Passive-aggressive is a label often meted out by non-experts to cubby hole people who may be moody or not willing to talk straight talk, people who are quiet and not assertive or even as a way to manipulate someone else by placing a derogatory label on them. As an HSM, I have been called passive aggressive by those who think my thoughtful and deliberate approach on things is manipulative. Not so.
What is passive aggressive behavior anyway? The classical definitions describe this behavior as a passive group of manipulative behaviors used to provide resistance to another or others, mired in moodiness, sarcasm, stubbornness, learned helplessness, blaming, and backhanded compliments or in some way to mask hidden anger. The gist of this seems to be about an inability to process anger in a straight forward and positive, assertive way. Repressed anger, lack of assertiveness. Sound familiar, HSMs?
Passive aggressive behavior is learned at home. Children made to feel that anger is something not to be expressed, find ways to allow the inner turmoil to seep out and passive aggressive behavior is one way to do that. It also occurs in families where any honest, straight forward emotional display is discouraged, and again, the child learns coping strategies, that help relieve the internal pressure cooker.
Passive aggressive behavior in extreme is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSMxx) as a disorder, needing therapeutic treatment. In its lesser forms, passive aggressive behavior is more of a failed coping strategy that is more of a distorted approach to getting your point across. It’s a childish behavior, it’s manipulative and it’s catty.
The root of passive aggressive behavior is most often stemmed from anger or disappointment, or hurt feelings. The motive for passive aggressive behavior is a subtle type of revenge that is manipulative but not aggressive.
Not surprisingly, men and women process anger differently. Men are taught to be more visual, external and aggressive, while woman are taught to suppress their anger and to vent it in more subtle and diffused ways. You would think that the perfect candidates for passive aggressive behavior would be women. But this does not seem to be the case. Because women verbalize more than men about their emotions, they can, in fact, find suitable outlets of expression that don’t lead to aggressive behavior. Conversely, men aren’t always allowed to express aggressive anger, repress the feelings and find passive aggressiveness as way to cope with the anger.
But what about HSMs? Because we tend to be less assertive and certainly less aggressive, would this make us candidates for passive aggressive behavior? On the surface that would seem logical, but thinking about one of the hallmarks of HSPs, empathy, it would seem less likely that this behavior would be likely to be implemented.
Empathy is a powerful force in its own right. Manipulation of another stems largely from a lack of empathy towards the other. Having the sensitivity to react to our reactions, makes us more likely to consider the outcomes before implementation and our empathetic and sensitive nature makes it unlikely that we would feel good about this strategy.
Now with that said, it is not impossible to imagine an HSP using passive aggressive tactics in desperation, but as a long range strategy, it just doesn’t feel right. It does require some disconnection from the “what I say” and “what I do” of the behavior to enact passive aggressively. And this would be the point where HSMs would struggle.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the HSM personality that might lead others to label HSPs as passive aggressive. Because HSMs tend to be more connected to their emotional state and are aware of the emotions of those around them, do we tend to get more defensive when emotions run hot? The answer is a resounding yes. We are very sensitive to criticism and as a result this often leads to people pleasing behaviors, some of which are inauthentic. This becomes a point of incongruity for our internal compass.
This can be become a disconnect in our communication with others, as we pursue an often idealistic goal of continual peace and harmony with the world. As Dr. Elaine Aron states, “…(HSPs) are naturally more influenced by feedback, and it may even be why we are more emotional generally.” We take that feedback to heart, process it, and at some point take action. The time lag may appear to others to be a form of passive aggressive behavior (shutdown reaction, quiet, not saying what we feel, etc.)
We hurt more easily, too. HSPs are not angels. We do have a dark side as well. As men, we still have a drive to act aggressively, even if it is not our nature. Can we formulate strategies to react less aggressively, but still showing passivity and milder aggressiveness? Perhaps, we do show signs of hypercritical evaluation, self flagellation, indecisiveness, irritability, moodiness, need for solitude, naivete, and eccentricity, but taken as a whole is this passive aggressive? I can see where the non-HSP world could see that. But its not, and the key is the motive. Manipulation and revenge are the key motives of passive aggressive behavior and are not major drivers for HSPs.
In fact, Dr. Aron points out, “Generally, the research does not point out or show increased activation in HSPs in areas of the brain related to ‘primitive emotion’ …Rather than ‘getting all stirred up’ more than others, we tend to process emotional experiences more in ‘higher’ parts of the brain, the ones designed precisely for emotional regulation.”
