A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
Clarence: You see, George, you've really had a wonderful life. Don't you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?
George Bailey: Dear Father in heaven, I'm not a praying man, but if you're up there and you can hear me
George Bailey: show me the way... show me the way.
From: It’s a Wonderful Life
Lately, I’ve been talking about the intense feelings that HSPs can have. Part of that is developing healthy coping skills in dealing with these strong feelings. Men, especially in this country have been socialized to suppress their feelings in order to appear more “manly.” Yet, contrary to all evidence, suppressing feelings is not healthy at all. In fact, it may be contributing to the leading cause of suicide among middle-aged and older men.
It had me thinking that there could be an intersection between some men, who are HSP, that are also older and have been socialized to keep feelings under wrap that may be contributing to an unhealthy sense of hopelessness or helplessness. Learned helplessness is a learned behavior to act or behave helplessly even when there is power to change the harmful or unpleasant circumstance. This behavior contributes to depression and depression, in turn, contributes to suicide.
Depression is the leading cause of suicide. With ten percent of the population reporting feelings of sadness, six percent reporting feelings of hopelessness and five percent reporting a sense of worthlessness, it can easily seem like these factors are contributing to our nation’s depression epidemic. Women are more likely to be sad than men and singles more so than those that are partnered. Women have a two to one ratio for depression in most developing countries, although research shows that men and women have comparable levels of depression, but express it differently.
Nevertheless, men’s suicide rates are higher than women. In spite of the fact that 70% of suicides are caused by the wide umbrella of depression and that women report higher incidences of depression, actual suicides are a staggering 4: 1 in favor of men. This rate of suicide in men increases with age.
It’s worth noting, yet not surprising, that men seldom seek help for depression. Women are more likely to seek help. Women tend to ruminate on depression, holding it inward, whereas men tend to act (externalize) depression with drink and risky behavior. Suicide rates are higher with men over 50. Interestingly, low population states show higher suicide rates as do military personnel, LGBTQ communities and those suffering in chronic pain.
There is some genetic tendency toward suicidal behavior, i.e., the Hemingways. Whether there is genetics at play or that this is learned behavior seems debatable. Edwin Schneidman, a noted psychologist, proposed a suicide model in which the victims tend towards unbearable psychological pain, isolation and a persistent perception that death is the only solution. Of course, there are other contributing factors – loneliness, bullying, discrimination, and separation from family, especially men as non-custodial parents. The upshot of all of this is that depression, helplessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness contribute to feelings which might lead to suicide. And, men who are desperate are often the ones who act on this.
And what about us highly sensitive people?Would it seem HSPs, and in particular, highly sensitive men, are any more likely to reach that tipping point, born out of desperation? Is there any evidence that would suggest that due to intense emotional processing, and or with the added factor of additional mental health issues, that HSMs are at a higher risk for suicide?
According to Dr. Tracy Cooper, HSPs are prone to depressive and anxious thinking due to a more elaborate depth of processing in their thinking. This thinking can lead to bouts of depression and sadness. But does that put HSMs at more risk of suicidal behavior? In Dr. Cooper’s blog, he references Dr. Thomas Joiner who has reformulated the major causes of suicide for predictive purposes. These causes are framed to highlight the weighted burden men often experience when helplessness and hopelessness set in. It is many ways a reflection of the unrealistic expectations men often shoulder in silence.
Dr. Joiner’s list of criteria consists of the following: 1) a sense of not belonging or being alone, possibly because men often fear ridicule or shame for sharing feelings considered unmanly, 2) a sense of not contributing or of being a burden. In our current economic climate, men can feel as though they do not contribute as much financially as in previous eras creating a sense of guilt, and 3) finally, Dr. Joiner suggests that one must have the capability for suicide, the will to die, to override the evolutionary urge to survive, and the willingness to act. Even as research shows that the suicidal intention is transient and fleeting, there may be that moment in time, as Dr. Elaine Aron says, that the thought, played with, becomes an accidental action, and one breaches the portal of death.
Dr. Aron, speaking specifically to HSPs shows some optimism for the HSP population in regard to suicide. She suggests because of the HSP depth of processing of feelings, our sometimes rampant perfectionism, the fact that HSPs are often bullied because of our uniqueness, and at some level can build a fed up attitude we harbor towards our sensitivity, causes that would otherwise turn others towards dark depression. This may be thwarted in HSPs due to our natural empathy, caution and willingness to think things through before acting. This may keep HSPs from following through on such a permanent and drastic measure.
