A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
Growing up in the South in the sixties and seventies, there was no such thing as a highly sensitive male moniker. Men who fell into that category were labeled wussies, sissies or presumed to be gay. Needless to say, this created great angst for me as I did not routinely measure up to the gold standard of what boys and/ or men were supposed to be.
I was not much for roughhousing or being loud and rambunctious or breaking things – I was seen as a shy, quiet boy, different and maybe a little bit weird. I liked playing in my room, using my imagination to create a rich fantasy world with my toy soldiers (complete with complex dialogue) or doing solitary tasks like reading the World Book Encyclopedia from cover to cover. Once I traced the British monarchy from Alfred the Great to Queen Elizabeth II, just because I could do it. When friends came over I often feigned headaches, stomach aches and the like to forego going outside, just so I could complete one of my projects. At one point, my friends quit asking if I could go out to play but rather asked if I had a headache or stomach ache today. Clever lads they were.
It did seem to make me a bit of a “weirdling” amongst my friends, which also created some friction between myself and the neighborhood boys. I started then to begin to question about who I was since I was so different from the rest. I avoided fist fights or wrestling (rastlin’) matches or any opportunity to lose my teeth. Although the more I became acclimated to the neighborhood I began to do acts of bravado, like jumping from a huge rock and grabbing a supple young oak sapling to reverse pole vault to the ground. In hindsight, that one was pretty stupid.
Oddly, enough, I was a pretty good athlete. Considering that my father was voted most athletic of his high school class, I must have retained a bit of the good genes for sports. My little neighborhood in suburban Columbia, South Carolina, would become a kind of “Little Rascals” world, in which I could help lead a group of boys into various adventures, with my burgeoning planning and leadership skills.
We marched down to the bottom of the neighborhood near the river, lawnmowers and swing blades in tow and crafted a right nasty little football field out of an abandoned lot. To be sure there were potholes on the fifty-yard line and one side of the field was lined with a muddy creek, in which I found myself being tackled into on more than one occasion. As a sandlot quarterback, my superpower was my ability to avoid being tackled with some pretty smooth jukes and head fakes. It really was a strategy to avoid getting creamed, but it made me popular with the kids.
I never translated this into organized sports, mainly because of the coaches, good ol’ Southern boys, trying their best to be Bear Bryant or Woody Hayes. I sometimes felt they were frustrated drill instructors, who relished the opportunity to berate and yell at anyone who didn’t perform to expectations. In fact, in the South, yelling at young athletes is somewhat of an art form. As a young HSM, I hated that. Vein busting, blood-curdling screaming was not my idea of fun. For many Southern boys, though, it was a rite of passage, an initiation of sorts.
My dad, an unrecognized HSP, would try his best to push me into Little League or Pop Warner football, but I resisted. I always found some excuse not to try out or if I did, find a way to quit before the yelling starting. He always tried to toughen me up with phrases like, “are you a man or a mouse?”, or giving me some rugged nickname like “Rock” or the generic Southern “Bubba.”
At some point, behind prodding of my fellow neighbor friends, I enlisted into the Boy Scouts. I stuck with it until I made First Class scout but found the regimented quasi-military environment, not well suited for me and it was becoming a little uncool for the late sixties. Our troop was a bunch of rabble-rousers anyway, we rarely went hiking or camping and when we did, we often found ways to be a little less like boy scouts and more like marauders. My patrol, the Hawk Patrol, would, after taps, go raiding other patrols campsites and pull tent pegs from their used army surplus pup tents or pillage the food trailer for late night snacks. Yet, none of this Tom Foolery transformed me into more of a prototypical boy. I was an outlier and I knew it.
In spite of my Lost in Space attitude, I did begin to display some leadership skills and helped organize the neighborhood activities. There were the neighborhood football and baseball games, complete with neighborhood cheerleaders (I thought that showed promise), camp outs by the river in a campground we scratched out with our bare hands (rakes, hatchets and all). We even built a miniature golf course crafted out of pilfered wood (from nearby construction sites), which we later were forced to dismantle by one of the neighbor moms who caught us red handed. We were entrepreneurial in a Casa Nostra kind of way.
But none of this prepared me for what was ahead. If being sensitive and being male was not bad enough, adolescence was a time bomb compounding jolt of new reality. Everything changed the rules, the players, our bodies and the tantalizing introduction into adulthood. At that time, I was becoming a man and the rules, regulations and the messages were pretty clear – don’t be sensitive. And, this was the 70’s – a time when long-established rules about gender role models were shifting daily. There was no compass, no roadmap, no Elaine Aron (well, she was there, but hadn’t written her seminal work) to guide a confused and deflated young man.
I had no idea at the time there were other boys/men like me, who didn’t fit neatly into the bucket. My parents, both HSPs, really didn’t know how to raise an HSP male child, although they tried. They had no roadmap, no guide on how to parent me towards success, considering my sensitivity introduced a new element into all of their hopes and dreams for me.
It wasn’t their fault, like most parents they wanted me to fit into the stereotype, with hopes that I would assimilate, prosper, be happy and healthy. I mean, who didn’t want that for their kid? Yet, it would be almost twenty-five years later before Elaine Aron would publish her book on the Highly Sensitive Person and literally put a billion people on the personality trait map. Her extrapolation of Sensory Processing Sensitivity into an approachable oasis for 20% of the human population has validated and vindicated our sensitive ways and established a criterion for researchers to continue to study in scientific and clinical terms that continue to give us a measure of legitimacy and respect.
Now if we could only get our own flag or coat of arms or something to rally around. Of course, I’m kidding.
Well, back to this week’s title. Had I known then, what I know now, I honestly believe I could have and likely would have made better decisions about career, education, life direction or purpose, relationship decisions, partners, business decisions and so much more. I could have made better decisions for me that fit me and would have led to a more productive and happier life. It would have been nice to have a sixteen-year-old me, reading a guidebook about my deepest nature, a roadmap if you will.
No it would not have made my decisions for me, and yes, I would have still made boneheaded decisions, but the idea that my uniqueness, coupled with the HSP aspect of my personality could have benefited from the extra insight and the filters I use to process my experiences. Perhaps, more research is needed to produce such a work, to add and build on the work of Dr. Aron, Dr. Ted Zeff, and researchers such as Dr. Tracy Cooper, but I really believe it would be useful, particularly for HSP males.
