A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
Throughout my life, I have learned many things about being a highly sensitive man. I have chronicled many of them in my upcoming book, Confessions of a Sensitive Man, An Unconditional Defense for Highly Sensitive Men. I’m still learning, every day, every year. Nevertheless, some standout, forming a new code of acceptance within me of this highly valuable and misunderstood trait. Here’s seven of the most obvious.
# 1 – Embrace the difference – As an HSM, you need to come to grips with your sensitivity. Embracing your differences is the first step to accepting your highly sensitive nature and recognizing that the differences are useful, positive, and necessary. You will stand out sometimes, you will be different than non-HSP males, and do that without apologizing. I believe that there are trends towards more sensitivity and sensitivity awareness in all men.
#2 – You have a Purpose – Dr. Elaine Aron’s, the leading authority on high sensitivity, believes that HSPs are evolutionarily necessary for the species. We provide a thoughtfulness and caution to counterbalance our more impulsive fellow men (and women). We can be the wise counsel to leaders and be thought leaders for others to emulate. Our sensitivity is not a sentence but more of a calling. In finding our voice, we find our purpose. Your purpose fits in this model, with the scope defined by you.
#3 – Learning to deal with overwhelm- Overwhelm or overwhelming emotion is one of the trademark signs of HSPs. We process so much data and emotion that often we find that we are immersed in tidal waves of input that can seem debilitating. As an HSM, you must learn to deal with this and find methods to “detox” your system if the overwhelm is too high. There are many ways to relax and self-soothe. In doing so, you can turn off the world for periods of time. Meditation, mindfulness, and flow state immersion, such as work on a passion, can help with this issue.
#4 – Defining the new male – Today, male role models are changing. I like to think of this as a quiet evolution. Men are taking back what it means to be masculine and reshaping it to fit our current cultural milieu. Evolution is adaptation and as an HSP male, modeling the adaptation, towards something you are natural at, will help others expand masculine definitions. There is a growing movement afoot, and you can be part of that. Look for it and pay attention; it may find you.
#5 – Feeling is good – We HSMs must be okay with expressing our fluid emotions and strong feelings. We need to let go of the old model of the Stoic and expressionless male. Bottled up emotions are toxic and can cause emotional turmoil and physical illness. Remember that emotion is a human trait, and all of us are humans first.
#6 – Be human first – Yes, we are all humans first, males and females. The human genome is vast and expansive in traits and characteristics. We all fit on that spectrum somewhere. Always strive to be a good human first, anchor in on the human characteristics that are not gender bound. Gender role options are fluid; being human is not. Take comfort in your humanity. Being an HSP is a point on that spectrum, your other traits show up on different locations of the line. Taken as a whole, you are complicated and variegated, brilliant and multi-faceted, yet always human.
#7 – You are not alone – Know this, there are many here among us with this trait. You are not alone. Awareness is the key, and self-awareness is the lock. If you struggle with your sensitivity- find help. If you don’t, give help. Start by educating yourself on the trait. Wield your new-found power with the force of water, shape gently the world around you; even the hardest rock will yield.
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
Harry Burns: You realize of course that we could never be friends.
Sally Albright: Why not?
Harry Burns: What I'm saying is - and this is not a come-on in any way, shape or form - is that men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.
Sally Albright: That's not true. I have a number of men friends and there is no sex involved.
Harry Burns: No you don't.
Sally Albright: Yes I do.
Harry Burns: No you don't.
Sally Albright: Yes I do.
Harry Burns: You only think you do.
Sally Albright: You say I'm having sex with these men without my knowledge?
Harry Burns: No, what I'm saying is they all WANT to have sex with you.
Sally Albright: They do not.
Harry Burns: Do too.
Sally Albright: They do not.
Harry Burns: Do too.
Sally Albright: How do you know?
Harry Burns: Because no man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.
Sally Albright: So, you're saying that a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive?
Harry Burns: No. You pretty much want to nail 'em too.
Sally Albright: What if THEY don't want to have sex with YOU?
Harry Burns: Doesn't matter because the sex thing is already out there so the friendship is ultimately doomed and that is the end of the story.
Sally Albright: Well, I guess we're not going to be friends then.
Harry Burns: I guess not.
Sally Albright: That's too bad. You were the only person I knew in New York.
From When Harry Met Sally
Years ago, when I was working in corporate America, several of my friends and I would talk at lunch about the Primal Objective for men. We were all married or partnered at the time and being men sat around the table reminiscing about the days when the Primal Objective was our primary objective. The Primal Objective, of course, is the drive to reproduce and frankly is probably one of the primary drivers in life.
