A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
John Keating: Now we all have a great need for acceptance, but you must trust that your beliefs are unique, your own, even though others may think them odd or unpopular, even though the herd may go,
[imitating a goat]
John Keating: "that's baaaaad." Robert Frost said, "Two roads diverged in the wood and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."
From: Dead Poet’s Society.
It seems highly sensitive men are asked from an early age to always “man up” or “get tougher.” Of course, almost all boys are told the same thing, most will take it to heart and comply, but HSP males have to struggle with what their internal workings are telling them. The request is essentially asking that HSMs override their sensitive nature to present a culturally acceptable mask of what a man should be. Understand that this is not really about manhood or being a man, but rather following a prescribed definition of gender role, that probably traces its roots too deep in our ancestral past.
The focus of “manning up” is to suppress emotional response in males. I am talking about a full spectrum of emotion. The logic states that less emotion means more logical, more rational thoughts and behaviors. But looking around at the current male-dominated world in which we live, you can see that this clearly does not pass muster.The inconsistencies are legion.
Asking HSP males to be less emotional, less prone to deep processing and thoughtfulness, so as to fit neatly into a cultural norm that is archaic at best, and destructive at its worse is an epochal calamity waiting to happen. The question among all HSP males is should I or can I even change my personality enough to fit into that mold comfortably. Can I become something that I am not?
The teaching to HSP men and boys is to simply apply one’s willpower to suppress feelings, thoughts, behaviors that are products of our unique genetic trait. Can one apply willful change for the long term, to change fundamental characteristics of our personalities? Is this just a matter of self-control, when self-control is control over one’s behavior, actions, thoughts, and emotions – a herculean effort at self-regulation. And, what would be the benefit – delaying display of emotion in order to appear to be unaffected and dispassionate? Is this masculinity? To meet an expectation of manhood that would deny a fundamental expression of something human and completely normal.
And, what about our deep processing? Can sheer willpower control that? Would exercising quick decision making make us think less deliberately and appear to be more forceful or aggressive? Can we turn off the mechanism that calls us to deeply process on an event or action that occurred in the past, causing us to retreat to a quiet place and examine all possible outcomes? Or do our emotions impact our decision making to the extent that we always run with our feelings, our gut, our intuition?
One of the reasons our deep processing capability is so valuable is that it allows us to reflect before we take action. In a reactive world, this is refreshing to know that there are those that do think before acting. According to Dr. Elaine Aron, this does produce a benefit for the larger group, as long as the deep thinking HSPs are in the minority, which we typically are. The logic is that if the larger group is more non-HSP inclined, then the unique insights of HSPs will be useful and appreciated more. In other words, our difference is our value.
Chinese researchers studying HSP characteristics have found that our deep processing, reflecting in the high availability of dopamine in our brains, a hormone that facilitates the deep processing, suggests that our trait of deep processing sensory data is a genetic one, one not likely to be altered easily. In addition, a lot of deep processing may go on outside of conscious awareness, which produces many insights that we attribute to our keen intuition.
Couple that with strong emotions and associate that with our depth of processing can lead to stronger encoding and insight with that information. Pairing our high emotion with thinking enhances memory and facilitates lessons learned, perhaps producing wisdom. Another benefit of our emotional nature. And, if some of the deep processing is potentially unconscious, how could we control that aspect? So much of what our brains do happens below or at near threshold of awareness. The idea that we could control this consciously seems unrealistic and impractical and only as an afterthought.
So much of emotional reaction seems nearly involuntary. Think of a time when something affected you very deeply. Perhaps, something touched you unexpectedly, or a trusted friend unjustly criticized you or betrayed you. The emotional machinery deep within triggers at neuronic speed a series of physiological and emotional responses reflexively. Often too fast to stop. And this happens to everyone at some point.
To me, the answer is clearly no: no to change and no to self-control. While I realize that some adaptation may benefit us, the wholesale dismissal of who we are is not only unrealistic; it’s impossible to do as a long-term strategy. We can no more turn off our deep sensing nature any more than we can turn off our deep processing – the two are polar ends of a singular trait, we call SPS, sensory processing sensitivity. That makes us different and unique, and I might add useful.
We are what we are because SPS is a deeply ingrained inherent quality within us. Our SPS trait uniquely influences our cognitions, motivations, and behaviors. It is a primary filter in our lives, coloring our experiences and shaping us. It is a fundamentally genetic trait that couples with our environments, upbringing influences, tendencies, potentials, adaptability, and self-induced moderations to create the HSP influenced, yet unique individual that we are.
