A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
Alex: What we were after now was the old surprise visit. That was a real kick and good for laughs and lashings of the old ultraviolent.
From: A Clockwork Orange
Somewhere along the way as I was growing, violence took a wrong turn in the media. Movies, TV, print; all began to show more graphic violence. I don’t know what the starting point was, or when; I just know that it started getting more detailed, more bloody. Of course, there were horror movies, slasher types that were full of gaudy special effects and makeup, but somewhere along the way, the technology got really good, and bloodletting began in full swing. For a highly sensing boy, I saw this is as a turnoff. What happened to the days, when a gunshot went off, there was a quick cut and a dead body laid on the ground? Sometimes with blood, sometimes without. I got the message; the character was dead, I didn’t need to see him bleed out, to make that point. The excessive reliance on violence for dramatic conflict seems like lazy writing to me. The subtlety of death and dying died, and so did a certain naivete upon the viewing public.
Modeling of violence in the media can desensitize us all into the acceptance of violence or at least aggression as an acceptable method for resolving egregious problems or for seeking justice. Whether it is an endless war against perceived enemies, capital punishment as a means of justice or at a personal level arming oneself to the teeth, to protect against “bad guys.”
I’m not interested in playing video games, but nowadays watching almost any historical drama on television or in films is rife with realistic and I could argue hyper-real blood and guts, as villains are slain to exact justice. One can simply no longer turn away from the violence and even as adults, the visceral and subtle unconscious effects alter all of us.
There have been many studies over the years vilifying the effects of passively watching violence in the media. The National Institute of Mental Health found that children watching violent media may become desensitized to other’s pain and suffering , may become more fearful and may be more likely to behave in aggressive and harmful ways to others. It has even been suggested that this learned behavior may follow into adulthood. Violent video games have a similar effect. Ninety-eight percent of video games contain violence and since 97% of adolescents play video games the reach of violent modeling goes way beyond Saturday morning cartoons.
Violence is found in music, YouTube, radio, on cell phones, the internet and now especially in social media. This constant exposure to aggression creates aggressive thoughts and can produce less empathy towards others. The focus of aggression is the intent to harm another, where the other is looking to avoid this harm. It takes many forms: relational aggression, i.e., spreading harmful rumors; cyber-aggression via electronic messages; and, verbal aggression. With over 42.5 aggressive acts per hour on television and with a clear increase in violence in movies over the last 40 years, it is no wonder that the effect culturally on children is growing. These children, of course, grow up to be adults. When these acts of aggression take a more severe form, we are looking at violent actions.
Now, I know many of you may be saying, well, all these studies have not been able to prove long-term effects or that many of the studies are flawed or invalid. Some would even argue that viewing violence has a cathartic effect on aggression. Yet, there are no studies showing this to be true. It is very difficult, if not ethically impossible to construct a study in which a cause and effect relationship can be established by watching violent media with behavior in which murder or violence is the end result of the study.
Yet, it is clear we can measure arousal rates when watching violent media, heart rate, respiration, and higher blood pressure. In fact, there have been MRI (magnetic resonance imagery) studies where noticeable differences in brain activity have been shown after just one week of watching violent video games. Other studies have noted short and long-term effects associated with this video violence. Primary among the short-term effects have been the arousal via emotional stimulation, which causes a visceral response. And, of course, mimicry, which causes the viewer to imitate behavior watched, in a less violent, but nonetheless aggressive way – generally more aggressive thoughts.
The long-term effects may affect observational learning skills and alter emotional state, thought schemas, normative beliefs about violence and executable behavior scripts. It may cause desensitization with increased exposure, aggressive behavior, bullying, increased fears, depression, nightmares, and other sleep disturbances. The key to all of this is repetition. Repeating the viewing, especially with video gaming, where repetition increases skill level, increases the retention and acceptance of violence as a means to an end.