For men, the Primal Objective is to mate with as many willing females as is possible. Men do the majority of the pursuing of females in order to satisfy this drive. It is, in fact, a primary driver in much of male behavior. Everything from improving social standing, increasing income, physical and mental health, accumulating wealth, grooming, etc., have at their roots the Primal Objective. The more desirable a mate to females, the likelier the female will select the man. As primitive as this is, this is how nature intended. It reminds me of a quote, I think, from Rupert Sheldrake that said that the human being is the delivery mechanism for DNA. The sum total of what we do is to spread our genetic information. Hence, the gene is responsible for the Primal Objective.
For women, the Primal Objective is the selection of the best possible mate within a group of suitors. Individual preferences, notwithstanding, females select for the ability to aid in the raising of the young and provide assistance in raising said offspring. Now, this may sound primitive, and a bit old fashioned or may not account for modern cultural norms, but at the impulse/drive level this pretty much sums up how it all works.
This model does not put the female in a secondary position. As has always been the case, ideally, all mating behavior stems from female choice. Women choose who they mate with, men compete for selection – and the species continues. By this reckoning, women should own the process.
Men and women have different Primal Objectives, yet both supposedly produce the desired, mutually beneficial outcome. The drive for men to mate with as many partners as possible is so, because of the lack of risk and commitment men have to make in reproduction. In an elemental way, they are free to pursue as many mates as they desire.
Yet, somehow, humans have evolved into fairly monogamous creatures – creating pair bonds to ensure success in progeny growth and development. It has worked fairly well for millennia. Not dependent on a single alpha male, lower ranging males can compete with alphas by offering services to the females in exchange for mating preference and loyalty. It all is this complex dance, filled with synchronicity, love, wine, and roses.
All this has led through the ages to the current system of mating we experience now. But, the fundamentals remain.
All would seem fine except for the fact that this system can go dark. Increasingly we see the exposure of the Primal Objective, especially in men, go uncontrolled and become runaway and harmful. The consequences are a barrage of negative primal urges that create acts of rape, harassment, verbal and physical assault, incest, slavery, and misogyny.
What happens when the Primal Objective goes awry? Unchecked it leads to enormous psychological and physical damage which perpetuates intergenerationally. Although women and girls are not the only victims – they are by far the largest target group.
We live in a culture where toxic masculinity has objectified women to justify the allowance of a runaway male Primal Objective culture. In the natural order, men compete for female selection, but in this corruption of that model, women are selected by the men in a role reversal and very often against their will and suffer the abuse of a natural system gone wrong. The Primal Objective for men was never about making the selection, but rather being selected. It is about asking, not taking. Today this perversion of that process is rampant.
A male movement needs to begin that join forces with groups like #Metoo to educate and train men on how to control runaway Primal Objective urges. All men are affected when this dark side arises – regardless of whether these urges are acted upon or not. Many men today are afraid that past transgressions will be exposed and are tentative about participating or embracing such a movement for fear exposure from a long ago past will create a volatile environment for their current lives. What is needed is a safe space for men to seek forgiveness and to heal their own wounds, often inflicted on them by others, but passed on in a cyclical nature.
Understand that this does not give an excuse for such behavior whether it may seem innocent to some as playfulness or harmless, it often carries serious repercussions to the victims. What is needed is a greater awareness among men and empathy and understanding towards the plight that women share. Men need to learn to respect women and refamiliarize themselves with the way the selection process works. The focus should not be about shaming men for the urges, but rather to teach an appreciation and to understand the larger reproductive cycle, where the ultimate power/choice is with the female. Breaking away from the natural order has dire consequences. We are leaving psychological, physical and spiritual scars on our women that create an environment of mistrust, pain, and injury that affects generations. It not only affects the innocent victims but the innocent people that love them, too.
How could HSMs help? HSP males would make excellent leaders and inspirational models for other men in many ways. Our natural empathy and ability to process emotions would help us to reach men and show by example how to express feelings out in the open. Part of the problem is the inability to talk about the uncontrollable urges or the control issues, many men have. This is not to say that all men are guilty of this behavior or that all HSP males are innocent of wrongdoing. Yet, an element of the male community needs to step forward to ally with women to stop these transgressions. HSMs would be good candidates because we need to lead the effort to combat toxic masculine destructiveness, not only for our sake but for the sake of all men and boys.