Yet, I wonder, does Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), the prominent trait of HSPs, create opportunities for HSPs to experience difficulties in processing deep-seeded or highly emotional trauma, i.e., PTSD? Conversely are HSPs any better suited to handle the emotional overwhelm , something that we routinely experience, and are we more likely to share the deep, dark feelings with others? Do HSPs, perhaps, more so than the general population seek out help, including highly sensitive men, when needed to avert something catastrophic like suicide. I have not been able to find specific research supporting this, but feel comfortable assuming there is some degree of truth to that.
What could be a soft crack in the above resilience hypothesis of sensitive men, might be where HSM men over sixty suffering traits suggested by Dr. Joiner, who may not be aware of their SPS traits and may labor with archaic male role models. Regardless of their awareness of their sensitivity, and by that, I mean acceptance of it, they may hold their feelings in private to seem more masculine and yet suffer deeply within and not connect with others. As research has shown, if they had been raised in negative environments as children, the overall effect could be compounded. With negative copings skills and low self-esteem, this could dovetail quickly into a serious situation.
While acknowledging the seriousness of talk about suicide, which may seem like attention seeking behavior, you cannot assume that the individual is not capable of the act. If you know of someone that is showing these behaviors listed below, or if you are displaying these, get help immediately:
Suicide is always a failed strategy in lieu of better coping skills. A fatalistic approach to life is a failure to comprehend, the value of every life. It is failed thinking, spurred by deep and often unconscious programming, the result of unfortunate learning or experiences. These can be remedied with professional help. Seek out help if you are even contemplating suicide. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.
In recent times, we have just witnessed two high profile over 60 males who committed suicide. Robin Williams suffered from Lewy Body Dementia, a disease that causes multiple perplexing physical and psychological problems. The net result of confusion, helplessness, and depression led to his actions. I suspect that Mr. Williams was an HSP, but I have no way of verifying that. He was a thoughtful, sensitive, and gentle man-- that could easily be observed. I can’t imagine his suffering, the consternation of watching his world crumble before him and dealing with those complex feelings of helplessness. Like many, I do miss his brilliance and his talent.
Anthony Bourdain was suffering from depression, according to accounts, with a reported desire to die. Yet, he shouldered a “strong man” mentality, never asking for help. He suffered in many ways, alone, as many men do. Suicide is largely a male problem. Without knowing him, despite his caustic and street tough exterior, I suspect he was at his core a gentle, thoughtful man. His support of the #MeToo movement would suggest great empathy. I will also, miss his lusty appreciation of great food and great culture and his dry wit.
Perhaps, as we begin to redefine what maleness means, we can open doors to those who unwittingly lock themselves behind the dungeon doors of an old archaic definition of masculinity. We are not stoics; we are not Spartans, nor Samurai – death by the blade or poison or violent leaps is not an honorable death. Our wrongful thoughts and concepts, fueled by emotion kill us. They can be changed but must be brought to the surface. By coming clean with our deepest emotions, we can then define who we are and what we wish to be. Let the movement begin.
Clarence: Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?
From: It’s a Wonderful Life
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
One thing we do know about HSP males is they typically are more empathetic than most Non-HSP males. With empathy comes more emotion, more feeling, less aggressive behavior, more nurturing – all characteristics that are typically associated with females. This leads me to think that HSP males or highly sensitive males (HSMs) are more likely to rate higher on the androgynous scale (yes, there is one, more on that later).
When I speak of androgyny, I am referring to a psychological tendency to be neither strongly masculine or feminine. Perhaps a balance between gender characteristics, referring to cultural norms and the balancing between those norms. Therefore, for purposes of this article, I am not referring to physical attributes (fashion, appearance) or sexual preferences (transgender, asexual or bisexual).
Some recent examples culturally of androgynous males appear regularly through rock music history. One of the early trendsetters was Elvis Pressley. Later on, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, and Prince were a few of the artists that presented to the world a mix of both male and female energy on the stage. All of these men were considered icons in music, equally attractive to both men and women. In acting, I can think of Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp, both have boyish good looks, seeming as much feminine as masculine. But, again, not to dwell on the physical attributes, it is projected energy or emotional processing that I want to consider.
In the arts, androgynous behavior is quite prevalent, in fashion, theater, music and other artistic endeavors. The history of androgyny goes back into ancient times, but I found it remarkable that it was even promoted by early Christian fathers, such as Origen, as a noble, spiritual balance between masculine and feminine. In the middle ages, androgynous individuals were seen as the perfect human configuration. A perfect balance between both male and female characteristics, this balanced identity was seen to be an efficient means to deal with situational issues. Here, by ignoring social convention, adaptability is considered to be paramount to solving a problem.