Here are some things I think this all in one practical guidebook should contain (please add more in the comments section if you see fit):
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
We are a peculiar bunch, we HSPs. Some might even say we are a bit eccentric. This is especially true for Highly Sensitive Males. We HSMs are a small percentage of a small percentage of the human population and we just don’t meet, for the most part, the stereotypes of the modern western male. But, eccentric?
Dictionary.com defines eccentric as adj.: deviating from the recognized or customary character, practice, etc., irregular erratic, peculiar, odd. Noun: A person, who has an unusual, peculiar or odd personality, set of beliefs or behavior patterns. The word has its root from the (Medieval Latin) eccentricus from the Greek ekkentr(os) which is to be out of the center. It is used in Geometry and Astronomy to describe something that is out of center or not concentric. In other words, something that lies on the outside.
Eccentricity is often tolerated or even revered in the very wealthy or those who are celebrities. Their odd ways and behaviors can become fashionable amongst the masses, and are sometimes talked about as if these eccentrics were geniuses or acceptable outliers. In that regard, eccentricity can be a favorable quality, making one a leader or a trendsetter by walking a different path.
But what makes us HSMs seem eccentric to others? Is it the emotional aspects of our personalities, our broad accepting worldview, or our internal conflicts about our masculinity? What about our aversion to overstimulation, the hermitic deep processing of our experiences, or the masculine/feminine polarity, that many HSM men wrestle with? Are we too moody, too quiet, too sensitive to criticism, too introverted? We can be too empathetic, too observational, and too persnickety to environmental changes, but are we that different? Do we appear to the outside world to be outliers, strange, hard to figure out and hard to live with? In some cases, do people just want to throw up their hands and give up on us, because we are too much work?
But does that make us eccentric? Maybe. Eccentricity, also known as quirkiness, is not necessarily a maladaptive behavior. But, yes, we can be a bit off center from mainstream personality and behaviors. Many HSPs have an intellectual giftedness and curiosity, and a propensity for original and creative thought. That’s what makes many of us talented poets, actors, authors, painters and visionaries. We see things differently via our peculiar and unique perceptive lens. But are we eccentric?
The psychologist, David Meeks states that eccentrics are less prone to mental illness than the general population. Doesn’t that seem odd? Perhaps if you look at some of the other defining characteristics of eccentrics, it makes more sense. Eccentrics have an enduring propensity for non-conformity, they are creative (sound familiar?), have a strongly motivated curiosity (and I would add observational skills), an enduring sense of differentness and embrace this wonderful idealism that drives them to want to make the world a better place to live. In addition, eccentrics are intelligent, outspoken and have a quirky, mischievous sense of humor. With that battery of personality characteristics, it would seem eccentrics are well armed for survival in uncertain times, does it not?
Because we HSPs have an increased awareness and sensitivity to our environment and we do very deep and thoughtful processing, it makes sense that we may seem to the majority of the non-HSPs world to be a bit different, because of our peculiar way of looking at the world. And what about our tendency towards overwhelm, how we can so easily be affected by other’s moods or emotions, then retreat to our voluntary isolation, our emotional caves. We are prone to unrealistic perfectionism at times, which sometimes causes us to live out of sync with our environment and the people around us. So with our enhanced qualities of sensory detail, nuanced expression, and meaning, our emotional awareness which leads us to greater empathy and an expression of creativity, could we not be seen as eccentric?
Think about this: the following people have been associated with the quality of high sensitivity or Sensory Processing Sensitivity – Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Orson Welles, Edgar Allan Poe, Salvador Dali, Picasso, Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, Nicole Kidman, Katherine Hepburn, John Lennon, Elton John, Alanis Morissette, Neil Young, and Dolly Parton. And, my personal favorite, Robin Williams. That’s a pretty quirky bunch, wouldn’t you say?
Eccentric – well, yes, in a lot of ways. But, they turned that eccentricity into beautiful art. They are beloved by millions. And perhaps their sensitivity played heavily into their creative process. For some, it might have been a way to mask and protect themselves, for others it might have been a way to reach out and find common ground with the world. But for all of them, they risked being called eccentric and to rise above criticism to be themselves.
So, if we HSPs are that quirky, strange or weird, then what do we do about it? Is some eccentricity really good for HSPs? I mean, is eccentricity just really being different? But, wait, aren’t we different? Don’t we already admit that? I would say rather, how do we embrace our eccentricity? Can we stop worrying about what others think about us? Should we be promoting and socializing our uniqueness? And as people learn more about our nature, our personality our SPS secret, will they better understand us, and with that begin to normalize us?
Here are some things to think about concerning our “eccentricity”:
A blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the worldview of a High Sensing Male
This blog is and has been one highly sensitive man’s opinion, perspective, and worldview filled with my own speculation, conjecture, and wonder, with evidence-based studies sprinkled in to lend some credence to my opinion.
It is not intended to be a one-stop source of information on sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) (see the byline). It is filled with questions that have not been answered by mainstream scientific study or compiled by knowledgeable sources in handy guideline books written for Highly Sensitive People (HSP).
The point of the blog is to share information and opinion about experiencing life through the lens of SPS; the filter that all HSP’s share as common ground. In that, I believe we find common experiences that many of us share.
That is not to deny individual differences or to insinuate that HSPs are all alike. That would be foolish. Yet, I believe that some generalization is needed when exploring new ideas and concepts, especially when you consider the newness of the SPS concept. Although there has been some great research done on the neurological side of SPS, I think there is much more research needed to be done.
Human behavior is one of the most difficult things to predict. Often observable generalizations are used as hypothetical constructs for studies in Psychology. Nevertheless, even with rigorous American Psychology Association guidelines, psychological studies based on subjective criteria are sometimes woefully unable to predict with precision the reality of human behavior. This is often due to inadequate sample size, improper study design or the inability to produce repeatable results. When I was an undergrad in Psychology, I often heard that Psychology is not Chemistry or Physics; it’s considered a soft science at best. And believe me, at the time, those were fighting words to me. That makes research in Psychology sometimes a little squishy.
Now, I’m not anti-science, or for that matter anti-Psychology as a science, but I do feel sometimes folks in those areas get a little full of themselves. As if they are the only source of information and that the general laity cannot learn from their own experiences or the experiences of others.
Yes, I believe in rigorous study, especially in the field of human behavior, but I also know the frailties of science when it comes to the study of human beings. Yet, I think from experience we learn and yes we can conjecture and generalize on that experience and sometimes that can be relatable to others. This can be a source of inspiration and comfort to those that may be confused about what we don’t know about things we don’t know. A place where perhaps science has not yet trod. And one can dream, maybe a tantalizing lead for further research.