It’s important that men get involved with the #Metoo movement. Women need our support. We need to quit blaming the victims, offer assurances that they can speak freely, create an environment where crimes can be adjudicated, and preventative measures can be put into place. We need to focus on awareness and empathy, develop proactive laws to protect and prevent abuse, educate about harassment in schools and at work and be aggressive with law enforcement on sex trafficking, rape, and incest.
In the end, understand our primal drives are necessary but need to be moderated in order to have a safe and understanding environment where the Primal Objective and modern romance can follow the natural order.
Sally Albright: Amanda mentioned you had a dark side.
Harry Burns: That's what drew her to me.
Sally Albright: Your dark side?
Harry Burns: Sure. Why? Don't you have a dark side? I know, you're probably one of those cheerful people who dot their "i's" with little hearts.
Sally Albright: I have just as much of a dark side as the next person.
Harry Burns: Oh, really? When I buy a new book, I read the last page first. That way, in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends. That, my friend, is a dark side.
From When Harry Met Sally
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
Peter Klaven: So what do i do? How do i make friends?
Robbie Klaven: If you see a cool looking guy, strike up a conversation and ask him on a man date.
Peter Klaven: Ok.
Robbie Klaven: You know what i mean?
Peter Klaven: No.
Robbie Klaven: Casual lunch or after work drinks. You're not taking these boys to see The Devil Wears Prada.
Peter Klaven: Ohhhh god i love that movie. No I wont.
From I Love You, Man
Every man needs friends. Males need a network of people that can serve social purposes, act as confidantes, and as a peer feedback group, providing emotional support. Highly sensitive people often are perceived as quiet loners that draw strength from their own company. That downtime, the alone time and the time to process the day are important to all HSPs, and in the context of the HSP behavioral model, it’s a necessary health consideration.
But having a male counterpart to share with and experience life in close proximity is as important as having a partner for romance and companionship. For Highly Sensitive Males, who are typically a little different than other males, finding the right guys to hang out with might be challenging. Being an HSM means it’s important to find peers that we can identify with, and it’s important to find men who share or appreciate our unique qualities.
First, it’s important that all men have male friends who can be your touchpoint for sharing feelings, concerns, and issues. Not just for watching a football game or playing golf, or going fishing or camping or partying. Men need male bonding experiences complete with emotions.
Social interaction is critically important to men’s health and longevity. Strong social networks correlate positively with overall health and long life. You are more likely to die earlier if you remain solitary and isolated, all things considered, such as health habits, lifestyles, etc. Social isolation ranks with high blood pressure, obesity, lack of exercise, and smoking as a high health risk factor. To be blunt, the consequences of not being at least somewhat social may be heart disease, autoimmune issues, high blood pressure, and cancer. Social interaction also means lower levels of depression and anxiety.
The upshot of all of this social interaction is the support network that humans need contributes to overall wellbeing and contributes to health. We are pack animals. Social connection is a fundamental human characteristic. Under stressful conditions, it even aids in emotional recovery, which benefits the body.
The key to good social interaction is allowing a certain degree of vulnerability for social bonding to take place. The recognition that one can’t always do it alone is a difficult concept for some men and often prevents them from attaching themselves to other males. Their fear is that they will be perceived as dependent and weak. Ironically, the more social interaction, the more oxytocin is released to create the bonds, which in turn produces a certain resiliency to stressors in the environment. The very thing men need is to be able to bond to others to make them stronger.
It’s also important for HSMs to bond with non-HSP men, this is a networking opportunity to reach out to the other side and interact. Mutual influence is a good thing. It’s also a good opportunity for educating other men about what sensitivity really means and correcting the perjorative narrative about what it doesn’t mean, i.e., weakness, frailty, emasculating. There then would be more opportunities for teaching other men how to express feelings in a meaningful way and for teaching non-HSP males in the finer points of raising HSM sons.
Men natively interact with other men, based in large part on social conventions and activities like sports, fraternities, veteran’s groups and competitive venues, which are more active than intimate, more casual than deep, more transactional than emotional and more side by side than face to face. Perhaps, some of the lack of attachment comes from a homophobic fear of close connection with another male. This often gets discussed in the recent spate of Bromance movies, which seem to have replaced the older genre buddy movie.
Recent notions becoming radicalized by extreme male groups promote fearfulness about the increased feminization of men. Modeling female like friendships between men fly in the face of western traditional male values. Yet, male bonding is simply the actualization of a human social interconnection that leads to the formation of personal relationships between males. Perhaps, the more recognized ideal of camaraderie suggested in the military, of bonding under mutually egregious conditions, make it more palatable for some men to embrace this concept. Nevertheless, all men need allies.
