with it and started developing techniques of their own, still using the terms EFT. There were people marketing the tool, starting conferences and pretty much branching this out in a million directions. Craig became very concerned that the pristine roots of the technique were being bastardized, and he made some vain efforts to reel it back in. To no avail. It highlights a point about something that rings true. Once people are awakened to something new, it begins to take on a new life. He may have developed the technique, but he no longer owned it. It belonged to the users and practitioners.
I think it’s sad that a community that is supposed to be made of highly empathetic individuals would try and quash a groundswell of individuals offering their opinion’s and advice on practical life matters. To be clear, this is not mental health counseling. It is collective wisdom, garnered from hard life experience. The same that has been occurring since time immemorial. The wisdom of the tribe.
I’ve been here for 63 years and have been an HSP my whole life. I come from a long line of HSPs, and I know full well the impacts on life when filtered through the lens of SPS. Yes, we are all unique individuals, but if the assertion that four characteristics (defined thus far by studies) cast a broad enough net to capture one billion individuals, then aren’t we making some generalizations about the personality characteristics of HSPs?
HSP life experiences, although highly unique and individualistic can, I think, be clustered to some extent due to our common processing techniques. Individual differences aside, the inputs may be unique and different, but the lens that the experience passes through is common, is it not? Would it not stand to reason that there would be a common thread on how that input is encoded, remembered and experienced? I see no harm in discussing personal experiences and offering suggestions to others on ways to cope with uncertain feelings.
It has never been the intention of this blog to offer clinical assistance or counsel and it never will be.
In addition, I am of the firm belief that most HSPs are highly intelligent and intuitive people that can decipher fact from fiction, speculation from science and understand when something is offered as opinion or conjecture. The intuitive nature of most HSPs will allow most to identify with concepts and ideas that ring true for them and to jettison those that don’t resonate.
Finally, I try to frame the HSP experience, mine and others, within a challenging and uncertain world. To reiterate what Dr. Aron has suggested numerous times in her writing that we (HSPs) are a natural survival mechanism for our species (and in fact, this is true throughout many animal populations). Perhaps, considering the condition of our planet, we should damn well be preparing ourselves to invoke that purpose soon. If that is considered to be an agenda, then so be it. Color me guilty.
Next week, back to blogging.
Highly Sensitive people are the least intimidating people that I know. Our highly empathetic natures just make us the last person in a crowd to stir up any trouble or to be menacing. Perhaps, that is because we tend to live a lot of our lives in the limbic portion of our brains. What’s that? Paul Maclean, an American neuroscientist, developed an evolutionary-based model of the human brain a number of years back. This structure he called the Triune brain, comprised of three successive layers of evolutionary development; three brains layered basically one on top of the other.
At the base of this system is the reptilian brain. The reptilian brain represents the most basic functioning as is characterized by actions that are focused on survival, the autonomic nervous system, muscle control and actions needed to keep the individual alive and functioning in a harsh world. Behaviors associated with the reptilian brain are aggression, territoriality, dominance, and I would add a kind of selfish, me-first attitude towards the outer world. The physical component of the reptilian brain is the basal ganglia. This brain level represents our basest instincts, and I think the image of a reptile is a perfect metaphor for this brain level.
Next up in the structure is the limbic brain or paleomammalian brain. This level of the brain is responsible for emotion, nurturing behaviors, social attributes most often associated with the pack mentality of mammals. Various physical parts correspond with this area of the brain and are regulators of emotion – the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus and the cingulate cortex. These areas are also influencers of the endocrine system and do affect the autonomic nervous system.
The final layer of the brain structure is the neocortex. This is the thinking brain, most pronounced in humans. The neocortex focuses on higher order functioning – rational thought, problem-solving, planning, abstraction and the integration of external stimulus. The three brain model is no longer supported entirely by current research and understanding of brain functioning, but I think the idea serves as an ideal metaphor for how humans can dwell in one area or the other within this model and behaviors tend to bear this out. Reptilian is a good metaphor for base human behavior, limbic sheds light on our more caring, nurturing and familial characteristics and the neocortex represents the detached, dispassionate rational, logical part of the human brain, kind of like man as machine/computer.
HSPs, as we have noted before, have a tendency to have an overly active amygdalae, which leads us to be well more emotional. It seems that we are more driven by the mammalian portion of our brains. Sensitive, cautious, nurturing types that are looking out for the tribe, being more pluralistic than singular. Contrast that with the reptilian directive, primitive and selfish that is about the survival of the individual. We have a more active nervous system, which is a key to our empathetic nature, and a higher order concern for others, exhibiting more of the mammalian herd protection. In addition, HSPs may have more mirror neurons or more developed mirror neuron functioning, which allows us to “mirror sense” the actions of others and contributes to our high empathy levels.