Dr. Sandra Bem, the developer of the BEM scale of Androgyny, has done quite a bit or research on androgyny. She asserts that androgens are more socially and behaviorally flexible and because of that can be more mentally healthy. In recent years we have seen the rise of the metrosexual, males that embrace their inner peacock, and more men are spending more time on fashion, appearance and embracing grooming in ways that in years past would be seen as effeminate.
This balancing of male/female characteristics reminds me of Carl Jung’s dichotomy of the anima (female) and animus (male) within each individual. This no doubt reflects back to the ancient Taoist ideas of Yin and Yang, the male and female energy, balanced and in harmony swirling around inside every male and female.
Bringing this back home to Western, and specifically American culture, what characteristics would make a man seem more feminine? We all have heard about the characteristics and roles we as a society expect from men and women. Most researchers would agree norms are a consequence of social rules and values. An individual’s disposition on where they fit on the cultural spectrum is largely based either on genetics, unconscious or conscious identity, and social pressures from external sources.
In the 1950s, Talcott Parsons proposed a model of family roles in which he stated that feminine behavior was summarized by the term, expressive (internal), while male behaviors were considered more instrumental (external). His subsequent list of behaviors associated with females and males is now long since been refuted and seems archaic and quaint. Everything from education, work, housework, and child care, to decision making, were all delineated by this expressive versus instrumental parameters.
One can easily surmise that internal, expressive roles, were code for emotional behavior and external, instrumental roles were code for logical and rational behavior. With women now taking a more active role in work, education, and decision making these archaic role models now seem comical. This is both liberating for women, but also, presents a liberation possibility for men.
With societal norms being more amorphous and porous these days, the roles that men play in a more generic sense are starting to blend, bend and balance out of necessity. Through continued socialization, our behaviors become molded via shifting family, spiritual, and school values that in many cases are changing due to increasing economic factors. We are seeing more trends towards less restrictive male/female models.
Yet, are we still holding on to old masculine modeling in our culture? Are we still adhering to the age-old characteristics of “me, Tarzan, you, Jane” in which male physical dominance, hair-brained risk-taking behavior, suppression of emotional response (and I would add – tender emotion), rational and logical thinking stifling intuition, rewarding aggressive behaviors, and the mindless accumulation of wealth at the expense of the greater common good, continuing to be the norm for our young boys and men? In a word, yes! This is the hegemonic masculinity that we portray in our movies, novels and other modeling forms that we illuminate and elevate as our masculine heroes. No weakness allowed here, grasshopper.
That is a helluva a lot to expect from any one person. And, although, I would never discount the pressures on women, especially single mothers, there is enormous pressure on men to live up to an archaic role model that is literally killing us. The number of males over 50 committing suicide is increasing yearly. We lock men into unrealistic expectations and then give them no outlet to release this pressure. I still believe that a boy called a “sissy” is under incrementally more pressure than a girl labeled a “tomboy”. I’m not saying that it’s always easier for females displaying male characteristics, but the pressure for boys to conform, which is mighty, comes smack down on their little heads to drop their gentle ways and man up. Often this comes from the father, typically the stern disciplinarian in the family, who expects the son to live up to his own manly definitions of what a boy is supposed to be. For girls, I would argue that their tomboyish ways are considered a passing phase and seems to be more tolerated. Hence, the pressures start early for boys and lay with this in our conscious awareness and buried deep in our unconscious.
If we are seeing more androgynous behavior, is this tendency towards moving to the middle (balanced characteristics) within an individual’s personality a genetic trait? Is there a genetic predisposition towards this? Do HSMs have by nature that trait, by virtue of our gentler, more empathetic ways? Is it a bits on, bits off configuration in our genes that make us seem more androgynous?
At the core of our personalities are HSMs a combination of both male and female attributes that allow us to be more empathetic, more nurturing, more emotionally driven? And if so, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Does it make us more vulnerable? Or, can we argue, as Bem said, that we are more flexible and stronger because of it?
Should we as HSMs, see ourselves as the new model for males in a society that is changing for both male and females. The rapid technological changes in our society must be moderated by human adaptations that continue to emphasize the human characteristics that focus on sensitivity and empathy. Culturally we need to show clear sensitivity to our effects on the environment, on society, on perpetuating the population and to emphasize equality.
I would argue that there is a shift in energy going on now. A world too dominated by Yang energy is breaking down to allow the Yin energy to bring in balance. This may seem troublesome for some men, but HSM men will lead this effort and embrace the change. We are perfectly suited to this task, although we need to recognize opportunities when we see them.