I am in awe of what Dr. Elaine Aron has done with her books and her research. She has done a mighty good for many of us, who had no idea why we were so sensitive, so different than others. It has in many ways freed HSPs from self-condemnation and being misunderstood because of their sensitive ways. I know for me, this has been liberation at its finest. And there are many more out there like me. Look at the number of blogs, articles, and publications now versus twenty years ago. It is legion. People are writing about SPS and taking many, many viewpoints. Many of these folks are not mainline scientists or therapists, just people trying to announce their arrival as HSPs and looking in true HSP form to help others understand and accept this wonderful trait. This will not go back in a box.
This reminds me of a dilemma that the founder of EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique, aka Tapping), Gary Craig, was experiencing a few years back. EFT was his simplification of other tapping techniques that he had learned for his own edification. His simplification of the process made tapping accessible to many people who would otherwise have not been able to use this technique. And, he gave it away for free to whoever wanted to use it. It began to catch fire and spread worldwide. It was used by therapists of all stripes, counselors and just regular folk.
With its spread, people began experimenting with it and started developing techniques of their own, still using the terms EFT. There were people marketing the tool, starting conferences and pretty much branching this out in a million directions. Craig became very concerned that the pristine roots of the technique were being bastardized, and he made some vain efforts to reel it back in. To no avail. It highlights a point about something that rings true. Once people are awakened to something new, it begins to take on a new life. He may have developed the technique, but he no longer owned it. It belonged to the users and practitioners.
I’ve been here for 63 years and have been an HSP my whole life. I come from a long line of HSPs, and I know full well the impacts on life when filtered through the lens of SPS. Yes, we are all unique individuals, but if the assertion that four characteristics (defined thus far by studies) cast a broad enough net to capture one billion individuals, then aren’t we making some generalizations about the personality characteristics of HSPs?
HSP life experiences, although highly unique and individualistic can, I think, be clustered to some extent due to our common processing techniques. Individual differences aside, the inputs may be unique and different, but the lens that the experience passes through is common, is it not? Would it not stand to reason that there would be a common thread on how that input is encoded, remembered and experienced? I see no harm in discussing personal experiences and offering suggestions to others on ways to cope with uncertain feelings.
It has never been the intention of this blog to offer clinical assistance or counsel and it never will be.
In addition, I am of the firm belief that most HSPs are highly intelligent and intuitive people that can decipher fact from fiction, speculation from science and understand when something is offered as opinion or conjecture. The intuitive nature of most HSPs will allow most to identify with concepts and ideas that ring true for them and to jettison those that don’t resonate.
Finally, I try to frame the HSP experience, mine and others, within a challenging and uncertain world. To reiterate what Dr. Aron has suggested numerous times in her writing that we (HSPs) are a natural survival mechanism for our species (and in fact, this is true throughout many animal populations). Perhaps, considering the condition of our planet, we should damn well be preparing ourselves to invoke that purpose soon. If that is considered to be an agenda, then so be it. Color me guilty.
Next week, back to blogging.
Highly Sensitive people are the least intimidating people that I know. Our highly empathetic natures just make us the last person in a crowd to stir up any trouble or to be menacing. Perhaps, that is because we tend to live a lot of our lives in the limbic portion of our brains. What’s that? Paul Maclean, an American neuroscientist, developed an evolutionary-based model of the human brain a number of years back. This structure he called the Triune brain, comprised of three successive layers of evolutionary development; three brains layered basically one on top of the other.
At the base of this system is the reptilian brain. The reptilian brain represents the most basic functioning as is characterized by actions that are focused on survival, the autonomic nervous system, muscle control and actions needed to keep the individual alive and functioning in a harsh world. Behaviors associated with the reptilian brain are aggression, territoriality, dominance, and I would add a kind of selfish, me-first attitude towards the outer world. The physical component of the reptilian brain is the basal ganglia. This brain level represents our basest instincts, and I think the image of a reptile is a perfect metaphor for this brain level.
Next up in the structure is the limbic brain or paleomammalian brain. This level of the brain is responsible for emotion, nurturing behaviors, social attributes most often associated with the pack mentality of mammals. Various physical parts correspond with this area of the brain and are regulators of emotion – the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus and the cingulate cortex. These areas are also influencers of the endocrine system and do affect the autonomic nervous system.
The final layer of the brain structure is the neocortex. This is the thinking brain, most pronounced in humans. The neocortex focuses on higher order functioning – rational thought, problem-solving, planning, abstraction and the integration of external stimulus. The three brain model is no longer supported entirely by current research and understanding of brain functioning, but I think the idea serves as an ideal metaphor for how humans can dwell in one area or the other within this model and behaviors tend to bear this out. Reptilian is a good metaphor for base human behavior, limbic sheds light on our more caring, nurturing and familial characteristics and the neocortex represents the detached, dispassionate rational, logical part of the human brain, kind of like man as machine/computer.
HSPs, as we have noted before, have a tendency to have an overly active amygdalae, which leads us to be well more emotional. It seems that we are more driven by the mammalian portion of our brains. Sensitive, cautious, nurturing types that are looking out for the tribe, being more pluralistic than singular. Contrast that with the reptilian directive, primitive and selfish that is about the survival of the individual. We have a more active nervous system, which is a key to our empathetic nature, and a higher order concern for others, exhibiting more of the mammalian herd protection. In addition, HSPs may have more mirror neurons or more developed mirror neuron functioning, which allows us to “mirror sense” the actions of others and contributes to our high empathy levels.
Which brings us to the focus of this week’s blog. Does the HSP limbic nature, inhibit our ability to succeed or excel in today’s world, a world dominated by the reptilian pursuit of greed, power, and corruption. In our current culture, it would seem so. Perhaps, it has been this way for a long time. I mean, consider the requirements necessary for a hunter-gatherer culture to survive. The need to cooperate, the need to look out for one another, the need to share and nurture the clan is paramount in survival. And that’s how we humans rolled until around ten thousand years ago. Somewhere around ten thousand years ago, we began to settle down and become more agrarian. We farmed the land, raised livestock for food and most importantly shifted from a pay as you go society to a society focused on accumulation and wealth.