The question remains can we steer these fundamental and inherent qualities and factors that can be unconscious, yet influence our thoughts and behaviors? Can we change our configuration of traits (even if we truly desired to make this change) to mold ourselves into something that is not us? To conform to an arbitrary set of standards, that we are inherently designed to buck? Is this just an exercise in thought control?
So many rational materialists put such emphasis these days on thinking our way out of problems. And, by thinking, I mean thought sculpting our way out of our problems, our issues and especially our feelings, some of which originate in our unconscious. To believe that we as HSMs can think our way out of being “sensitive” (as if that is a problem) so that we can follow the norm is ludicrous. You can no more think your way out of being blue or brown eyed than to think your way out of being an HSP.
Within this expectation of change is an unrealistic emphasis on what the conscious critical mind can achieve when in reality much of the processing including motivation, self-image, and confidence has roots in the unconscious patterns that require much effort to change. This part of personality that forms self-image becomes the sum total of one’s knowledge and understanding of self. Some of this is learned, some of it is traits influenced, organized along the lines of beliefs, thoughts, and self-perception. A self-concept once cemented may serve to preserve a view of self to protect that self-image and rarely yields to outside influence.
The prevailing wisdom, for men, is get in line or go home. Falling in line to please people is a lame and counterproductive strategy. I know, I’ve done it enough in my life. You cease to be authentic when you place yourself in compromised positions, vis-à-vis your HSP traits.
Masculinity in the modern world is past due for some needed major revisions. Current expectations are out of reach even for many non-HSP men. Moving the bar over towards a more human model serves both men and women. There is no need to abandon healthy male expectations, which may underlie our peculiar evolutionary roles, but note we don’t live in caves anymore. So, put aside the club and bearskins.
The upshot of all of this is to accept and embrace our sensitivity or more specifically our SPS qualities. It is indeed a gift, but like all gifts comes with some strings attached. You are more aware, more empathetic, more sensitive to nuance. Emotions often rush to the surface without much control. That’s fine, but remember others may be put off by your handling of things. Just be prepared for some pushback.
As always, educate others when you can. Educate yourself and find others of our tribe for fellowship. Recognize that you are not alone, no matter how you have felt in the past. Remember, too, where you may have been called to self-restraint or chastised for these qualities previously, self-control and willpower will not change you. Nor should it. You are what you are, and regardless of how you look at it as fate, by design, by nature or some type of cosmic tuning, you are here for a reason -- just as you are.
Neil Perry: I just talked to my father. He's making me quit the play at Henley Hall. Acting's everything to me. I- But he doesn't know! He- I can see his point; we're not a rich family, like Charlie's. We- But he's planning the rest of my life for me, and I- He's never asked me what I want!
John Keating: Have you ever told your father what you just told me? About your passion for acting? You ever showed him that?
Neil Perry: I can't.
John Keating: Why not?
Neil Perry: I can't talk to him this way.
John Keating: Then you're acting for him, too. You're playing the part of the dutiful son. Now, I know this sounds impossible, but you have to talk to him. You have to show him who you are, what your heart is!
Neil Perry: I know what he'll say! He'll tell me that acting's a whim and I should forget it. They're counting on me; he'll just tell me to put it out of my mind for my own good.
John Keating: You are not an indentured servant! It's not a whim for you, you prove it to him by your conviction and your passion! You show that to him, and if he still doesn't believe you - well, by then, you'll be out of school and can do anything you want.
Neil Perry: No. What about the play? The show's tomorrow night!
John Keating: Then you have to talk to him before tomorrow night.
Neil Perry: Isn't there an easier way?
John Keating: No.
Neil Perry: [laughs] I'm trapped!
John Keating: No, you're not.
From: Dead Poet’s Society.
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
Pee-wee: There's a lotta things about me you don't know anything about, Dottie. Things you wouldn't understand. Things you couldn't understand. Things you shouldn't understand.
Dottie: I don't understand.
Pee-wee: You don't wanna get mixed up with a guy like me. I'm a loner, Dottie. A rebel. So long, Dott.
From: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
The idea of thrill-seeking highly sensitive people may seem a bit out of character. The notion of nice, quiet, pensive, peace-loving individuals, taking off on wild adventures as novelty seeking daredevils just doesn’t match up with the stereotype of HSPs. Believe or not, there is a subset of HSPs, that do fit that profile and are high sensation seeking (HSS) folks or to spell it out, High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive People HSS/HSP.