The male bonding dynamic has been observed and studied for years, yet culturally we struggle with this idea of the need for male bonding at an intimate and emotional level. Are men really solitary creatures? When given the opportunity, would they prefer to go it alone? Are men less communicative and only band together for tribal and communal purposes? Is this trait amplified in HSP males? Do HSP males have more difficulty in bonding with other men?
Because HSMs are different and know our differences -- by associating with other males, do those differences stand out and make us uncomfortable? Do HSP men find it easier to bond/ befriend females for close personal friendships just for the intimate emotional contact?
How do we overcome this? Why is it imperative for HSP males to form a “bro” network? While there is nothing inherently wrong with males having platonic friendships with females, the age-old question posed by the movie When Harry Met Sally, suggests that true friendship, without the romantic element, is nearly impossible to achieve between males and females. These types of relationships have been studied, and that question has been asked, “Can men and women have non-sexual friendships?”
What we have learned is that men and women have somewhat opposite views on platonic relationships. Surprisingly, the men tend to screw this up, more than the women. Men overrate romantic involvement in platonic relationships more so than women. Women, once it’s established that the relationship is platonic there is not a romantic shift seen in the female friend, whereas, the male begins to drift into a more romantic appraisal of the relationship more often. This, of course, leads to more complications and if there is an incongruity in the assessment of the relationship may end the friendship in disappointment.
Perhaps this is because men are less familiar with forming close personal, non-sexual relationships, and when presented with an attractive female friend, the dictates of sexual attraction blur the lines between friendship and something else. Interestingly, there are others studies that suggest certain intimidation of males, when around women. In one particular study, men appeared to be cognitively impaired in doing a mental task, when they were told they were being observed by a female. Perhaps, there was more pressure, when trying to please the female observer, but the point being that men find it difficult to be more relaxed and themselves, when around females.
Now, of course, this doesn’t mean that men and women cannot or should not be friends. I have many female friends, where the relationship is platonic, and the boundaries of interaction are very clear. Some of these friendships have been spawned from failed romantic attempts, but now, have found a comfortable and rightful place in each of our lives as friendships. The overall view, however, is that men can often be more comfortable and open with male friends and it is this openness that promotes well-being and should be encouraged.
So, how to build your bro network? Reaching out is important, even when it’s uncomfortable. It’s important to have a confidante this is the same sex as yourself. It helps in my mind, to promote the yang energy within your psyche. It is important, however, to find those men that are supportive of your nature and appreciate your insights and intuition. Perhaps, to begin, we need to find like-minded HSP males. This isn’t just about joining online groups but keeping your eye out for men that share HSP characteristics. Some may be the same age; some may be younger or older, so it may require the stretching of your normal social circles. Engage them in conversation and let the process of getting acquainted be organic.
Once established with some HSP bros, then reach out to other men, those that share a common value or activity and allow friendships to grow. Be discerning for sure, but don’t make the mistake of picking only friends that are exactly like you. Growth takes place when we expand our outreach. Consider them to be like your council of advisors, your board of directors, people that you trust and will give you honest and useful feedback. I like the way the author Napoleon Hill described his coterie of advisors as his Mastermind. Your bro network can serve a similar function but in a more intimate and emotional way. For most HSM’s I suspect that a few good friends are all that is needed, so this shouldn’t be a ponderous task, but maybe a lifelong endeavor.
On a personal note, I recently reconnected with an old high school friend. We were the best of friends back in the day. When we reunited a few months ago, we literally picked up where we left off forty years ago. It’s been a great experience to have him back in my life. While we were sharing, I told him about my blog and about the characteristics of highly sensitive people. After some quick evaluation, we determined he was an HSP, too. Amazing. No wonder we have been such great friends and allies.
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
Ennis Del Mar: This is a one-shot thing we got goin' on here.
Jack Twist: It's nobody's business but ours.
Ennis Del Mar: You know I ain't queer.
Jack Twist: Me neither.
From Brokeback Mountain
It dawned on me recently that many of the gay men, I’ve met over the years had a certain sensibility about them; a wit and intelligence that suggested an awareness of things, things that are not just physical, but things that were just lying beneath the surface in a different realm. I’ve been thinking that its intuition or emotional intelligence qualities that they might share with highly sensitive people. Being men, perhaps there was a common link with highly sensitive men that we as humans might share. A quality more developed in HSMs and gay men. Something decidedly non-sexual, like how our brains might be wired for processing emotional content.