Which brings us to the focus of this week’s blog. Does the HSP limbic nature, inhibit our ability to succeed or excel in today’s world, a world dominated by the reptilian pursuit of greed, power, and corruption. In our current culture, it would seem so. Perhaps, it has been this way for a long time. I mean, consider the requirements necessary for a hunter-gatherer culture to survive. The need to cooperate, the need to look out for one another, the need to share and nurture the clan is paramount in survival. And that’s how we humans rolled until around ten thousand years ago. Somewhere around ten thousand years ago, we began to settle down and become more agrarian. We farmed the land, raised livestock for food and most importantly shifted from a pay as you go society to a society focused on accumulation and wealth.
It seems we moved backward, back into the reptilian brain of our long-ago reptile ancestors to focus on the individual pursuit of wealth. Settled, we became accustomed to regular supplies of food, a steady and persistent place of residence and the ability to look beyond our own stash and start coveting the property, land, etc. of our neighbors. Soon enough, came kings and lords, and landowners and wars; wars to protect the vested interests of the individual over the collective group. We moved away from our mammalian worldview, to the view of the singular reptilian. And in those ten thousand years since, we are not progressing at all. Our society today seems to wallow in our “reptilianess”, a worldview that prizes recoiled reaction over thoughtful consideration. Marked by selfish and self-serving interests.
But what of us HSPs? Are we the passive little meerkats of the human species? Dr. Elaine Aron characterizes the HSP/Non-HSP dichotomy in a more positive light. She calls the HSP model of behavior more akin to shy versus bold or proactive versus reactive. We are more like the doves than the hawks. Each has a purpose and each survives based on different strategies. And, I think passivity is the wrong word when describing the HSP strategy. Impulsive action over careful planning, each may have their place in survival, but at some point, they can and should be complimentary. Hawks and doves, they both survive, using different tactics and they do coexist.
As for Highly Sensitive Males, does all of this make us more conflicted than most men? The typical scenarios of actions versus thoughtfulness, aggressive versus assertive, reptilian versus mammalian, blind selfish ambition versus cooperative team player, highlight some of the conflicts in terms of societal expectations for men. The normative and prized behavior for males has largely been to walk with the dinosaurs. The portrait for masculinity has been to kick ass and get yours while you can because the next guy is stalking you for your stuff. It in many ways has been the age-old battle for determining what a man is – reptilian (male energy) versus mammalian (female energy). “Pick yer team.” No blending the two, please.
Are HSMs the new role model for a new evolving male? I mean, we all share the neocortex, higher order thinking brain with reptilian leaning folks as well as other mammalian biased people, which does temper both dispositions. The key differentiator is empathy. HSMs are generally more empathetic than their reptilian counterparts. We may also have a few other advantages. We can learn to moderate our amygdalas with the use of our higher order thinking. And I think this can help us stay calm under fire.
That said, we do have a quicker responding nervous system, which with our amplified sensing systems and our highly active nervous system, helps us to pick environmental cues faster than most non-HSPs. Yet, we are not always the first to act. The mental aspect is there, but the physical response may be lagging. Most HSMs have a tendency towards ectomorphic body type characteristics - slim, less muscular, more cerebral, shy and introverted, you get the picture. That makes us less prone to reptilian (endomorph) physical reaction, which is driven by a more physical presence. We tend towards being more mental/spiritual creatures and this may be seen by reptilian focused folks as weak and passive or slow to act.
Nevertheless, we HSMs have keen awareness, long memory and the power of reflective thinking. We may not be the warrior kings of the past, but rather priestly advisors or thoughtful kings, rare but, needed now more than ever. We need to question our definition of power and not limit ideas of what constitutes real strength. Maria Hill, a therapist specializing in HSP counseling, has noted some excellent dichotomies of what strength and power mean in today’s culture and how they are perceived. A quick summary of her thoughts filtered through HSP eyes, considering new definitions: 1) strength versus power, 2) action versus contemplation, 3) logic versus intuition, 4) brawn versus compassion, and I would add, 5) singular versus plural.