Dr. Tracy Cooper reports that there is about thirty percent of the HSP population that fits this label. Most of them are male. There are four primary traits that high sensation seeking people display. One, they are thrill and adventure seekers, i.e., drawn to adrenaline-pumping risky sports and activities like mountain climbing, bungee jumping, motocross, etc. These are the kind of activities you would most expect from a daredevil. Two, they are experience seekers – looking for novel mind-bending mental sensations-- think of psychoactive substances or sensory bending experiences. Three, they display moments of disinhibition, mostly in the realm of social or sexual activities (wild parties, inebriation, or multiple sexual partners) Hence, a relaxation of social boundaries and the willingness to cross them. Finally, they are prone to boredom susceptibility, the tendency towards aversion of repetitious activity and seeking novelty as stimulation. HSS/HSP’s tend to fall mainly in the last three traits, granted, with some caveats.
In describing this trait, especially in HSPs, it might seem that we could describe this as reckless behavior, uncharacteristic of traditional HSP traits. However, because of the dual nature of HSS/HSP individuals, they tend not to be at the extremes. This duality presents many internal conflicts working both sides of the caution versus novelty endpoints. This conflict is a classic one foot on the gas, one on the brake scenario, which I suppose creates some novel forward motion, but doesn’t test the boundaries of thrill-seeking to its limits.
For most HSS/HSPs, high sensation seeking is about the novelty of the experience. Changing the landscape for a new view seems a bit more modest and a controlled method of allowing for a taste of what might seem dangerous, without risking life or limb. We HSPs tend to have a more pronounced Behavioral Inhibition System. Thus brakes get applied when the ride gets too dangerous. Although some of this behavior does border on impulsivity (taken from my own experience), it is not unguided by a more cautious retracting or overriding behavior reigning in, when the drift is too uncomfortable.
What is the balance between walking the high wire and resting safely in the net? How much and what type of sensation is necessary to overtake the underlying boredom of being quiet and reflective? Since most HSPs are introverted, seems a far cry from living in the cocoon of the internal world, which is already being bombarded by a greater amount of sensory data. Why fetch more sensation, even when bored, if the idea is to overstimulate?
It seems almost a cruel hoax to possess these two opposing characteristics. One pushing inward, one pulling outward, one processing experience, one seeking experience, teasing the limits of an already sensitive system. Can this sensation seeking be controlled; throttled pleasure, with none of the irresponsibility of reckless and dangerous impulse? It seems at times to be like an unconscious draw to seek overstimulation, an addiction to adrenaline, however modest, only to offset quickly with reflection and solitude.
And, what of this cycle? To what extreme can it go? Are some of us HSPs, sensation seekers, walking as it were without a net? Making bad decisions, knowing the consequences, yet yielding to some inner drive for increased sensation. Like diving headlong into a freezing pool, only to jump out and run back inside by the crackling fire. An odd balance of fire and ice, throttling between the two, just enough to keep the fire hot and the ice cold.
Can any of this be self-destructive? Is the impulsivity of taking risks for the novel sensation balanced by a keen sense of risk perception? Are HSS/HSPs more likely to access the reward/gamble ratio and to step out of a typical HSP cautionary personality to seek novel experiences, just to keep from being bored? The answer is yes and no. Perhaps, there is a deeper drive to create, that motivates seeking out novel experience to be able to fashion something new and useful. The motivator is boredom; the outcome is creativity with reward and stimulation.
With a third of the HSP population showing this trait of novelty seeking – it certainly would explain the high level of creativity the emerges from the HSP community. To be creative, one must be willing to seek new ways of looking at things, to put parts together in unusual ways and to be willing to risk criticism for your creations. The reward of success is a big rush of dopamine for having braved and crafted one’s indulgences. The added splash of adrenaline doesn’t hurt either.
How do you tell if you are an HSS/HSP? Yes, there is a test for that, too. Dr. Elaine Aron has constructed a test that was designed for HSPs to determine if you are a high sensation seeking individual. Here’s the link: https://hsperson.com/test/high-sensation-seeking-test/ .
I scored high enough on the test to be considered an HSS/HSP.