This clearly affects children and adults. The continuous bombardment of violence or aggressive behavior, especially with the actions of hero characters, models that the world is a dangerous place and that justice is only served by righteous indignation, often in violent form. Because this is constantly presented as reality via the media, the unconscious mind, not the greatest at distinguishing reality from fiction learns that violence, if not honorable, is at least tolerable to settle injustices.
How does violence in the media effect HSPs and in particular HSMs? Why would we watch it, if it is offensive and abhorrent to our sensibilities? I personally find excessive violence in film or television to be distracting to the story. It creates a strong visceral reaction, a shock if you will, that I feel in my body. I never get sick to the stomach, but feel a slight, steady revulsion to excessive violence, even knowing that it’s not real. If it is severe enough, I will turn my head, but as of late, I force myself to bear through it. It’s over soon enough, but the story is altered for me. Even with plot justification for the violence, I tend to be tenser watching the remainder, as if waiting for someone to jump out from behind me, to startle me. Gratuitous violence is just that – plugged into storylines at regular intervals to give the mind and body a shock. It sells tickets.
My larger concern is what is all of this violence doing to us as a culture? Is it altering the way our brains perceive violence? I mean, one could argue that we have always been violent, aggressive creatures. But, at what point do we rise above our baser instincts and evolve, moving past violence. If it is affecting us all, does it mean we HSPs are being altered along with the rest of humanity?
Why does violence appeal to us? Is it like sex, just a primal force of nature that our higher level cognitive powers haven’t learned to deal with. It seems that we crave violence, like sex, drugs and rock and roll. But, unlike sex, aggression is not a drive in humans. Sure there might have been evolutionary reasons for aggressive behavior to protect territory, but is it really necessary now? Perhaps, we see violence as a prelude to death. Pushed and pulled, drawing us in towards our warlike nature.
In the U.S. alone child abuse occurs about every 10 seconds. We have the highest rates of youth homicides and suicides in the industrialized world. School shootings and mass shootings have sadly become commonplace. Americans are more than seven times as likely to be murdered than in the largest industrialized countries. We spend more of our tax revenue on defense, weapons, and wars than all countries combined. We spend more on prisons than on education, emphasizing the punishment instead of the cause. See the patterns?
And I don’t know if there is a violence watching threshold. Are we getting close to the point where we have no reaction to watched violence? Denial of the effects of media violence is partly due to psychological reactance, which states that the more forbidden the fruit, the more attractive it is, the more we seek it, and the angrier we get towards those that would deny it.
I’m not about censorship or restricting artistic freedom. But to what detail do we need to see death, to get the point. We are a violent and bloodthirsty people. We justify the bloodbath, by some type of screwed up divine sanction. Manifest destiny, or preservers of freedom, vindication or justice, sanctimonious crusades, we take our wrath out in blood. And we model it in our art. Then we wonder about violence in our world. Violence in our words, our actions, we eat drink and sleep violence. Our heroes are vampire sucking, life-destroying robots of violence. In fact, we equate good with righteous violence.
As HSMs we need to aid in tamping down the violence in our sphere of influence. Perhaps, taking more care with our children in monitoring or sanctioning violent media viewing. If you are teachers, counselors, therapist, ministers or others in the helping professions, use your opportunities wisely to offer suggestions to caregivers and parents about the effects of violent media watching on children and adults. We can lead efforts to offer guidelines, based in part on our sensibilities to the media themselves for acceptable levels of dramatic aggression that serves a dramatic purpose without sensationalizing extreme blood, mutilation or gore. This should be gentle guidance, not out and out restrictive suggestions. We react differently to violence than non-HSPs, we do more feeling, thinking, recounting and I would say more reviewing with emotion and arousal. Maybe some throttling is in order to offer our wise counsel. Others may enjoy or thrill to the exploitative violence in the media, much like a teenager thrills at a joy ride in a stolen car. But repeated exposure, with the consequences sinking unconscious and manifesting in unsavory ways, is something that we as a society must guard against.
Watch the news, read a paper, listen to the radio. It’s already happening.
Alex: It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.