Writing a blog article about gay men or gay culture and being a straight man has some inherent issues. It’s kind of like a white male writer, penning a novel from a black males POV. You can read all you want, do your research, make generalizations, but you will never be sure if you’ve nailed it because it is not your experience. Nevertheless, pushing on bravely, I have a sense, that as a highly sensitive man, that there may be some characteristics that gay men and HSMs do share. And, you have to believe there are intersections between the two groups – such as gay men who are also HSMs. Both groups suffer from some of the same issues with the current prevailing paradigm on masculinity. Both groups know there need to be changes made with our culture’s definition of masculinity.
As an HSP male, I have found myself sometimes balking at the idea of comparing high sensitivity with being a quality associated with females or gay men. It always hits a core issue on internalizing what masculinity is to me. Not easily fitting into the idealized American masculine model, basically means you are either all man and all in, or you are effeminate (acting like a woman) or gay (which by that definition is not a real man).
This disregards the notion that sensitivity is a human characteristic and not a sexually derived or gender trait. We as HSP males need to recognize that in ourselves. We are part of a toxic masculine culture by proximity that downplays sensitivity in males. This definition is narrow and exclusive. Being something by association is not a true definition and fails to understand the complex nature of human personality, which is so nuanced, so wide-ranging, so infinitely complex that simplistic definitions are beyond utility. Individuals want to be recognized for their uniqueness. And so I say, damn the tiny and rigid boundaries of small boxes that small box people want to place people in.
Are there perceived characteristics among many straight HSMs that are shared with gay men? The idea that men of different sexual preferences could share other qualities, such as sensitivity, a difficult quality for many men to absorb about themselves, makes comparisons seem problematic --like if we share one thing, we must share all things. This flies in the face of science, which has over the years expanded the notions about what the human genome is capable of producing. The diversity of humanity where bits on, bits off, in gene expression is mind-boggling. For straight men, the notion that being gay is a contagious condition that too close of an association could make you gay by contact is ludicrous – yet, it makes the simple discussion about shared characteristics almost taboo for straight men in the larger context of masculinity. This could explain why I have hardly found anything online about this topic.
How is sensitivity in men perceived in the gay community in lieu of the traditional American masculine definition, which would include sensitivity as a primary feminine trait? From a straight male’s point of view, I would have thought it would have been highly prized, but perhaps, not as much as I would have imagined.
Traditional masculine values affect how many gay men feel about themselves and their same-sex relationships. These rules include: 1) men should not be feminine, 2) men must be respected and admired, 3) men should never show fear, 4) and, men should seek out risk and adventure. In addition, 5) men should be successful, 6) achieve power and status, 7) compete with other men, 8) restrict their emotions, 9) restrict affectionate behavior with other men and, finally, 10) men should be work and career driven. Sound familiar?
Since all men raised in our culture are subject to the “boy or man” code, we are all influenced by the biases of this masculine codex. Some gay men embrace these very same masculine values. Therefore, there are some gay men who prefer themselves and their partners be “manly” men, causing some to have biases against potential partners because they display traditional female traits, i.e., sensitivity. This may affect the perception of the characteristic of sensitivity as a pejorative trait for those gay men who are attempting to live up to the same masculine role model that highly sensitive straight men struggle with. Now, this might not be true for all gay men, but the effects of these man rules affect at some level all men.
Studies show that men, who have issues with living the traditional male role model, tend to have insecurities, shame and psychological issues in interpersonal relationships (gay and straight). Why? Largely, because, there is a failure to live up to internalizing this value of masculinity, most men don’t see themselves measuring up. Add in persistence in dysfunctional behaviors due to these masculine values or even worse some carry trauma experienced early in life during masculine role socialization. With these cumulative effects damaging psychological wellbeing; you have the making of our current toxic stew.
Many gay men in these studies hardly found any positive characteristics associated with masculine characteristics but, found adverse effects in not living up to the masculine ideals. The subsequent results found that these same men had to “butch” it up to feel adequate. Many gay men feel traditional male role models forced them to objectify their bodies and found a conflict of being masculine enough due to their sexual preferences. Imagine being the subject and object of this idealized masculine role model.
To add further complexity, some studies suggest that gay men have many common biological traits with heterosexual women: spatial reasoning, hearing and voice cadence and tone, finger length (index and ring finger) and other biological markers. Many gay men prefer female-oriented occupations (this may include teaching, counseling, fashion, etc.).