Could HSM’s benefit from being more reptilian? Do we need to be more assertive, gaining our confidence by balancing our fears and stepping out to defend our worldview without backing down? In doing so, can we outwit our reptilian counterparts? If so, can we learn then to absorb the pain of conflict, if necessary, bodily, mentally and egotistically? I think the key is allowing ourselves to more assertive, without being aggressive. To be in the physical more, and to have a more physical presence. To lead by example, showing empathy, compassion, and decisiveness. And most importantly, to not suppress our sensitivity. Our magic power is that almost undefinable quality of being aware of the world, from many perspectives, and allowing our excellent minds to discern the right path of action with confidence and assurance of the benevolence of our decisions.
Now more than ever we are on a mission. We cannot evolve spiritually in a vacuum without awareness. Our role as HSPs is to seek and share wisdom and compassion when our world needs it the most. We are in some ways spiritual warriors battling for the soul of humanity, and I am not being melodramatic here. To be sure, some part of reptilian behavior is essential for survival. It would behoove us to adopt a more assertive stance, wielding the best of the two lower layers of our brains, tempered by our critical, rational minds. Look at our planet – war, climate change, inequality on a massive scale, and abject greed unchecked. The reptilian credo of me, mine and cutthroat survival -- needs an antidote now.
Thoughts to ponder:
Following on a recent post on taking criticism, this week we focus on those times when criticism leads to arguments and how HSPs often struggle with conflict. How is that generally, bright, intelligent, deep thinking people, seem to wilt in the heat of a contentious argument. It’s as if a bit gets flipped in our brains and we shut down unable to keep up with the fast pace of heated argumentative situations. I have often wondered about that in myself. It's as if I lose processing power to fight back or at least contend with the high emotion of the situation. The minute the temperature heats up, my force fields go up and my brain starts to scramble. Yet, my ego won’t let me stay quiet, even if my arguments are a scrabble board of mixed thoughts and my parries fall into almost nonsensical logic.
I have never quite understood what happens to deflate my ability to counterpoint, especially against clever people who seem to thrive in these types of situations. What am I afraid of? Loss of face? Shaming? Am I afraid of losing favor with the person I’m arguing with? Does the overwhelm caused by unbridled defensiveness, a welling up of emotion, and my perfectionism kick in together to create a stew of mush, that causes me to lose control of my thoughts and move from single threading to a kaleidoscope of mixed emotion and thought too incoherent to vocalize? Does my thoughtful manner, and in this case I mean pensive, lead to a type of “ I’m right no matter what,” because I thought a lot about this, therefore I must be right.
Last week I talked about the external testing of our ideas and thoughts, not so much to gain consensus but to test our theories in the real world. Part of that is to hear and debate counterpoints in our line of thinking. But if testing leads to pushback on our ideas, ideas that are a representation of who we are, then does this ultimately lead to avoidance behavior, i.e., for arguing our point, because we are not willing to accept that maybe we are wrong in our thinking. And this shatters an internal mythos about ourselves. If so, I cannot see this avoidance behavior as being a realistic strategy for HSPs in testing our ideas, much less for anyone else.
The overwhelm, nevertheless, is very real. Overwhelm comes from within, especially for HSPs. In the heat of an argument, stressors arise that lead our minds, to recognize that in arguing with someone else, we have a situation with an unpredictable outcome. A very contentious argument is also full of raw emotion. This kindling lit with the emotion of the moment sets off a brush fire in our neural circuitry that can quickly short-circuit our minds.
Moving quickly into defensive mode, the flight or fight syndrome kicks in. Arguing for us is a runaway emotional trap. We are caught in a battle between our flee or fight instincts, mostly focused on self-preservation, and therefore we quickly shut down our brain’s effectiveness in following rational intellectual capacity which is there but cut off. The sting of defeat in an argument is deeply felt. The human brain processes emotional pain in the same way it processes physical pain. The same areas light up in the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex with physical and emotional pain, in an apparent evolutionary efficiency.
I often wonder if the amygdala in HSPs is overactive. The Deep Layer Superior Colliculus (DLSC) area of the brain works in conjunction with the amygdala to regulate emotional response in threatening situations. HSPs response to stress situations seems to predispose us to always be on high alert, based on our unique genetics and our life experiences. This constant flashing of alerts for sometimes exaggerated situations, like arguing, may, in fact, affect our hippocampus and other key areas of the brain in negative ways. This is prominent in situations where HSPs or for that matter anyone who has lived through traumatic life experiences much of which is harbored in the port of our subconscious mind.
The intensity of feeling is no doubt greater in HSPs compounding this problem. Greater feelings of anxiety in response to stress may lead to malfunction of the brain, especially in stressful argumentative situations. The repressed anger ensuing a stinging defeat may lead to increased muscular tension in the body, as we “hold within” our feelings of not being able to make ourselves heard in an argument, and can lead to later side effects within the body.