From: A Clockwork Orange
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
Charlie: I know who you are, Sam. I know I'm quiet... and, and I know I should speak more. But if you knew the things that were in my head most of the time, you'd know what it really meant. How, how much we're alike, and how we've been through the same things... and you're not small. You're beautiful.
From: The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Does high sensitivity produce high insecurity in HSP males? With all that extra processing power, the more intense the emoting, the greater likelihood of high level meltdowns, and when faced with the outside world’s response or pressures, wouldn’t it make sense that with a feedback loop like that, that insecurity would flourish?
Are highly sensitive males more likely to be insecure than the larger non-HSP male population? The elements of being an HSP-- high sensitivity, deep mental processing, overwhelm and emotional reactivity might seem on the surface to contribute to insecurity, especially in HSP boys. Overstimulation, overthinking, presenting emotionally as less than the ideal masculine in dealing with emotions does not inherently lead to feelings of insecurity and lack of self-esteem. It seems other factors are more important than simply how we process emotions.
Environment plays a greater role in providing the feedback necessary from parents and friends that would reinforce feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem. In other words, there is no genetic predisposition for insecurity. Insecurity is learned. If there is a tendency towards insecurity in HSP males, then that is a product of nurture and not nature. Studies suggest that when HSPs are raised in nurturing homes with understanding and supportive parents – they thrive. Conversely, as you might expect, in opposite conditions, they respond more negatively than less sensitive kids.
Where, then, does insecurity come from? There is a multitude of sources from which the seeds of insecurity are sown. As stated earlier, parental figures play an enormous shaping role in developing a child’s self-concept. Disapproving authority figures, uninvolved and disinterested caregivers, bullying parents all send the wrong types of messages to sensitive young minds. Without the benefit of adult size mental filters, kids naturally process this feedback as is and take the negative message to heart. When later in life, academic, athletic or more serious traumatic events present themselves as challenges, rigid beliefs from childhood, which have never been challenged become set. The insecure child becomes an insecure adult. Social media serves to confirm these beliefs: “I am not worthy.”
Does this become a lifelong affliction? Like cement, once set, does it become immutable? The impacts are quite clear. Low self-esteem, insecurity, and low confidence affect every aspect of life. From career choices to mate selection, academics, sports, sex performance, income potential , you name it, they all are impacted. And for men,the question of how you are viewed as a man.
The self-comparison game starts early, and so begins the insecurity. Current examples, have to include social media, where comparisons run rampant, and the unreality of reality weighs in for review. Everyone is doing better than the insecure eye would see. Filter this through the HSP lens, and you see amplification through greater self-talk, constant comparison processing, overreaching emotionally, and stoking the fires that will one day consume the fragile ego.
What can we surmise that the arc of this behavior will lead to? Is it a dark trap? Do insecure people self-sabotage to minimalize overstimulating experiences? Does this ultimately lead to withdrawal, overcompensation and self-loathing? At what point do insecure men believe there is a point of no return?Then, using insecurity as a crutch, they elicit sympathy from everyone that will listen.
People who lack self-confidence, learn early to seek approval externally. They moderate and lower positive expectations and naturally deflect compliments. Yet, somehow lack of self-confidence is not all pervasive in an individual’s personality, although it may seem that way. It’s not dependent on actual abilities, but the focus is rather on unrealistic expectations set by parents and authority figures transferred as beliefs in the individual.
Many assumptions that the insecure individual possess are: 1) that they must be loved and approved by every important person in their lives, 2) be thoroughly competent and high achieving in all aspects of their lives, and 3) their focus is always on past performance, not present or future potentials. Their thoughts are permeated with all or nothing thinking, often seeing the dark side of situations, magnifying the negative. Further, with their uncritical acceptance of runaway emotions as truth, overemphasizing “shoulds,” self-labeling, and seeing challenges through the prevailing belief of inadequacy and incompetence, they perpetuate their own self-myth.
Is it any wonder that emotional insecurity ensues. That feeling of general unease or nervousness that may be triggered by external factors, resulting in feelings of not being worthy of love, an inadequate and worthless human being.