It seems we moved backward, back into the reptilian brain of our long-ago reptile ancestors to focus on the individual pursuit of wealth. Settled, we became accustomed to regular supplies of food, a steady and persistent place of residence and the ability to look beyond our own stash and start coveting the property, land, etc. of our neighbors. Soon enough, came kings and lords, and landowners and wars; wars to protect the vested interests of the individual over the collective group. We moved away from our mammalian worldview, to the view of the singular reptilian. And in those ten thousand years since, we are not progressing at all. Our society today seems to wallow in our “reptilianess”, a worldview that prizes recoiled reaction over thoughtful consideration. Marked by selfish and self-serving interests.
But what of us HSPs? Are we the passive little meerkats of the human species? Dr. Elaine Aron characterizes the HSP/Non-HSP dichotomy in a more positive light. She calls the HSP model of behavior more akin to shy versus bold or proactive versus reactive. We are more like the doves than the hawks. Each has a purpose and each survives based on different strategies. And, I think passivity is the wrong word when describing the HSP strategy. Impulsive action over careful planning, each may have their place in survival, but at some point, they can and should be complimentary. Hawks and doves, they both survive, using different tactics and they do coexist.
As for Highly Sensitive Males, does all of this make us more conflicted than most men? The typical scenarios of actions versus thoughtfulness, aggressive versus assertive, reptilian versus mammalian, blind selfish ambition versus cooperative team player, highlight some of the conflicts in terms of societal expectations for men. The normative and prized behavior for males has largely been to walk with the dinosaurs. The portrait for masculinity has been to kick ass and get yours while you can because the next guy is stalking you for your stuff. It in many ways has been the age-old battle for determining what a man is – reptilian (male energy) versus mammalian (female energy). “Pick yer team.” No blending the two, please.
Are HSMs the new role model for a new evolving male? I mean, we all share the neocortex, higher order thinking brain with reptilian leaning folks as well as other mammalian biased people, which does temper both dispositions. The key differentiator is empathy. HSMs are generally more empathetic than their reptilian counterparts. We may also have a few other advantages. We can learn to moderate our amygdalas with the use of our higher order thinking. And I think this can help us stay calm under fire.
That said, we do have a quicker responding nervous system, which with our amplified sensing systems and our highly active nervous system, helps us to pick environmental cues faster than most non-HSPs. Yet, we are not always the first to act. The mental aspect is there, but the physical response may be lagging. Most HSMs have a tendency towards ectomorphic body type characteristics - slim, less muscular, more cerebral, shy and introverted, you get the picture. That makes us less prone to reptilian (endomorph) physical reaction, which is driven by a more physical presence. We tend towards being more mental/spiritual creatures and this may be seen by reptilian focused folks as weak and passive or slow to act.
Nevertheless, we HSMs have keen awareness, long memory and the power of reflective thinking. We may not be the warrior kings of the past, but rather priestly advisors or thoughtful kings, rare but, needed now more than ever. We need to question our definition of power and not limit ideas of what constitutes real strength. Maria Hill, a therapist specializing in HSP counseling, has noted some excellent dichotomies of what strength and power mean in today’s culture and how they are perceived. A quick summary of her thoughts filtered through HSP eyes, considering new definitions: 1) strength versus power, 2) action versus contemplation, 3) logic versus intuition, 4) brawn versus compassion, and I would add, 5) singular versus plural.
Could HSM’s benefit from being more reptilian? Do we need to be more assertive, gaining our confidence by balancing our fears and stepping out to defend our worldview without backing down? In doing so, can we outwit our reptilian counterparts? If so, can we learn then to absorb the pain of conflict, if necessary, bodily, mentally and egotistically? I think the key is allowing ourselves to more assertive, without being aggressive. To be in the physical more, and to have a more physical presence. To lead by example, showing empathy, compassion, and decisiveness. And most importantly, to not suppress our sensitivity. Our magic power is that almost undefinable quality of being aware of the world, from many perspectives, and allowing our excellent minds to discern the right path of action with confidence and assurance of the benevolence of our decisions.
Now more than ever we are on a mission. We cannot evolve spiritually in a vacuum without awareness. Our role as HSPs is to seek and share wisdom and compassion when our world needs it the most. We are in some ways spiritual warriors battling for the soul of humanity, and I am not being melodramatic here. To be sure, some part of reptilian behavior is essential for survival. It would behoove us to adopt a more assertive stance, wielding the best of the two lower layers of our brains, tempered by our critical, rational minds. Look at our planet – war, climate change, inequality on a massive scale, and abject greed unchecked. The reptilian credo of me, mine and cutthroat survival -- needs an antidote now.
Thoughts to ponder:
Following on a recent post on taking criticism, this week we focus on those times when criticism leads to arguments and how HSPs often struggle with conflict. How is that generally, bright, intelligent, deep thinking people, seem to wilt in the heat of a contentious argument. It’s as if a bit gets flipped in our brains and we shut down unable to keep up with the fast pace of heated argumentative situations. I have often wondered about that in myself. It's as if I lose processing power to fight back or at least contend with the high emotion of the situation. The minute the temperature heats up, my force fields go up and my brain starts to scramble. Yet, my ego won’t let me stay quiet, even if my arguments are a scrabble board of mixed thoughts and my parries fall into almost nonsensical logic.
I have never quite understood what happens to deflate my ability to counterpoint, especially against clever people who seem to thrive in these types of situations. What am I afraid of? Loss of face? Shaming? Am I afraid of losing favor with the person I’m arguing with? Does the overwhelm caused by unbridled defensiveness, a welling up of emotion, and my perfectionism kick in together to create a stew of mush, that causes me to lose control of my thoughts and move from single threading to a kaleidoscope of mixed emotion and thought too incoherent to vocalize? Does my thoughtful manner, and in this case I mean pensive, lead to a type of “ I’m right no matter what,” because I thought a lot about this, therefore I must be right.
Last week I talked about the external testing of our ideas and thoughts, not so much to gain consensus but to test our theories in the real world. Part of that is to hear and debate counterpoints in our line of thinking. But if testing leads to pushback on our ideas, ideas that are a representation of who we are, then does this ultimately lead to avoidance behavior, i.e., for arguing our point, because we are not willing to accept that maybe we are wrong in our thinking. And this shatters an internal mythos about ourselves. If so, I cannot see this avoidance behavior as being a realistic strategy for HSPs in testing our ideas, much less for anyone else.