Now as I say this, ironically, I am finding that as I get older, I seem to become more anchored in masculine energy. I don’t know if it’s a function of age, resignation or just my comfort level with more balance in my personality, which would allow more of my masculine side to come through. Nevertheless, I do embrace the changes ahead as I imagine the yin/yang fish endlessly chasing each other’s tails, striving for perfect balance, that constant motion, melting into perfect harmony.
P.S. I took the Bem Androgynous Scale test. My score was a 12, which according to Bem is Nearly Masculine. If you think of this as a continuum, then that would sound about right for an HSM male. I do think it shows an evolving balance between Yin and Yang in my own personal growth. Here’s the link if you want to try it: http://www.bemedialiterate.com/uploads/1/7/2/2/1722523/bem_androgyny_test.pdf
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
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):
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:
We live in a mean world. A lot of attention lately has been spent in the media on cyber-bullying, trolling and the unpleasantness of just being mean. We get modeling from television shows, movies, online social media and now from a president that seems rather more content on tweeting his dislikes about everyone he disagrees with than making substantive policy for the country. You have to be tough to survive the onslaught of maliciousness that surrounds us daily.
That can be challenging for Highly Sensitive People. It is not as though we don’t get angry, have tempers or occasionally go off on somebody or something, but our highly empathetic natures makes this difficult for us to do with impunity. We are by nature cautious and thoughtful people. We have already in most cases thought through our actions even before we have set in motion a reckless reaction that stirred the initial emotion.
In the real world, situations arise where “meanness” can be regarded as a sign of dominance and power. At work, especially in cutthroat corporate environments the people most often promoted are those that display a Machiavellian ruthlessness, or a willingness to play by the mean game rules, that eschew cooperation or team efforts. We now generously apply the term, narcissist, to anyone that follows this strategy. And yet, they always seem to get rewarded.
All too often in the workplace, HSPs and especially HSP males, are seen to be ineffectual and go unregarded for contributions that are likely subtle and hard to quantify. We as HSPs go unnoticed or are undervalued due to our less aggressive behavior at work, our non-confrontational natures, and the perception that we are weak in a traditional male-oriented work culture. It matters little that we are perceptive, insightful, conscientious and typically hard working. The view that meanness and dominance demonstrate effective leadership skills in our culture, defies all the research about effective management. The idea that mean-ness and man-ness are the same is truly unfortunate. Yet, it shows up everywhere in our media and now in our everyday lives.
This all lies within the traditional values of an ever increasingly conservative viewpoint in this country. It stems from the idea of a hegemonic masculinity ideal that espouses the characteristics displayed by those who embrace traditional male role models. The gist of the belief follows: 1) there is a distance from the feminine (for males, unhooking from all feminine energy), 2) restriction of emotions, especially those that involve tenderness, nurturing or love (an avoidance strategy), 3) tough and aggressive behavior (dominance via violence), 4) highly sexual aggressiveness towards women, 5) proving continuously through gesturing, posturing or verbalization that one is sexually heterosexual, and finally, 6) emphasis on violence: physical, sexual, verbal and mental.
This all seems rather Neanderthal and primitive. You would think in these modern times with all of the survival advantages that we have, that this would be seen as an archaic strategy for men to assume. In fact, when resources are more plentiful and survival is easier, the emphasis on masculinity tends to be less pronounced and gender roles blur. Yet, this still does not play out in certain elements of our society.
There are growing factions of men and women who are open to and exploring the roles that males play in a world that is changing rapidly. The traditionalists, nevertheless, are reluctant to let go of the old male role models. Power is beginning to transfer, ground up, to a more thoughtful and nurturing clan of people. We, indeed, are in the midst of a culture war. And, it plays out in every aspect of our lives from politics, to social engagement, to religion, and especially in familial relationships.
The notion of masculine privilege is in serious jeopardy. What once may have been that masculine privilege provided some notion of benevolence has now been cast aside for the more defensive posture of meanness. Somehow, the distortion has come full circle. As power slips from one viewpoint to another, desperation sets in. Meanness all by itself has become a quality many men aspire to. Yet, let’s not confuse meanness with permanent lasting positive results. Meanness is not toughness. Meanness is meanness. Everything we were taught not to be as children. This damn stereotype is plaguing all men, not just HSP males. It is a scourge on our society and must be extricated.
What about toughness? Is toughness something that HSP men can aspire to? Absolutely. However, it depends on how you define it. Toughness is not about defining that quality in the context of the aforementioned traditional male role model. Toughness is not about lack of feeling or emotion, or dispatching a task without considering the consequences to self or others. It is not about being the “baddest” S.O.B. in the bar or on the field.