It’s a slippery slope from childhood to manhood, an upward climb with unsteady footing for those unsure of themselves. When you’re not getting the feedback you deserve, you need, you crave the impacts are real. It’s all learned and the process, I dare say, intensifies when you are an HSP. Everything gets amplified, the internal voices are louder, the uncorrected logic, fueled by emotion, cuts a broader, wider path in your self-esteem. Who knows how prevalent it is in HSMs? We don’t all have parents that get us. How many fathers’ likely see beyond their own expectations and see their sons as the budding man, still malleable, like fresh, soft clay ready to be molded into it’s strongest, best form.
How do we prevent this from developing in our HSP boys? How do we gently bring them along, not making them dependent, yet lighting that flame of courage, independence, and self-love that will empower them throughout their lives? We, as parents, need to give the positive spin on HSP characteristics and yet instill confidence in them as people, as men, even being different men that are sometimes swimming against the cultural tide.
We need to show what a healthy, masculine role model would be like. Help them to be confident in their inherent qualities. Help them become emotionally strong men, teaching them to express the full range of human emotion. Teach them to avoid the dark trap of insecurity. Teach them confidence and self-assurance, sans the arrogance, overconfidence, and bravado of small minded men. That confidence will allow the HSP traits to grow and flourish without heavy internal conflicts. Healthier boys, make healthier men.
Here are six things that will help our HSP boys:
Aibileen Clark: You is kind. You is smart. You is important.
From: The Help.
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
John Keating: Now we all have a great need for acceptance, but you must trust that your beliefs are unique, your own, even though others may think them odd or unpopular, even though the herd may go,
[imitating a goat]
John Keating: "that's baaaaad." Robert Frost said, "Two roads diverged in the wood and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."
From: Dead Poet’s Society.
It seems highly sensitive men are asked from an early age to always “man up” or “get tougher.” Of course, almost all boys are told the same thing, most will take it to heart and comply, but HSP males have to struggle with what their internal workings are telling them. The request is essentially asking that HSMs override their sensitive nature to present a culturally acceptable mask of what a man should be. Understand that this is not really about manhood or being a man, but rather following a prescribed definition of gender role, that probably traces its roots too deep in our ancestral past.
The focus of “manning up” is to suppress emotional response in males. I am talking about a full spectrum of emotion. The logic states that less emotion means more logical, more rational thoughts and behaviors. But looking around at the current male-dominated world in which we live, you can see that this clearly does not pass muster.The inconsistencies are legion.
Asking HSP males to be less emotional, less prone to deep processing and thoughtfulness, so as to fit neatly into a cultural norm that is archaic at best, and destructive at its worse is an epochal calamity waiting to happen. The question among all HSP males is should I or can I even change my personality enough to fit into that mold comfortably. Can I become something that I am not?
The teaching to HSP men and boys is to simply apply one’s willpower to suppress feelings, thoughts, behaviors that are products of our unique genetic trait. Can one apply willful change for the long term, to change fundamental characteristics of our personalities? Is this just a matter of self-control, when self-control is control over one’s behavior, actions, thoughts, and emotions – a herculean effort at self-regulation. And, what would be the benefit – delaying display of emotion in order to appear to be unaffected and dispassionate? Is this masculinity? To meet an expectation of manhood that would deny a fundamental expression of something human and completely normal.
And, what about our deep processing? Can sheer willpower control that? Would exercising quick decision making make us think less deliberately and appear to be more forceful or aggressive? Can we turn off the mechanism that calls us to deeply process on an event or action that occurred in the past, causing us to retreat to a quiet place and examine all possible outcomes? Or do our emotions impact our decision making to the extent that we always run with our feelings, our gut, our intuition?
One of the reasons our deep processing capability is so valuable is that it allows us to reflect before we take action. In a reactive world, this is refreshing to know that there are those that do think before acting. According to Dr. Elaine Aron, this does produce a benefit for the larger group, as long as the deep thinking HSPs are in the minority, which we typically are. The logic is that if the larger group is more non-HSP inclined, then the unique insights of HSPs will be useful and appreciated more. In other words, our difference is our value.