The overwhelm, nevertheless, is very real. Overwhelm comes from within, especially for HSPs. In the heat of an argument, stressors arise that lead our minds, to recognize that in arguing with someone else, we have a situation with an unpredictable outcome. A very contentious argument is also full of raw emotion. This kindling lit with the emotion of the moment sets off a brush fire in our neural circuitry that can quickly short-circuit our minds.
Moving quickly into defensive mode, the flight or fight syndrome kicks in. Arguing for us is a runaway emotional trap. We are caught in a battle between our flee or fight instincts, mostly focused on self-preservation, and therefore we quickly shut down our brain’s effectiveness in following rational intellectual capacity which is there but cut off. The sting of defeat in an argument is deeply felt. The human brain processes emotional pain in the same way it processes physical pain. The same areas light up in the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex with physical and emotional pain, in an apparent evolutionary efficiency.
I often wonder if the amygdala in HSPs is overactive. The Deep Layer Superior Colliculus (DLSC) area of the brain works in conjunction with the amygdala to regulate emotional response in threatening situations. HSPs response to stress situations seems to predispose us to always be on high alert, based on our unique genetics and our life experiences. This constant flashing of alerts for sometimes exaggerated situations, like arguing, may, in fact, affect our hippocampus and other key areas of the brain in negative ways. This is prominent in situations where HSPs or for that matter anyone who has lived through traumatic life experiences much of which is harbored in the port of our subconscious mind.
The intensity of feeling is no doubt greater in HSPs compounding this problem. Greater feelings of anxiety in response to stress may lead to malfunction of the brain, especially in stressful argumentative situations. The repressed anger ensuing a stinging defeat may lead to increased muscular tension in the body, as we “hold within” our feelings of not being able to make ourselves heard in an argument, and can lead to later side effects within the body.
More importantly, I think this can lead HSPs towards a lifetime of argument avoidance, especially those that are conflictual and highly charged emotionally. This may lead to less expression of opinion in public forums, standing up for oneself in political or philosophical debates, or in work environment discussions. Some friends and family may even feel that we are hiding something from them and can construe negative imaginings about who we really are. Not a good situation.
The Thomas-Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument defines several types of modes or styles of dealing with conflict. They range from the most aggressive to more avoidant styles, each style with a marker for assertiveness and cooperativeness. The most assertive style, competing is assertive and non-collaborative. The collaborating style is assertive, but as the name implies collaborative. Avoiding style is both non-assertive and non-collaborative. The accommodating style is non- assertive but collaborating and finally, the compromising style is right in the middle on both assertive and collaborating. It would seem that most HSPs would fall in the avoiding, accommodating or compromising style of handling conflict. With the worst case being the avoidant strategy and perhaps, the most successful being the compromising strategy or with some practice and skill, the collaborating style.
In another angle on effects of personality and arguing skills, the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, which is based on Carl Jung’s personality types, can be extrapolated on key personality functions to indicate tendencies during arguments. For example, Thinkers (T)– would no doubt focus on the facts and tangible evidence, whereas, Feelers (F)– would focus on the interpersonal dynamics of the people involved in the argument. People who are Judgers (J) – might focus on temporal issues, how the now impacts the future, where conversely, Perceivers (P) – would focus on inputs and if the conflict is being addressed. Most HSPs tend to be NFs (intuitive feelers), so according to this, sensitive folks would be more concerned with the emotional dynamics of the argument and the impacts caused to relationships, perhaps empathizing with our opponent and deferring to keep the peace.
This, in turn, may lead to internal conflict, between defending self and our position versus feeling empathy towards the person we are arguing with. The internalized stress and conflict may be a leading reason our brains shut down, scrambled by conflicting directives. How then do we slow our brains down, single thread our thoughts and think lucidly during an argument?
Interestingly, as may be noted, that the effects of alcohol and some drugs may seem to achieve this objective. These external agents do affect the inhibition systems within the brain, which, of course, affects behavior. Some of the main attributes of usage are: 1) anxiety suppression, 2) disinhibition, 3)ego inflation, 4)thought deceleration, and 5) emotional suppression. In my own experience, I have noticed this to be true. However, there is a tipping point, where the effects are counterproductive and lead to many more issues that are not productive. Let me say, that in no way am I advocating the use of these substances to enhance the ability to handle conflict. It simply illustrates that the capacity to regulate emotional throughput can be done, even if we are using an external agent.
Far better approaches are handled without introducing external chemistry. This gets back to emotional regulation, which can and should be done internally. Here are some strategies for dealing with arguments:
It occurs to me that Highly Sensitive People tend to live a mostly trusting life. I think we generally look for the good in others, are optimistic about outcomes, maybe to a fault, and generally foster a rich internal life that supports this belief. The general characteristics of HSPs as outlined by Dr. Elaine Aron’s are 1) a depth of processing input data, 2) tendency towards over-stimulation, 3) emotional responsiveness and empathetic response, and 4) a certain sensitivity to subtleties. So, how do these characteristics foster a trusting and maybe borderline naïve outlook on life?
It has been noted by Jacquelyn Strickland that most HSPs fall into the NF (intuitive feeling) category on the Myers Briggs personality inventory. NF’s tend to be highly idealistic visionaries, who focus on big-picture ideation and do not typically get down in the weeds with detail and minutiae. Ironic that our depth of processing is typically emotionally based versus a more objective analytical processing of information that many more analytical personalities take. We like the feeling of ideas as opposed to the critical analysis of ideas. This is by no means saying that HSPs are not analytical or have the capacity for critical thinking. However, I do believe we prefer the feel of ideas and I would add the playing with these ideas in our minds.
Now if you combine the general characteristics of HSPs with the personality tendencies of HSP NFs, what I think you get is a rich inner world in which we tend to play with ideas and judge their worthiness based upon our feelings or emotional reactions. Processing deeply for us really means a deep rumination of thought and emotion towards an external stimulus. We deep dive with our feelings carrying thoughts and ideas with us on our rich inner journeys.
Part of the problem with this strategy is that it often leads to overstimulation, both from external and internal sources, as we turn the idea over and over in our heads. Because we live so much in our emotions, based on what I think is our need to experience emotional flow, our response is typically emotional, impulsive and not always rooted in rational thought or grounded in critical analysis.
It has been noted in studies, that HSPs tend to respond mostly in emotional centers in the brain when presented with positive or negative images. Almost as if we filter our world through our emotions, i.e., how does it feel? This could explain why the same study suggested that HSPs exhibit differential susceptibility, which really means we do better in positive (read emotions) versus negative environments. This is, of course, would impact our internal world processing.