Anger a swift moving emotion, helps us to set boundaries and protect our rights. For HSPs, this highly charged emotion can leave us in a processing overload. Our reaction are not often swift enough, and hence boundaries can be lost. This is upsetting even for HSPs and can lead to coping strategies that may not be best for our personality type. Sometimes, the non-HSP world see this is passive aggressive without truly understanding what that term means.
Slow to anger does not mean the anger is not present. Because we HSMs tend to suppress some of the aggressiveness of anger, we still have to process our reaction to anger. At some point, it will come out. Assertiveness training is helpful and the use of assertiveness strategies is in alignment with HSP values. Most of us never get this type of education. Unfortunate. I know for myself at some point a eruption point occurs and like a volcano the anger explodes unexpectedly. Bad strategy, and for that we get bad labeling.
So what can we do? If you show passive aggressive tendencies or what the non-HSP world describes as such, here’s some ways to deal with that:
Thanks for dropping by, until next week…
Western culture seems to disdain sensitivity in men. Our prevailing concept of manliness is of rugged individualism, with little or no outward display of emotion. Well, perhaps, anger is revered, as in righteous indignation, but any so called “soft emotions” are eschewed by our culture.
Men are seen as week if tears appear in public or a shimmering sunset leaves a man speechless. Any signs of tenderness or any show of depth of emotion often relegated to females is seen as unmasculine. As Dr. Tracy Cooper, psychologist and HSM says,” …American culture is steeped in a masculinity that glorifies anger, aggressive behavior, domination over women, and winning at all costs.”
I take exception to this notion that sensitivity is a weakness. In fact, I would argue that is a strength that is much needed right now in men. For just a moment, let’s throw out the words high sensitivity for men and replace it with high sensing or acute sensory perception. Both of these terms more accurately reflect what is really going on with highly sensitive people. In fact, it is officially known as sensory processing sensitivity.
Let’s imagine what is going on with HSMs on an everyday basis. Imagine if you will, a filter that sits somewhere within the brain that is allowing sensory input to reach the unconscious mind. For non-HSPs, this filter is set at a lower threshold than HSPs. It allows less data to pass through into the brain from the senses which naturally affects the parts of the brain that control emotion, fears, and behaviors. The filter trips and lets a steady but moderate about of sensory info to pass through.
In HSPs, our filter has a higher threshold and more data is allowed to pass through to the brain. Meaning more data to affect emotions and feelings and still requiring the extra associated processing needs taken to process the data. What this means is that when there is a lower filter threshold (non-HSP), there is lower sensory registration, conversely, a higher filter threshold (HSP) means higher sensory registration. In its simplest form, HSPs process more sensory information than non-HSPs. And, this is not a choice, it just happens. So stop it with the, “you need to toughen up”, or “you’re too sensitive.”
Because of this, data has to be processed and the task of doing this can be overwhelming at times. Remember this data is affecting moods, behaviors, and thoughts. These emotions may be triggered from deep within the brain and can often lead to what most non-HSPs see as moodiness in HSPs. For men, the last thing we like to be classified as is – drama queens. So, instead we bury emotions deep within ourselves, mask our feelings, and cover up our true nature. A lot gets killed in the process --feelings, intuition, and creativity and disconnection with our feelings.
Furthermore, let’s not confuse emotional hypersensitivity with highly sensing capability. They sometimes look alike but are not. High sensitivity is not a disorder. And having an HSP personality does not necessarily mean you are emotionally fragile and or dysfunctional. We do need to be aware as HSPs that we do have a highly active amygdala, a lower perceptual threshold and the tendency towards deep processing, which can condition us to be more reactive than active. It’s not just stimulus – response with us, it’s more like stimulus – rumination – response. And of course, that comes across as very un-John Waynish, in a culture that emphasizes “doing” over “just being or thinking.”
But what do all these abilities (remember, I see this as an asset) give us highly sensing men? Do these traits give us some advantages? Let’s look at a few; see if you can relate:
Because of these traits, HSPs make great advisors and counselors, outstanding long range strategists, purveyors of alternate viewpoints, champions of moral justice, the balm to aggressiveness, bastions of harmony and fluidity and vessels of meaningfulness.
With all of this said, does our culture value these traits? In short, yes and no. The traits that lead to a monetary gain will be valued most; the others will get us a pat on the head and a doleful grin but not a bonus. However, I am hopeful that society can and will change. We are in the midst of the last of what I hope is unbridled, unrestricted capitalism, an untamed romp on the dark side. I believe that we are now standing just beyond the threshold to more sane times. HSMs are going to be instrumental in the transition.