Chinese researchers studying HSP characteristics have found that our deep processing, reflecting in the high availability of dopamine in our brains, a hormone that facilitates the deep processing, suggests that our trait of deep processing sensory data is a genetic one, one not likely to be altered easily. In addition, a lot of deep processing may go on outside of conscious awareness, which produces many insights that we attribute to our keen intuition.
Couple that with strong emotions and associate that with our depth of processing can lead to stronger encoding and insight with that information. Pairing our high emotion with thinking enhances memory and facilitates lessons learned, perhaps producing wisdom. Another benefit of our emotional nature. And, if some of the deep processing is potentially unconscious, how could we control that aspect? So much of what our brains do happens below or at near threshold of awareness. The idea that we could control this consciously seems unrealistic and impractical and only as an afterthought.
So much of emotional reaction seems nearly involuntary. Think of a time when something affected you very deeply. Perhaps, something touched you unexpectedly, or a trusted friend unjustly criticized you or betrayed you. The emotional machinery deep within triggers at neuronic speed a series of physiological and emotional responses reflexively. Often too fast to stop. And this happens to everyone at some point.
To me, the answer is clearly no: no to change and no to self-control. While I realize that some adaptation may benefit us, the wholesale dismissal of who we are is not only unrealistic; it’s impossible to do as a long-term strategy. We can no more turn off our deep sensing nature any more than we can turn off our deep processing – the two are polar ends of a singular trait, we call SPS, sensory processing sensitivity. That makes us different and unique, and I might add useful.
We are what we are because SPS is a deeply ingrained inherent quality within us. Our SPS trait uniquely influences our cognitions, motivations, and behaviors. It is a primary filter in our lives, coloring our experiences and shaping us. It is a fundamentally genetic trait that couples with our environments, upbringing influences, tendencies, potentials, adaptability, and self-induced moderations to create the HSP influenced, yet unique individual that we are.
The question remains can we steer these fundamental and inherent qualities and factors that can be unconscious, yet influence our thoughts and behaviors? Can we change our configuration of traits (even if we truly desired to make this change) to mold ourselves into something that is not us? To conform to an arbitrary set of standards, that we are inherently designed to buck? Is this just an exercise in thought control?
So many rational materialists put such emphasis these days on thinking our way out of problems. And, by thinking, I mean thought sculpting our way out of our problems, our issues and especially our feelings, some of which originate in our unconscious. To believe that we as HSMs can think our way out of being “sensitive” (as if that is a problem) so that we can follow the norm is ludicrous. You can no more think your way out of being blue or brown eyed than to think your way out of being an HSP.
Within this expectation of change is an unrealistic emphasis on what the conscious critical mind can achieve when in reality much of the processing including motivation, self-image, and confidence has roots in the unconscious patterns that require much effort to change. This part of personality that forms self-image becomes the sum total of one’s knowledge and understanding of self. Some of this is learned, some of it is traits influenced, organized along the lines of beliefs, thoughts, and self-perception. A self-concept once cemented may serve to preserve a view of self to protect that self-image and rarely yields to outside influence.
The prevailing wisdom, for men, is get in line or go home. Falling in line to please people is a lame and counterproductive strategy. I know, I’ve done it enough in my life. You cease to be authentic when you place yourself in compromised positions, vis-à-vis your HSP traits.
Masculinity in the modern world is past due for some needed major revisions. Current expectations are out of reach even for many non-HSP men. Moving the bar over towards a more human model serves both men and women. There is no need to abandon healthy male expectations, which may underlie our peculiar evolutionary roles, but note we don’t live in caves anymore. So, put aside the club and bearskins.
The upshot of all of this is to accept and embrace our sensitivity or more specifically our SPS qualities. It is indeed a gift, but like all gifts comes with some strings attached. You are more aware, more empathetic, more sensitive to nuance. Emotions often rush to the surface without much control. That’s fine, but remember others may be put off by your handling of things. Just be prepared for some pushback.