HSPs may also show a stronger optimism bias, which is a somewhat naïve view that bad things won’t happen to us. Without external confirmation of our theories about life, we may find that we stoke up our psychological immune systems, with those beliefs that cushion the blow of negativity in our lives and give emotional respite towards negative events. This sometimes prevents us from learning our life lessons through objective analysis, albeit temporarily protecting us from the blow. In addition, this emotional optimism may give us a sense of control, when events in our lives seem uncontrollable.
Does this make us overestimate the reality of our lives or get overly optimistic about our careers, plans, relationships, projects, and ideas when faced with pushback in the real world? Do we need to learn to be more critical or rational in our thinking? Should we suppress our intuition or feelings, when dealing with the outside world in making key decisions? Is our rich inner world composed of emotional fantasies untamed and wild and driving us to poor decision making? It certainly is something to consider.
Perhaps, we should consider how we might become more critical in our thinking. I worked for many years in corporate America in the information technology area of a large bank. Critical thinking was essential to success in this field and I did have to learn to become more analytical, not only as a technical resource but as a manager as well. Problem-solving requires a certain calm state in the brain, laying the facts all around you and dissecting and discerning the objective pieces before you. I learned I was quite good at it. Yet, throughout, I knew that my strength was in the big picture overview and not in the details. It was I thought a good compromise, considering how my brain works naturally. Somehow, I was able to make it work.
But do all HSPs need to be more critical in our decisions and interactions, or more skeptical or even cynical? At the extreme end of the spectrum, cynical thinking is rooted in fear. It seems more in more in our world, critical or skeptical thinking has been overrun with cynicism. In business and in science, I sense a more cynical view from these areas on outlier or new ideas as if to keep the herd in check. Cynicism is hard and vindictive; it is not open-minded and displays a lack of the characteristics that HSPs own. It is the damaged outer portal of someone who has been burned and has full shields up for protection. Not something HSPs should aspire to.
Can we, should we learn to be more critical? The premise of this blog piece was to look at the way HSPs process internally and the effects of our rich inner life-- sometimes fantastic, sometimes fanciful. Are we more susceptible to others taking advantage of us, for our trusting, nurturing nature? And do we live too much in our inner worlds? This is especially targeted at the Introvert HSPs, which make up seventy percent of our base. And in addition, to narrow the field a bit more adding the introverted HSPs that are NF on the Myers Briggs.
Because NF’s focus on abstractions in speech including using rich metaphors, promote diplomacy and harmony, foster altruism, believe in optimism fueled by positivity, trust intuition, are romantic in thought and deed, and focus on what could be, rather than what is, we tend to be easy targets for those that would prey on many of these characteristics. Yes, it would seem we are a lot of Don Quixote’s chasing windmills. The idea that we are prone to mysticism continues to put us out in the realm of outliers. Our rich inner life does provide us with a wealth of new ideas, mostly untested, still soft, not hardened by the real world, but still new ways to think.
Our enthusiasm for these new ideas can be easily crushed by cynical outside observers, who intent on keeping a mythological status quo, press us back into the herd. These are folks we need to be wary of and avoid. In the last blog, I spoke of receiving criticism and fostering a more accepting nature towards constructive criticism when given by those that indeed wish to help us.
To realize that our ideas that emerge from this font of creativity within us are like newly released magma, fluid and still malleable. With the help of those that we cultivate around us to give us that external testing and feedback, we can then shape the ideas into practical and useful and insightful ideas that have real value. Yes, we can develop our own critical faculties, as many of us have, but releasing some of our internal world to the external world for evaluation, confirmation, and agreement, to me, is a good thing.
Now, I realize that not all HSPs are lumped into the same bucket. We are all unique; we are able to navigate the world in our own ways. Many people write that HSPs are too broad of a group to lump into categories, and perhaps there is truth there. However, I still feel that too many people out there have identified and are continuing to identify with like characteristics attributed to the highly sensitive person. The discovery continues, the more we share with each other our thoughts, our feelings, and our ideas the more we all grow.
When I was a young boy, I would often feel the sting of my father’s criticism. As a highly sensitive male (HSM), I would always take to heart his feedback and retreat to my room. No matter how hard I tried to please him, I would always find that there was something else that I could have done to improve or performed better in his eyes. It was a painful lesson I learned young, that sometimes you just can’t please everyone. Later in life, I recognized that my father was an HSM as well. Like many men of his generation, he tried to bury that fact in by not acknowledging those characteristics in himself that he saw in me. His answer was to force me to take the same route he had, which was a denial of his sensitivity.
As I grew older, I rebelled against him. It was fashionable and trendy at that time to rebel against your parents and I fell in line. We often had tense moments, I began to loathe being around him, and then abruptly, he died. I never got that opportunity to explore with him our HSP characteristics – an opportunity that would; I believe, have bridged the gap between us. His criticism still stings to this day.
This week, I’d like to discuss the receiving and giving of criticism for HSMs. Highly sensitive people are often criticized for their perceived hypersensitivity to criticism and are often accused of this primarily from people who are not very sensitive or empathetic. This is often compounded by HSPs self-admitting to being overly sensitive to harsh or brash criticism. The truth is we as HSPs do internalize criticism and become our own worst critics.
Highly sensitive people tend to have an intuitive understanding of where we are in our world, a kind of situational orientation, provided in large part by our greater sense of ourselves and the environment. We tend to overanalyze our situation, and in some cases, I believe we assume that we are right and correct because of this analysis. It’s almost a hidden agenda for us because we feel we can control the environment because we have done so much internally to analyze and prepare for it.
When we are criticized, especially unexpectedly, we tend to overcorrect because we have overthought the criticism. In other words, we don’t look for the criticism as feedback, but rather and sometimes harshly, internalize the delivery of the criticism and overlook the message. With that in mind, many HSPs tend to people please in order to avoid criticism. We quickly learn the expectations of the critic and modify our behavior to avoid the causes of their criticism. When we don’t take this tact, we often find that the external criticism coupled with our own internal criticism overwhelms us with emotion. This leads to defensiveness, withdrawal or shutting down.
When defensiveness becomes the regular coping strategy, an almost narcissistic attitude develops that we are not at fault, but rather the critic is faulty in their analysis. The walls go up and productive communication shuts down. When ego gets involved, we like most people, do not want to feel that we should be submissive to other’s critiques or if the criticism is harsh or unfounded to the devaluation of our ego. As Dr. Steven Stosny says, “the valued self, cooperates, the devalued self, resists”.