Dr. Tracy Cooper defines toughness as persistence, focus, determination and consistency in the face of obstacles and pressure. Toughness can be measured internally with the confidence in which one proceeds to the goal-- our proficiency, our productivity, and our perseverance. I see nothing in this definition that implies meanness or ruthlessness or forsaking HSP characteristics, however broad these HSP characteristics can be.
So, do we as HSP males need to change to conform to this unfortunate norm? Do we need to become meaner? Do we need to find our mean selves to succeed in life? In short, no. HSPs are designed for survivability. As Dr. Elaine Aron often mentions, nature designed this personality type to aid in the survival of the species. We are meant to be here. As men, we are unique among males, comprising only about 20% of the population. Our contributions sometimes seem subtle, but nonetheless, are important.
Our place in this unique juncture in our culture is no accident. I believe we are here to guide and yes, to lead by example. To the doubters, I say, that we are tough. Tough like waves crashing against the rocky shore. With every wave, movement takes place. Something old and affixed is moved and shaped forever. It is our insights, our persistence, and our toughness that makes this happen. Yes, toughness.
We are not going to change, nor do we need to. To change is to abandon our evolutionary purpose. If we change, we lose our power, our destiny to the world. Better for us to lead by example and by our unique ability to influence by insight, perception, by feeling, and seeing the unique patterns that our brains are wired to see. By sharing these insights with those around us, by allowing ourselves to express those feelings without worry of not being curtailed by the archaic masculine definitions.
Life is going to be full of tough situations; they are inevitable and cannot be avoided. Get comfortable with your HSM skillset and meet those situations head-on, honing your navigational abilities as you go. The more you experience, the greater your skill and confidence will grow. Remember toughness is not meanness.
Here are some summary tips to help in influencing the world if you are an HSM:
In America, we tend to see the personality characteristic of kindness (or niceness) as a weakness and not strength in men. With are jingoistic fueled capitalistic attitude we praise the notion that humans are basically selfish, self-serving creatures and revere those that make it to the top of the heap, generally stepping over everyone in their way. Altruism, kindness, and niceness are seen as fundamentally weak traits, perhaps meted out once in a while to the less fortunate, but generally not to be prized. It saddens me that we have over the last twenty years or so, have adopted this unfortunate attitude, especially with regards to men and their cultural roles.
The reality is that collaboration and kindness are basic survival skills. Without them, humankind would have been disposed of many millennia ago. Without “niceness” or the ability to put others first or the interest of the group ahead of one’s on needs, we could not have been able to build the civilization that sustained our species. This key interactive ability became the precursor to “nice.” Studies are beginning to bear out this idea that being the aggressive alpha dog is not the most efficient or effective way to succeed, lead or attract a mate. In the end, in spite of cultural biases against it, niceness is necessary and good.
HSMs are generally considered to be nice guys with our non-aggressive, gentler, kinder nature framed within a masculine exterior. Certainly, not all HSMs fit this description, but I think because of our thoughtful, considerate personalities, we tend to be lumped into the nice guy bucket more often than not. But what really is a nice guy?
Niceness is measured on personality scales as agreeableness. The characteristics most associated with niceness: are trust of others, compliance and easy going, unselfishness, easily satisfied, modest and sympathetic. All great qualities. There’s also a down side of niceness. Sometimes niceness leads to conflict avoidance and lack of problem solving skill due to confrontational ideation avoidance. It can also lead to self-effacing behaviors in the extreme, low confidence and other self-defeating behaviors.
The joke for years has been that nice guys always finish last. The reference is to dating or romantic prowess – “the nice guy dating effect”, which states that women say they prefer nice guys, but really wind up choosing bad boys. The term nice guy often is used to describe a young male that is gentle, sensitive, compassionate and vulnerable and generates other pejorative terms in lieu of masculinity.
There even some negative claims that nice guys are unassertive, dishonest, manipulative and passive aggressive. In either case, the general rule is that nice guys are weak, ineffective, unattractive and losers. This extends well beyond dating, an into other areas of life. The perception is that niceness equates to submission so that in life the nice guy never gets the prize, whether it’s an amour or promotion or to be the quarterback, nice guys always lose.
Does the research bear this out? The answer is no. Let’s begin with the idea of the Alpha male, which would be the antithesis of the “nice guy.” We consider the alpha male to be the top dog of the pack, a dominant, strong, self-centered individual that gets whatever he wants. , the dominant player in the group.
Dominance starts at the unconscious level and at the hormonal level. The hormones influencing dominance are testosterone, cortisol, and oxytocin. Testosterone is the male hormone which influences male behavior in many ways, including physical prowess and aggressiveness. Cortisol is the stress hormone, which kicks in to create active behaviors, and finally oxytocin, the love bonding hormone. Surprised? Studies have shown that most alphas are not the brash talkers and braggarts that we expect from alphas, but instead are good listeners and not always physically intimidating. They are good social connectors and can be actually mild mannered as well. They almost sound like closet nice guys with a slight more edginess to them.