As always, educate others when you can. Educate yourself and find others of our tribe for fellowship. Recognize that you are not alone, no matter how you have felt in the past. Remember, too, where you may have been called to self-restraint or chastised for these qualities previously, self-control and willpower will not change you. Nor should it. You are what you are, and regardless of how you look at it as fate, by design, by nature or some type of cosmic tuning, you are here for a reason -- just as you are.
Neil Perry: I just talked to my father. He's making me quit the play at Henley Hall. Acting's everything to me. I- But he doesn't know! He- I can see his point; we're not a rich family, like Charlie's. We- But he's planning the rest of my life for me, and I- He's never asked me what I want!
John Keating: Have you ever told your father what you just told me? About your passion for acting? You ever showed him that?
Neil Perry: I can't.
John Keating: Why not?
Neil Perry: I can't talk to him this way.
John Keating: Then you're acting for him, too. You're playing the part of the dutiful son. Now, I know this sounds impossible, but you have to talk to him. You have to show him who you are, what your heart is!
Neil Perry: I know what he'll say! He'll tell me that acting's a whim and I should forget it. They're counting on me; he'll just tell me to put it out of my mind for my own good.
John Keating: You are not an indentured servant! It's not a whim for you, you prove it to him by your conviction and your passion! You show that to him, and if he still doesn't believe you - well, by then, you'll be out of school and can do anything you want.
Neil Perry: No. What about the play? The show's tomorrow night!
John Keating: Then you have to talk to him before tomorrow night.
Neil Perry: Isn't there an easier way?
John Keating: No.
Neil Perry: [laughs] I'm trapped!
John Keating: No, you're not.
From: Dead Poet’s Society.
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
Pee-wee: There's a lotta things about me you don't know anything about, Dottie. Things you wouldn't understand. Things you couldn't understand. Things you shouldn't understand.
Dottie: I don't understand.
Pee-wee: You don't wanna get mixed up with a guy like me. I'm a loner, Dottie. A rebel. So long, Dott.
From: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
The idea of thrill-seeking highly sensitive people may seem a bit out of character. The notion of nice, quiet, pensive, peace-loving individuals, taking off on wild adventures as novelty seeking daredevils just doesn’t match up with the stereotype of HSPs. Believe or not, there is a subset of HSPs, that do fit that profile and are high sensation seeking (HSS) folks or to spell it out, High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive People HSS/HSP.
Dr. Tracy Cooper reports that there is about thirty percent of the HSP population that fits this label. Most of them are male. There are four primary traits that high sensation seeking people display. One, they are thrill and adventure seekers, i.e., drawn to adrenaline-pumping risky sports and activities like mountain climbing, bungee jumping, motocross, etc. These are the kind of activities you would most expect from a daredevil. Two, they are experience seekers – looking for novel mind-bending mental sensations-- think of psychoactive substances or sensory bending experiences. Three, they display moments of disinhibition, mostly in the realm of social or sexual activities (wild parties, inebriation, or multiple sexual partners) Hence, a relaxation of social boundaries and the willingness to cross them. Finally, they are prone to boredom susceptibility, the tendency towards aversion of repetitious activity and seeking novelty as stimulation. HSS/HSP’s tend to fall mainly in the last three traits, granted, with some caveats.
In describing this trait, especially in HSPs, it might seem that we could describe this as reckless behavior, uncharacteristic of traditional HSP traits. However, because of the dual nature of HSS/HSP individuals, they tend not to be at the extremes. This duality presents many internal conflicts working both sides of the caution versus novelty endpoints. This conflict is a classic one foot on the gas, one on the brake scenario, which I suppose creates some novel forward motion, but doesn’t test the boundaries of thrill-seeking to its limits.