Gay men’s brains are more like straight women’s in that they have common wiring. The anterior commissure is bigger in gay men’s brains versus straight men’s. This serves as a link between the temporal lobes and with a more active amygdala, produces more intuitive, empathetic and spiritual natures, not to mention more emotional processing. In addition, gay men and straight women may have more symmetrical shaped brains than straight men and lesbians.
What does this mean? Are gay men, masculine versions of the feminine? Of course not. None of this is to suggest that gay men are not masculine or should be perceived to be more feminine. My point in bringing this to light is actually looking at commonalities and shared problems with highly sensitive men, who are often seen because of their sensitivity as being more feminine. Frankly, I wonder if the characteristics of sensitivity, truly a non-gender characteristic, may have found through genetic expression, more ways to express itself in the population. Brain wiring for sensitivity maybe something that needs to be further explored.
Some of the biological markers gay men share with straight women are flipped in lesbian women. Lesbians have more in common with straight men. These biological anomalies are just another example of how nature creates diversity by the expression of utilizing a rich palette of human genes. It should be noted, that all HSPs have the characteristic of a hyper-responsive amygdala. Incidentally, there is no research that suggests that there are higher incidences of HSMs that are gay than there are in the general population, although you would think there might be. Although I don’t know that studies are now available determining the brain differences between HSP males and non-HSP males, it would be interesting to see, what if any there are in the wiring of the brains.
If you have been following this blog, you can clearly see that some of the highlighted characteristics that are often associated with women (intuition, empathy, and sensitivity), gay men (in a general sense) and highly sensitive males are quite striking. These are higher levels of emotional processing, greater intuition, higher empathy and a greater level of spiritual focus.
Now granted, none of this is evidenced-based or backed by studies, but I would suspect that a population of HSPs, gay men, and straight women, would be a significant amount of humans sharing these common characteristics of empathy, intuition, compassion, and emotional processing. This would also be a group of individuals that would have been impacted greatly by the current masculine role models espoused by the U.S. and the U.K.
Why is this significant? We are all subject to and live within the domain of the current toxic masculine milieu, which has been tolerated by all of the aforementioned communities. At the root of this is the idea of hegemonic masculinity, which legitimizes, white male dominance and justifies the subjugation of women and minorities of all stripes. This would include the gay and lesbian communities. This has been the role model for centuries with its characteristics of violence and aggression, stoicism, risk-taking, emotional suppression, lack of empathy, competitiveness and subjugation of women, gays, and people of color.
This toxic masculinity views gender roles as binary with no grey areas. Gender roles or for that matter sexual preference, as we now know are not polar, but rather lay along a continuum with much diversity and variation. Role models for men need to reflect that. Hegemonic masculinity is not a reality for most modern men, and the consequences of continuing to follow this paradigm are to risk physical and mental health for a large swath of men.
Since gene expression influences so much of our personality and preferences and the emerging science of epigenetics tells us that expression can be influenced by environment, we are going to continue to see the expression of a variety of male/female roles elaborated as our culture’s needs dictate and as we evolve as humans. Rigidity is not the answer.
These stereotypical labels we associate with feminity, sexual preference behaviors, masculinity and gender roles are almost becoming archaic. The labels have been defined by historical and sometimes religious rules and should now be seen as the variegated expressions of the human genome. What is it mean to be human -- is the question we should be asking.
How can gay men and HSP straight males ally to help redefine masculinity in a new way that is relevant to our world? We could start with new boy codes for our young men. One in which we allow them to tell us where they fall on the continuum. No shame, no guilt, no fitting into narrow boxes. Let them grow into what they are. Some will be traditional; others will not. But let them find themselves with wise guidance from parents and responsible feeling adults. By doing this can we aid women, and others that have been victimized by this toxic masculinity, by allowing boys and men to choose a more beneficial form of masculinity. By eliminating toxic patriarchal masculinity to free men from a role model that chokes us all, would allow us as men to be more empathetic, less hung up on dominance and focus on cooperation and rejuvenation.
In the end, it is all about power. Your power comes from within you. You express it with your life. However, to use that power to squelch someone else’s power is toxic, not only to them but to you as well. Men, we need to wake up to this. We can brand a new type of masculinity, a masculinity that expresses the male energy (yang), but recognizes and embraces the balancing female energy (yin) within us. It is not weakness, but strength. Our innate human strength.
Jack Twist: You know friend, this is a god damn bitch of an unsatisfactory situation.
From Brokeback Mountain.
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:
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.