Most alphas focus on accomplishment and goal fulfillment, which requires a certain degree of “niceness” to get the cooperation of others to deliver desired results. Many accomplished CEOs are considered to fall in the nice guy category, such as the founders of Costco, Starbucks, the head of IKEA and Patagonia, Ben and Jerry’s and also the founder of Zappos, creating great company cultures, leading teams into becoming successful companies and never losing the nice guy persona. So, nice doesn’t have to mean ineffectual, or weak or unsuccessful. To the contrary, it may be the only real way to achieve sustainable success via cooperation (nice guy) vs. competitiveness (bad boy).
Alphaism is not gender confined either. Alpha females are prominent in our more egalitarian society. Indications are all around of the collapse of the old line alpha male strawman that has been the dominant mode for centuries. The economic and societal implications are profound for new roles that men can and should play in society. A lot of talk these days suggests that more and more men are assuming the beta role in family and the larger society. Now let’s be clear, beta role is not the exact opposite of the alpha. The term for that would be the omega. Omegas are in effect the weak, ineffectual and women hating male we associate now with betas. Betas are complimentary to alphas. Betas (perhaps uber nice guys) are cooperative, emotionally available, relationship savvy and conscientious about everything they do. They are good team players and do not abdicate their masculinity by portraying this role.
Alpha, Beta, Omegas but what about HSMs? Where does this leave the highly sensitive males and where do we fit in? I suppose HSMs could be any of the above. Good, conscientious alphas, cooperative and team playing betas or even, distorted and warped Omegas. The environment, upbringing, and genetics all play a role in shaping personality and like the general population this individual encoding can enhance or diminish the fundamental HSP characteristics.
One of the best strategies for success for men is to adopt some of the best characteristics of the ideal alpha, focusing on what is termed the prestigious male – one who accomplishes goals in a general way. To balance that driving goal seeking behavior, there is need to add another component, that of the generous giver. In studies where females rating overall attractiveness of males, the prestigious generous male was seen as the most attractive. What this implies is that being a nice guy can and does work, if coupled with effective goal achieving. I even believe the attractiveness factor could be generalized to the overall population and this could be a new cultural norm. The nice guy Alpha, a point of strength and decency. A true leader.
Is this another leadership opportunity for HSMs? Showing the larger male population that characteristics we come by naturally are things that men can learn and practice. Perhaps, moving forward a few more studies, more “wins” for this philosophy in business, sports, entertainment, etc., can get some attention on the nice guy personality and demonstrate that nice guys don’t always finish last.
Here’s some suggestions on what we can do to promote this new male approach:
Who defines masculinity in a society? Do men define it or are women contributors as well? Or is it just the most powerful influencers in the culture that set this norm? Do we have specific baseline behaviors that perhaps all societies around the world define what masculinity looks like? Or is it historically defined as an arbitrary set of rules, based on the present day cultural norms? How does Western society base its definition of manliness?
Current traditional definitions of masculinity in the U.S. tend to base masculinity on several factors. Many of them centered on physicality (read: physical strength) and acquisition of resources. So for example, a man’s prowess at providing for his family or for himself might set a picture of his masculinity. Still important may be his sexual aggressiveness in finding and selecting a mate. We still see in our cultural dialogue, the depiction of the quintessential male as an emotional isolate, who always remains in the logical, rational mindset, to maintain good decision making in the face of an uncertain world. Of course, there’s dominance in relationships and understood leadership roles in work and social activities. Finally, if you throw in a thought for ambition, pride, honor, and duty, you could pretty much sum up what we in the West would consider our ideal man.
How does this compare with other cultures around the world? With current American influence at its greatest, you might think that our masculine definitions would be more accepted around the world. In many ways, masculinity around the world can be seen as an opposite of feminine traits and in fact, that measure was used to create a scale as it were of how masculine values rate around the world. This scale known as the Hofstede Scale ranks countries around the world based on a masculinity ranking; the higher the number the more emphasis in the culture on masculine values versus feminine.
Japan ranked as the highest on the masculine scale with a score 95 out of 100. The U.S., surprisingly ranked around the middle of the countries listed, which was a good cross section of nations around the planet. Joining the U.S. in the middle were countries from the Middle East (Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, et.al), countries from Africa and surprise – Latin America. At the low end were the egalitarian Scandinavian countries (once home to the warrior Vikings). I suppose Ikea might be credited with that.