For most HSS/HSPs, high sensation seeking is about the novelty of the experience. Changing the landscape for a new view seems a bit more modest and a controlled method of allowing for a taste of what might seem dangerous, without risking life or limb. We HSPs tend to have a more pronounced Behavioral Inhibition System. Thus brakes get applied when the ride gets too dangerous. Although some of this behavior does border on impulsivity (taken from my own experience), it is not unguided by a more cautious retracting or overriding behavior reigning in, when the drift is too uncomfortable.
What is the balance between walking the high wire and resting safely in the net? How much and what type of sensation is necessary to overtake the underlying boredom of being quiet and reflective? Since most HSPs are introverted, seems a far cry from living in the cocoon of the internal world, which is already being bombarded by a greater amount of sensory data. Why fetch more sensation, even when bored, if the idea is to overstimulate?
It seems almost a cruel hoax to possess these two opposing characteristics. One pushing inward, one pulling outward, one processing experience, one seeking experience, teasing the limits of an already sensitive system. Can this sensation seeking be controlled; throttled pleasure, with none of the irresponsibility of reckless and dangerous impulse? It seems at times to be like an unconscious draw to seek overstimulation, an addiction to adrenaline, however modest, only to offset quickly with reflection and solitude.
And, what of this cycle? To what extreme can it go? Are some of us HSPs, sensation seekers, walking as it were without a net? Making bad decisions, knowing the consequences, yet yielding to some inner drive for increased sensation. Like diving headlong into a freezing pool, only to jump out and run back inside by the crackling fire. An odd balance of fire and ice, throttling between the two, just enough to keep the fire hot and the ice cold.
Can any of this be self-destructive? Is the impulsivity of taking risks for the novel sensation balanced by a keen sense of risk perception? Are HSS/HSPs more likely to access the reward/gamble ratio and to step out of a typical HSP cautionary personality to seek novel experiences, just to keep from being bored? The answer is yes and no. Perhaps, there is a deeper drive to create, that motivates seeking out novel experience to be able to fashion something new and useful. The motivator is boredom; the outcome is creativity with reward and stimulation.
With a third of the HSP population showing this trait of novelty seeking – it certainly would explain the high level of creativity the emerges from the HSP community. To be creative, one must be willing to seek new ways of looking at things, to put parts together in unusual ways and to be willing to risk criticism for your creations. The reward of success is a big rush of dopamine for having braved and crafted one’s indulgences. The added splash of adrenaline doesn’t hurt either.
How do you tell if you are an HSS/HSP? Yes, there is a test for that, too. Dr. Elaine Aron has constructed a test that was designed for HSPs to determine if you are a high sensation seeking individual. Here’s the link: https://hsperson.com/test/high-sensation-seeking-test/ .
I scored high enough on the test to be considered an HSS/HSP.
My experiences as an HSS/HSP follow a familiar pattern. Always seeking some secure situation, a job, a marriage, a relationship, a life, then abruptly leaving, almost at a whim, when boredom kicks in. Then being lost for a period, seeking, looking sometimes recklessly, then finding a new novel situation to anchor me. Only to leave again, a drifter on the run. Sometimes, doing stupid things or taking risky gambles, zigging and zagging off the path gets added in the mix, then getting comfortable for stretches. Then, again, boredom sets in, creating changes that have consequences and require remediation.
The boredom is not what you might think of as boredom. It’s unsettling, restless, not like a little kid or a too bright child unable to find the creative ability to stay active. It’s like an internal clock that says, “enough, time to move on.” A prompting, a calling to change venues. I hardly understand it, others never understand it. A neutral, unemotional epiphany that says it’s time to seek other sensations.
I’d like to think that this process is all trending upward, a giant learning process, like climbing the tread of larger than life wheel. But, who knows? In the end, it is always looking for that balance between boredom and overstimulation. A good, and sensitive man, who sometimes makes perplexing decisions.
Ray Kinsella: I'm 36 years old, I love my family, I love baseball, and I'm about to become a farmer. But until I heard the voice, I'd never done a crazy thing in my whole life.
From: Field of Dreams.
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
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.
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.