Criticism takes many forms and the deliveries reflect that. The criticism that goes wrong and fails to connect, often focuses on character and not behavior and is filled with blame. When criticism is not focused on improvement and is presented in an unconstructive manner, it is likely not to be received well. The realization by the critic and their subject that there very seldom is one absolutely correct way to do something and that the critical offering is to suggest an alternative for improvement, make the discussion about the suggestion more palatable to the person getting the feedback. This is especially true for highly sensitive people.
The reaction of oversensitivity to criticism may be learned from childhood. The childhood environment whether over critical or even non-critical can influence the child’s ability to receive criticism later in life. Oversensitivity to criticism may have roots in narcissism, perfectionism or obsessiveness. All of these traits may have been learned at the direction of the parents. If you compound the sensitive nature of HSPs with the childhood environment that may create a hypersensitivity to criticism it’s easy to see how constructive feedback or harsh attacks can be lumped together and then avoided.
HSPs tend to ruminate over conflict and this can lock us into not releasing the criticism. Releasing the criticism is like unwrapping the package and then discarding the package and keeping the gift. We tend to focus too much on the package and forget that the gift is the prize, not the wrapping. We tend to avoid conflict, which would include criticism because of some inherent feelings of vulnerability over differing opinions or just the risk and fears of disagreement. When receiving criticism we need clarification of the criticism to help us remain authentic and in preserving our sense of validation. We tend to sometimes overlook the facts and focus on the emotions involved, which attaches us too much to the suggested outcome instead of regarding it as a possibility for consideration. Research suggests that there is a correlation between our hypersensitivity to criticism and our perception of negative bias towards criticism.
Many HSMs compartmentalize feelings to avoid overwhelm. Our handling of criticism falls into this category. Sometimes delayed reactions occur as a result of bottling up the emotion, leading to withdrawal, anger or retaliation. The key to handling criticism is to remain calm, that is to say, keep the emotion objective with self-regulation of a peaceful internal state. This takes practice. Meditation, exercise, being out in nature, following a spiritual practice, Yoga, Tai-Chi or doing brain training will help aid in being able to conjure this state when needed. Your reaction to criticism is by now automatic and through mindful awareness, you can begin to control the reaction.
As males do we need to find better ways to handle criticism? Yes. Part of the problem is that many people who are in positions to critique others are miserable at offering feedback. To the larger, non-HSP population, criticism may only be a mere annoyance, but to many HSMs, it’s a personal affront. I do not think that in any way, HSPs are not capable of handling criticism in the spirit in which it is given. Yes, we tend to over sensationalize some of it, but truthfully, if given in the spirit of helping us improve, I certainly think we can handle it even if at first, we don’t agree with it. Part of what we need to do is help educate those around us, with suggestions on how to best offer us feedback. If the idea behind the criticism is to affect change, then certainly those in positions on offering us criticism should be open to criticism of their feedback.
We as humans are self-correcting organisms. As a species, we have the ability to offer correction advice to each other for the overall preservation of the group. It’s going to happen, wanted or not. In today’s online environment with social media being what it is, we are experiencing emboldened criticism of each other, some merited, some unmerited. Some of this criticism will sting and avoidance of it is impossible. The only thing we can do is to control our reaction to this criticism and realize that sometimes there is a kernel of truth and opportunity in every criticism. All feedback is good feedback. Even the harshest and most insensitive means that at some level you have affected someone else in such a way that has caused them to react to you. You are not a shadow; you live life in the open. That is a good thing.
Here are some tips for handling criticism:
In the late sixties, a UCLA anthropologist named Carlos Castaneda coined the phrase “a path with a heart” referring to following one’s calling in life. I read his books in the late seventies, although, I had seen them many years before in bookstores. His books intrigued me and I loved his writing style. He touched on so many of the questions I had about life at that time. In his books, he chronicles his time he spent apprenticing with a Yaqui Indian brujo (sorcerer), Don Juan Matus. Carlos was impetuous and hot-tempered and like most modern men, wanted logical answers to his logical questions about life. Don Juan on the other always found the cleverest ways of dismantling Carlos’ structured thinking in order to help him see the errors in his “logic.” It was all so perfectly sixties, but one thing did stand out to me: the path with a heart.
Don Juan answered Carlos’ question about life’s meaning and selecting a lifelong path, with a question: “Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use.” Carlos later intoned, “…both paths (or any number of paths) lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn’t. One makes for a joyful journey, as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.”
That metaphor has always stuck with me. I had always been taught to believe that work was about making a living, earning money, and that work was not supposed always supposed to be pleasant. The notion that work could be aligned with life goals, and individual characteristics, was simply beyond the realm of my thinking. I spent the greater portion of my life; following what I was taught, but never really forget the message about “path with a heart.”
To follow a path with heart means basically to follow the path of knowledge (our true path) versus the path of materialism (ambition, money). One leads to an attainment of knowledge of one’s true self and the other is a false path that leads to an over-identification with the material world, a false path that in the end can lead to enslavement. One means freedom, one imprisons us in a false narrative about what constitutes success in life.
So many practical folks will tell you to believe all this pie in the sky, new age crap won’t put food on the table or meet your material needs. They like to simplify thinking by saying that it’s all like ECON 101, with the supply and demand curve. Your life’s work is about providing a service that is in demand, and the monetary rewards will follow. I’m not saying they are entirely incorrect. I’m saying that that is not the only option. This is especially important to highly sensitive people, where work environment and meaningfulness play important roles in happiness.
What HSPs need is a career path that utilizes their highest and best use. It is a value based concept on utilizing the strengths and talents of the individual in the area of greatest need. In real estate, this is referred to as HABU or highest and best use. The highest value comes from a properties best use.
While researching this blog, I found a Japanese term that really resonates with me. It captured the heart path concept precisely. The Japanese have a concept that one should strive in life for a state of Ikigai, or reason for being. It’s the thing that you wake up for in the morning, the thing that drives you, the thing that gives life meaning and purpose. It plays into the heart path concept with immediate feedback. You do the heart path work and the feedback you receive is the feeling of value and worth. It is an intrinsic feedback loop that self-perpetuates as long as you follow the path with heart.