By using a scale that measures masculine values (aggressiveness vs. passivity, emotional detachment vs. emotional engagement, power vs. cooperation, traditional values vs. open values, etc.) and comparing it to what is considered feminine values, the scale is measuring what essentially is the opposite of feminine. It would stand to reason that that is how we define masculinity against the baseline of what culturally we see as feminine behaviors. As the ratings drop on the Hofstede scale, there is more of a lean towards more androgyny within both sexes and a more egalitarian approach to defining gender roles.
Again, in the West, we often see portrayed in novels, film, and advertising, the depiction of the traditional male character as strong and silent, or as a tough guy, or even a great and forceful lover and physically dominant enough to qualify for Alpha Male pay. There is a certain tendency towards homophobia (more on that in a minute) and possessing domain over women. Our Western ideal male also tends to be a winner and often a winner at all costs--personal and interpersonal. The expectations are hammered in our heads as males from childhood to the grave. We never escape this ideal, yet we all know that it is entirely unrealistic to expect all men to live up to this caricature. In fact, living up to most of it is a fast lane to interpersonal issues, mental health problems, substance abuse, and violence.
Across history, especially Western history the ideal male role has been depicted as hero, chivalric and even as court dandy, all changing under the cultural shifts over time. With the rise of technology and the increase in leisure time, male roles have changed accordingly. Less work on providing for self and family, more on recreating a new vision for the male, which includes new models, i.e., metrosexuals (see 18th century court dandies), herbivore males an extreme bellwether, which seems to forsake male sexuality altogether and stay at home dads, who take on a lot of the traditional female work from home.
Many of our traditional values about masculinity have been intertwined with our religious beliefs as well. In Western culture, the influence of Christianity in a largely patriarchal church that emphasizes the importance of male dominance, including the Godhead can’t be understated. I believe today that many of those who cling to evangelical and fundamentalist views of Christianity are the most threatened by what could best be called the “precariousness of manhood” which is now threatening traditional male role values.
With the rise of the feminist movement in the 60s, followed closely by the emergence of a strong and vocal LGBTQ movement in the 70s, traditional males are feeling affronted from many sides. The fact that this country elected a demagogue like Donald Trump as our leader represents the last gasp of this traditional masculine based culture. Surprisingly, many women still support the traditional male value based ethos even if it is not necessarily in their best interest to do so. Fear of change is a powerful motivator.
And now, we are beginning to see the emergence of the sensitive male movement, although movement may be a bit premature at this stage. Highly sensitive men are starting to recognize that they are different and for good reason and beginning to find themselves in the complex world of masculinity. The world needs us now, and as psychologist Ted Zeff contends, we can be instrumental in saving this planet from runaway traditional aggressive masculinity.
HSMs are now able to, with head up, state that they are a different kind of male. We are no longer accepting labels of gay or effeminate or sissy, but showing strength with a sensitive, nurturing empathetic, cautious, non-aggressive and contemplative nature. All characteristics that even twenty years ago, would have branded them as weak and ineffectual men. And like the feminist movement and the LGBTQ movement, this idea of a different definition for masculinity is another nail in the coffin for traditional manliness. And you can bet there is going to be strong push-back.
Now, I don’t expect that traditional value masculinity is going to disappear, maybe ever; however, I think it’s going to have to move over for a wider and deeper definition of what masculinity entails. The world is changing, and as I often mention, evolution favors those that can adapt and change with the environment. The traditional male value systems are going to have to change as well. And as HSMs we can and should be the perfect intermediaries and ambassadors for that change. For many of us, we have lived in both worlds. And as HSPs, we know how to be the bridge.
What about the next generation of men, the boys of today? What can we do to shape them, give them guidance on being a man, in a world where the definition of masculinity must and is changing? We should focus on teaching them to be themselves first and to craft a new ideal for masculinity. There is no need to sacrifice strength, but realizing that strength is not just physical strength, but emotional strength as well.
Let’s not forget men still have a sexual role to play, but interpersonal relationships don’t have to be based on aggressiveness or dominance. We can be leaders without sacrificing compassion; we can be active without forsaking contemplation. And yes, we can still be rough and tumble, get dirty, climb trees, be adventurous and at times androgynous, without losing our sight of the new masculinity. There is much to learn here for boys and men, and for that matter women who influence us so much.
