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.
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’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:
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.