More importantly, I think this can lead HSPs towards a lifetime of argument avoidance, especially those that are conflictual and highly charged emotionally. This may lead to less expression of opinion in public forums, standing up for oneself in political or philosophical debates, or in work environment discussions. Some friends and family may even feel that we are hiding something from them and can construe negative imaginings about who we really are. Not a good situation.
The Thomas-Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument defines several types of modes or styles of dealing with conflict. They range from the most aggressive to more avoidant styles, each style with a marker for assertiveness and cooperativeness. The most assertive style, competing is assertive and non-collaborative. The collaborating style is assertive, but as the name implies collaborative. Avoiding style is both non-assertive and non-collaborative. The accommodating style is non- assertive but collaborating and finally, the compromising style is right in the middle on both assertive and collaborating. It would seem that most HSPs would fall in the avoiding, accommodating or compromising style of handling conflict. With the worst case being the avoidant strategy and perhaps, the most successful being the compromising strategy or with some practice and skill, the collaborating style.
In another angle on effects of personality and arguing skills, the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, which is based on Carl Jung’s personality types, can be extrapolated on key personality functions to indicate tendencies during arguments. For example, Thinkers (T)– would no doubt focus on the facts and tangible evidence, whereas, Feelers (F)– would focus on the interpersonal dynamics of the people involved in the argument. People who are Judgers (J) – might focus on temporal issues, how the now impacts the future, where conversely, Perceivers (P) – would focus on inputs and if the conflict is being addressed. Most HSPs tend to be NFs (intuitive feelers), so according to this, sensitive folks would be more concerned with the emotional dynamics of the argument and the impacts caused to relationships, perhaps empathizing with our opponent and deferring to keep the peace.
This, in turn, may lead to internal conflict, between defending self and our position versus feeling empathy towards the person we are arguing with. The internalized stress and conflict may be a leading reason our brains shut down, scrambled by conflicting directives. How then do we slow our brains down, single thread our thoughts and think lucidly during an argument?
Interestingly, as may be noted, that the effects of alcohol and some drugs may seem to achieve this objective. These external agents do affect the inhibition systems within the brain, which, of course, affects behavior. Some of the main attributes of usage are: 1) anxiety suppression, 2) disinhibition, 3)ego inflation, 4)thought deceleration, and 5) emotional suppression. In my own experience, I have noticed this to be true. However, there is a tipping point, where the effects are counterproductive and lead to many more issues that are not productive. Let me say, that in no way am I advocating the use of these substances to enhance the ability to handle conflict. It simply illustrates that the capacity to regulate emotional throughput can be done, even if we are using an external agent.
Far better approaches are handled without introducing external chemistry. This gets back to emotional regulation, which can and should be done internally. Here are some strategies for dealing with arguments:
It occurs to me that Highly Sensitive People tend to live a mostly trusting life. I think we generally look for the good in others, are optimistic about outcomes, maybe to a fault, and generally foster a rich internal life that supports this belief. The general characteristics of HSPs as outlined by Dr. Elaine Aron’s are 1) a depth of processing input data, 2) tendency towards over-stimulation, 3) emotional responsiveness and empathetic response, and 4) a certain sensitivity to subtleties. So, how do these characteristics foster a trusting and maybe borderline naïve outlook on life?
It has been noted by Jacquelyn Strickland that most HSPs fall into the NF (intuitive feeling) category on the Myers Briggs personality inventory. NF’s tend to be highly idealistic visionaries, who focus on big-picture ideation and do not typically get down in the weeds with detail and minutiae. Ironic that our depth of processing is typically emotionally based versus a more objective analytical processing of information that many more analytical personalities take. We like the feeling of ideas as opposed to the critical analysis of ideas. This is by no means saying that HSPs are not analytical or have the capacity for critical thinking. However, I do believe we prefer the feel of ideas and I would add the playing with these ideas in our minds.
Now if you combine the general characteristics of HSPs with the personality tendencies of HSP NFs, what I think you get is a rich inner world in which we tend to play with ideas and judge their worthiness based upon our feelings or emotional reactions. Processing deeply for us really means a deep rumination of thought and emotion towards an external stimulus. We deep dive with our feelings carrying thoughts and ideas with us on our rich inner journeys.