Here are some ideas on raising our boys, both HSP and non-HSP boys:
Footnote: A rather attractive grandmother came by the house recently to pick up a chair she had purchased from us. Her husband, a tall, quiet man was with her as was her three year old grandson. I remarked about how sharp the little boy’s cowboy boots looked. The grandmother proudly reached out for her grandson to gather his attention and she said to the boy, “that’s why we won’t to be a cowboy, isn’t?” the little boy shuffled around with his head down. The grandmother repeats to him, “and we want to be a cowboy because cowboys don’t cry, right?” the little boy thought a moment then silently shook his head in acquiescence. Grandmother was a traditionalist and just did more harm than good for this child. It was not her intent to harm, but the firmness with which she stated emphasized the ideal that men don’t cry. Shame. But, it’s the Texas way. I didn’t bother to ask her if she saw Brokeback Mountain. Seems that cowboys do cry.
Thanks for stopping by, until next week…
Western culture seems to disdain sensitivity in men. Our prevailing concept of manliness is of rugged individualism, with little or no outward display of emotion. Well, perhaps, anger is revered, as in righteous indignation, but any so called “soft emotions” are eschewed by our culture.
Men are seen as week if tears appear in public or a shimmering sunset leaves a man speechless. Any signs of tenderness or any show of depth of emotion often relegated to females is seen as unmasculine. As Dr. Tracy Cooper, psychologist and HSM says,” …American culture is steeped in a masculinity that glorifies anger, aggressive behavior, domination over women, and winning at all costs.”
I take exception to this notion that sensitivity is a weakness. In fact, I would argue that is a strength that is much needed right now in men. For just a moment, let’s throw out the words high sensitivity for men and replace it with high sensing or acute sensory perception. Both of these terms more accurately reflect what is really going on with highly sensitive people. In fact, it is officially known as sensory processing sensitivity.
Let’s imagine what is going on with HSMs on an everyday basis. Imagine if you will, a filter that sits somewhere within the brain that is allowing sensory input to reach the unconscious mind. For non-HSPs, this filter is set at a lower threshold than HSPs. It allows less data to pass through into the brain from the senses which naturally affects the parts of the brain that control emotion, fears, and behaviors. The filter trips and lets a steady but moderate about of sensory info to pass through.
In HSPs, our filter has a higher threshold and more data is allowed to pass through to the brain. Meaning more data to affect emotions and feelings and still requiring the extra associated processing needs taken to process the data. What this means is that when there is a lower filter threshold (non-HSP), there is lower sensory registration, conversely, a higher filter threshold (HSP) means higher sensory registration. In its simplest form, HSPs process more sensory information than non-HSPs. And, this is not a choice, it just happens. So stop it with the, “you need to toughen up”, or “you’re too sensitive.”
Because of this, data has to be processed and the task of doing this can be overwhelming at times. Remember this data is affecting moods, behaviors, and thoughts. These emotions may be triggered from deep within the brain and can often lead to what most non-HSPs see as moodiness in HSPs. For men, the last thing we like to be classified as is – drama queens. So, instead we bury emotions deep within ourselves, mask our feelings, and cover up our true nature. A lot gets killed in the process --feelings, intuition, and creativity and disconnection with our feelings.
Furthermore, let’s not confuse emotional hypersensitivity with highly sensing capability. They sometimes look alike but are not. High sensitivity is not a disorder. And having an HSP personality does not necessarily mean you are emotionally fragile and or dysfunctional. We do need to be aware as HSPs that we do have a highly active amygdala, a lower perceptual threshold and the tendency towards deep processing, which can condition us to be more reactive than active. It’s not just stimulus – response with us, it’s more like stimulus – rumination – response. And of course, that comes across as very un-John Waynish, in a culture that emphasizes “doing” over “just being or thinking.”
But what do all these abilities (remember, I see this as an asset) give us highly sensing men? Do these traits give us some advantages? Let’s look at a few; see if you can relate:
Because of these traits, HSPs make great advisors and counselors, outstanding long range strategists, purveyors of alternate viewpoints, champions of moral justice, the balm to aggressiveness, bastions of harmony and fluidity and vessels of meaningfulness.
With all of this said, does our culture value these traits? In short, yes and no. The traits that lead to a monetary gain will be valued most; the others will get us a pat on the head and a doleful grin but not a bonus. However, I am hopeful that society can and will change. We are in the midst of the last of what I hope is unbridled, unrestricted capitalism, an untamed romp on the dark side. I believe that we are now standing just beyond the threshold to more sane times. HSMs are going to be instrumental in the transition.
Yes, I know you fellow HSMs have been dealing with negative feedback for the entirety of your life. You’ve repressed your true nature, you’ve played the game, you’ve bucked up, strapped on, and “acted like a man”. Now it’s time to let go of all of that repressive crap. Here are some ideas on how to do that. Let’s run through the list, shall we?
Thanks for dropping by, until next week…
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.