This is all fine and well, but putting this into practice is not so easy. Yes, there are people out there we have all read about that find that perfect intersection between purpose and pay, but how do many of us still striving for that get there? For HSPs and I think in particular highly sensitive males, the leap into something that fulfills us is wrought with worries and fears. We are by nature cautious and thoughtful creatures that when confronted with making an important life decision, can often over deliberate and lead to analysis paralysis.
Since HSPs make decisions largely by weighing all the data, perhaps ad infinitum, we should use that analytical ability to systematically analyze our options and strategize to find the best fit, not necessarily the perfect fit. What that means is that there may not be a career option that perfectly fits our complex and intricate needs, but there is always a space where those needs, our core needs can be met. I have written before about trying to find the mythical place where we find bliss, sans conflict, obstacles, challenges, etc. Great goal, but not likely to happen in this world.
Yet, with that said, we can and should strive to find those environments, those places of work, where meaning, respect, dignity and some degree of comfort exist. Environments which are people focused, where creativity is prized, where you have more control of your work, where compassion and cooperation rule and you can feel a sense of self-direction and authenticity. And yes, create your own unique requirements for the right path.
Stay clear of environments that are people intense, pressure focused, needlessly competitive, uncreative and environmentally harsh. This will not likely work for you as an HSP and certainly not get you in line with your path with heart or Ikigai mental state.
A good way to determine this is by creating a matrix or quadrant or comparison chart. An example may be to modify Stephen Covey’s decision priority quadrant. He uses the terms, Urgent, Non-Urgent, Important, Non-Important as the box headings. You could use something like that to create your own decisions quadrant or matrix. List the qualities you wish to have in a job and their priority. For most HSPs placing an overriding variable of “What this feels like” should be your guide stone. That is your most important rating. If it doesn’t feel right via your intuition, don’t follow it. It has no heart for you.
This feeling component is no small matter. Because we as HSMs have very thin membranes for emotional boundaries and a hyperactive amygdala, the feeling of being in the right environment is perhaps the most critical element in deciding a career path. In fact, I don’t believe we can be truly happy if we aren’t following our life path. Can we exist? Yes. Can we be happy? Maybe. Can we be fulfilled? Not likely.
There have been many studies considering the effects on career choices because of gender expectation. Since this column is written primarily to address the needs of HSMs, I do want to make a brief comment on how this may affect highly sensitive men and career expectations. Numerous studies have shown that women tend to pick careers based on cultural norms for women. These career choices are continuing to change, as we continue to socialize girls and young women to avoid limiting choices based upon traditional gender lines of thinking. This is a good thing.
However, I wonder, how much study has been devoted to men following the inverse line of thinking, i.e., pursuing careers that have traditionally been considered to be female careers. These careers are in such areas as nursing, teaching, helping professions, etc. Is there a reverse bias against males making such career decisions?
With the social expectation that men must work to provide for families, and that work is an option for women (please forgive single mothers, single females – not my expectation), are we forcing men into higher paying, higher pressure careers that may not necessarily fit with the individual's personality profile? Does this plague more HSM men, who tend to prefer soft skills careers, and is there pressure for many HSM men to make bad career decisions to fulfill this expectation? Are there any men out there, both HSM and non-HSM, who because of male ego concerns would not admit that their career in business or STEM jobs, is not very fulfilling to them? Would these men not want to admit the mistake for fear of appearing weak?
Money and happiness research shows that making more money may drive down the likelihood of sadness without necessarily increasing the feeling of happiness. Which seems to fly in the face of our societal expectation that happiness is tied to money, the acquisition of wealth and the procurement of things. Yet, the attributes of sadness and happiness don’t seem to be correlated with this research. The absence of sadness does not mean that happiness increases, but rather moves independently of each other. Having a place to live, food on the table and a big bank account may mean you have avoided sadness, but can it really make for happiness?
Ask the super wealthy. Perhaps, maintaining their huge caches of wealth is more anxiety driven than happiness oriented. It makes me think of the lowly Bob Cratchit in the Christmas Carol. His life was bleak, his work conditions were miserable, his monetary reserves were sparse, but, yet he found happiness in his family and the love that surrounded him. Whereas the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, wealthy as he was, was lonely, his life was void of companionship, and his drive for money was a poor substitute for appeasing the lack of love in his life. Who was really happier? Truth be told, neither was pursuing their path with a heart, but at least Cratchit found happiness in his off time. And, one could argue that both were HSMs. One turned into a wretch by life circumstances, and the other living a wretched life by circumstance and poor opportunities. Thank God we don’t live in that world…or do we?
Again, this focuses back on choices. To the live life on a path with a heart and to be in the state of Ikigai each day, would be ideal. It would be ideal for everyone, but truly ideal for HSPs. As a clear minority in the world, we must choose our paths wisely. The world is not set up for our comfort or to accommodate us. It is incumbent upon each of us to seek our path with a heart. Yet, practical matters require that our idealized life merges with the intersection into the real world.
There was a wonderful graphic about living the life of Ikigai. A Venn diagram of three concentric circles in which the following elements intersect: 1) What you love (your passion), 2) What the world needs (targeting your passion), 3) What you are good at (taking stock of you) and 4) What you can get paid for (compensation of service). The ultimate intersection of the four elements is Ikigai or your path with a heart. This takes work to surmise this balance of all four, but in the end, the path is lighter, the walk gentler, and the heart happier. If you have not found this, keep looking. Your happiness may depend on it.
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:
Just wanted to send out a brief post letting you know that I have not quit writing the blog. I have been busy pursuing some new interests including one love interest. Tied up in a long distance relationship and shuttling back and forth between East Texas and New Orleans, I have been lately consumed with matters of the heart and planning for a new future in Louisiana.
Life has taken me on a strange and wondrous path in the last eighteen months, but I have been growing and learning and will start sharing again soon my new insights on the blog.
For those who have “liked” this blog on Facebook, I appreciate and value your readership and support. Please know that I will be delivering more blog articles soon on a regular basis. And, please do share your thoughts with me on either Facebook at The Sensitive Man site or directly on the blog. Your feedback is important --let your voice be heard.
In the coming months I will be writing on the following topics and more: Following the Path with a Heart, Taking and Receiving Criticism, On Living a Life of Naivete, HSPs and Arguments, Embracing Our Eccentricities, Dating Choices, The Androgynous Scale, and much more.
When new articles come out there will be notices on Facebook and Twitter. Please share them with your family, friends and fellow sensitives and to the rest of the eighty percent who are not HSPs, but surely now them and love them.
Until next time...keep feeling.
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.