Part of the problem with this strategy is that it often leads to overstimulation, both from external and internal sources, as we turn the idea over and over in our heads. Because we live so much in our emotions, based on what I think is our need to experience emotional flow, our response is typically emotional, impulsive and not always rooted in rational thought or grounded in critical analysis.
It has been noted in studies, that HSPs tend to respond mostly in emotional centers in the brain when presented with positive or negative images. Almost as if we filter our world through our emotions, i.e., how does it feel? This could explain why the same study suggested that HSPs exhibit differential susceptibility, which really means we do better in positive (read emotions) versus negative environments. This is, of course, would impact our internal world processing.
HSPs may also show a stronger optimism bias, which is a somewhat naïve view that bad things won’t happen to us. Without external confirmation of our theories about life, we may find that we stoke up our psychological immune systems, with those beliefs that cushion the blow of negativity in our lives and give emotional respite towards negative events. This sometimes prevents us from learning our life lessons through objective analysis, albeit temporarily protecting us from the blow. In addition, this emotional optimism may give us a sense of control, when events in our lives seem uncontrollable.
Does this make us overestimate the reality of our lives or get overly optimistic about our careers, plans, relationships, projects, and ideas when faced with pushback in the real world? Do we need to learn to be more critical or rational in our thinking? Should we suppress our intuition or feelings, when dealing with the outside world in making key decisions? Is our rich inner world composed of emotional fantasies untamed and wild and driving us to poor decision making? It certainly is something to consider.
Perhaps, we should consider how we might become more critical in our thinking. I worked for many years in corporate America in the information technology area of a large bank. Critical thinking was essential to success in this field and I did have to learn to become more analytical, not only as a technical resource but as a manager as well. Problem-solving requires a certain calm state in the brain, laying the facts all around you and dissecting and discerning the objective pieces before you. I learned I was quite good at it. Yet, throughout, I knew that my strength was in the big picture overview and not in the details. It was I thought a good compromise, considering how my brain works naturally. Somehow, I was able to make it work.
But do all HSPs need to be more critical in our decisions and interactions, or more skeptical or even cynical? At the extreme end of the spectrum, cynical thinking is rooted in fear. It seems more in more in our world, critical or skeptical thinking has been overrun with cynicism. In business and in science, I sense a more cynical view from these areas on outlier or new ideas as if to keep the herd in check. Cynicism is hard and vindictive; it is not open-minded and displays a lack of the characteristics that HSPs own. It is the damaged outer portal of someone who has been burned and has full shields up for protection. Not something HSPs should aspire to.
Can we, should we learn to be more critical? The premise of this blog piece was to look at the way HSPs process internally and the effects of our rich inner life-- sometimes fantastic, sometimes fanciful. Are we more susceptible to others taking advantage of us, for our trusting, nurturing nature? And do we live too much in our inner worlds? This is especially targeted at the Introvert HSPs, which make up seventy percent of our base. And in addition, to narrow the field a bit more adding the introverted HSPs that are NF on the Myers Briggs.
Because NF’s focus on abstractions in speech including using rich metaphors, promote diplomacy and harmony, foster altruism, believe in optimism fueled by positivity, trust intuition, are romantic in thought and deed, and focus on what could be, rather than what is, we tend to be easy targets for those that would prey on many of these characteristics. Yes, it would seem we are a lot of Don Quixote’s chasing windmills. The idea that we are prone to mysticism continues to put us out in the realm of outliers. Our rich inner life does provide us with a wealth of new ideas, mostly untested, still soft, not hardened by the real world, but still new ways to think.
Our enthusiasm for these new ideas can be easily crushed by cynical outside observers, who intent on keeping a mythological status quo, press us back into the herd. These are folks we need to be wary of and avoid. In the last blog, I spoke of receiving criticism and fostering a more accepting nature towards constructive criticism when given by those that indeed wish to help us.
To realize that our ideas that emerge from this font of creativity within us are like newly released magma, fluid and still malleable. With the help of those that we cultivate around us to give us that external testing and feedback, we can then shape the ideas into practical and useful and insightful ideas that have real value. Yes, we can develop our own critical faculties, as many of us have, but releasing some of our internal world to the external world for evaluation, confirmation, and agreement, to me, is a good thing.
Now, I realize that not all HSPs are lumped into the same bucket. We are all unique; we are able to navigate the world in our own ways. Many people write that HSPs are too broad of a group to lump into categories, and perhaps there is truth there. However, I still feel that too many people out there have identified and are continuing to identify with like characteristics attributed to the highly sensitive person. The discovery continues, the more we share with each other our thoughts, our feelings, and our ideas the more we all grow.
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.