Yes, I know you fellow HSMs have been dealing with negative feedback for the entirety of your life. You’ve repressed your true nature, you’ve played the game, you’ve bucked up, strapped on, and “acted like a man”. Now it’s time to let go of all of that repressive crap. Here are some ideas on how to do that. Let’s run through the list, shall we?
Thanks for dropping by, until next week…
In a recent blog article, I wrote that I was relocating to Texas. Well, that was about two months ago and because I shut down my business in Oregon I now find myself looking for work again at age 61. I have worked for years in Information Technology for a large financial institution and took an early retirement a few years back to pursue my small business idea. Now with a gap of five years or so, I need to get back to the corporate workforce to serve as an anchor job, while I’m here in Texas or until I can reestablish my business.
Now, to be honest, I never liked working in corporate America and never thought that I’d ever have to go back to find employment there. But, life has its interesting way of steering you round and round, sometimes in circular fashion. Now that I am back pursuing a regular job again, I have given a lot of thought to what kind of job or job environment would best suit me as a highly sensitive man. And more broadly, what kind of environment would be best for HSPs, regardless of the industry?
Lately, I’ve been seeing more and more articles published about the trend towards looking for more empathetic and emotionally intelligent workers. There seems to be some movement in favor of the soft skills that HSPs tend to naturally have and are most comfortable using at work and home. This all tends to make for interesting TED talks, but where exactly are these type of jobs? Having worked an entire career in Information Technology, a competitive, high stress and almost soulless job, it seems almost impossible to find an IT firm that would even consider these newly valued traits, the qualities which HSPs bring to the table.
As an IT manager, I know I brought a penchant for clear communication, empathy for staff, emphasis on esprit de corps, a genuine interest in them as people, and a recognition that we all rise or fall together. I was well liked by my teams and respected by other managers within the organization. Like most HSPs, I valued deeper meaning in the job, more harmony, and cohesiveness within the team and a desire to get the job done right, even if it meant doing it more deliberately.
I enjoyed coaching my teams and enjoyed watching them grow and develop as the years went by. These are traits that HSPs bring to management. I was most comfortable when my style was not constantly challenged and undue pressure was placed on my teams and myself that I thought was unreasonable. I was fortunate for many years to be reporting to a manager, who valued my contributions and the management style I employed.
As deep thinkers and emotionally connected individuals do HSPs make better managers or even better workers? I think the answer is clearly yes. Because we are more reflective, we naturally process more data and information more carefully, making us if given the time, more accurate thinkers. We absorb more information, and although this may cause overwhelm if not given space and time to process we can analyze more data points than most and formulate a clearer big picture perspective.
Because of our enormous potential for empathy, we also tend to be more nuanced in our handling and dealing with people. Not only does this make us better team members, but especially better leaders.
Our characteristics such as high perception, empathy, focus on justice and fairness, loyalty, our passion, creativity, and generosity collectively make us almost the perfect employee. Yet, where is the box on the application form where you can check off for HSP?
Nowhere. And largely because, we are often seen by non-HSPs as individuals with singular HSP characteristics in the negative, such as – high sensitivity, or overly emotional, or prone to overwhelm. However, when seen as a whole, the collective of our HSP characteristics mentioned above, the perspective is entirely different. The prejudice against HSPs is based on ignorance, pure and simple. In fact, I think companies should be seeking out HSPs for three main reasons: creativity, loyalty, and empathy.
How we perform as employees in the workplace is a function of the environment itself. Given encouragement, space and time, we are among the most gifted, most talented staff members any company can have. Yet, if the environment is toxic, at least to HSPs, we can wilt like flowers in a waterless vase. Seems simple enough.
The notion of HSPs as a personality type is gaining traction amongst those in the world of psychology and the world of the arts but doesn’t seem to be making a whole lot of headway in corporate HR or in management suites. Much still needs to be done to promote the benefits or hiring and nurturing of HSPs and training managers on how to get the most from the highly sensing worker.
There is no question we are out there in numbers (twenty percent of the population), and straddle across racial, gender and ethnic lines. If twenty percent of your employees are underperforming because your environment sucks, who’s fault is that? And what is that telling you about you?
For HSMs and HSPs, due to all things discussed in this article, we tend towards working in areas where competitiveness, aggressiveness, and high energy are at a minimum, which of course, relegates many us to low demand, low paying jobs. Sad but true. Is it possible to have high meaningfulness at work and high pay? Do these two things ever meet in the work vortex? Yes, I think it can be found, but needs a more considerate approach to job seeking. It requires more flexibility and more willingness to do an exhaustive search, but I do believe it can happen. That’s my plan anyway.
Here’s some tips on planning this out and finding best fit jobs for HSMs.
Thanks for dropping 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.