My experiences as an HSS/HSP follow a familiar pattern. Always seeking some secure situation, a job, a marriage, a relationship, a life, then abruptly leaving, almost at a whim, when boredom kicks in. Then being lost for a period, seeking, looking sometimes recklessly, then finding a new novel situation to anchor me. Only to leave again, a drifter on the run. Sometimes, doing stupid things or taking risky gambles, zigging and zagging off the path gets added in the mix, then getting comfortable for stretches. Then, again, boredom sets in, creating changes that have consequences and require remediation.
The boredom is not what you might think of as boredom. It’s unsettling, restless, not like a little kid or a too bright child unable to find the creative ability to stay active. It’s like an internal clock that says, “enough, time to move on.” A prompting, a calling to change venues. I hardly understand it, others never understand it. A neutral, unemotional epiphany that says it’s time to seek other sensations.
I’d like to think that this process is all trending upward, a giant learning process, like climbing the tread of larger than life wheel. But, who knows? In the end, it is always looking for that balance between boredom and overstimulation. A good, and sensitive man, who sometimes makes perplexing decisions.
Ray Kinsella: I'm 36 years old, I love my family, I love baseball, and I'm about to become a farmer. But until I heard the voice, I'd never done a crazy thing in my whole life.
From: Field of Dreams.
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
“That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run. So I ran to the end of the road. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d run to the end of town. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d just run across Greenbow County. And I figured, since I run this far, maybe I’d just run across the great state of Alabama. And that’s what I did. I ran clear across Alabama. For no particular reason I just kept on going. I ran clear to the ocean. And when I got there, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well turn around, just keep on going. When I got to another ocean, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well just turn back, keep right on going.” – Forrest Gump
I have been on a physical journey and a spiritual quest for the past six years. I left a good corporate job, a good secure marriage and a comfortable life to pursue the elusive unicorn of happiness, right livelihood and to fulfill what destiny I had left in life. It has been full of painful lessons, foolish turns, odd shifts of fate, and serendipity, with long pauses of loneliness and seemingly empty space.
I once took a vacation to Eastern Oregon a few years back. A part of the trip was to climb a very narrow, washboarded dirt road up a sheer hillside. Driving it was scary, hardly room for two cars to pass and in some places only room for one car. Even in a four-wheel drive vehicle, the sheer drop-offs were intimidating and nerve-wracking. The first few miles were filled with anxious caution, and I knew without turnouts that there was no turning back.
Once we leveled out on the plateau above, the road widened, making the remainder of the journey a wonderful excursion. At the summit, we were just over a mile above the meandering Snake River, far down below. It was a beautiful and awe-inspiring site, well worth the heart-pounding ascent.
Such is life. Tolkien once remarked in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, “not all those who wander are lost.” I hold this thought close to me when all seems murky and unclear. Sometimes its not about finding the path, but rather allowing the path to find you.
No trail taken is ever wasted, even those that lead us on dead ends. There is truth in every turn. Just like small trail flowers along the way, easy to overlook or step down with heavy beating feet, but each a small bundle of beauty to behold, and a valued treasure if one examines closely. One need only look up and around to grasp a view so beautiful that it hurts to leave, like a view that can only be appreciated from a distance. Once seen is then sealed in the heart forever.
However, any trail can be a trial. As an HSP male, I have often wondered how well suited I am for this journey. Is it harder for me because of my inherent HSP characteristics? Am I just prone to taking these side treks or does life have to force me into these non-linear loops?
Being sensitive and a gypsy seems odd cohabitants in my personality. Or does that make me well suited for this journey? With positive HSP qualities such as awareness, creativity, empathy, appreciation, intuition, and passion, does it not seem to make me a better observer and chronicler of all that I take in? The important question is how well can I integrate, process and assimilate the lessons of the trip.
We, HSPs are complex creatures. Our life journeys often test our strength and courage. We are strong but strong like water, not like rock. Our strength is pliable, amorphous and fluid, and what seems soft, is powerfully persistent. A knife can scratch a rock, yet does nothing to water. Water, given time can erode even the hardest, most immobile and immutable rock. So, which is the stronger? The silent rock edifice standing on the shore, or the crashing, relentless wave?
Finding the nuggets on our journey is what makes life worthwhile. We are both sensitive and highly sensing which makes these shiny chunks easier to spot, but harder to process. Emotionally charged events can leave the heart heavy with doubt, remorse or sorrow. Key stressors for us on the journey are crazy zigs and zags in life when our journey deviates from the plan, and our expectations drop. Challenges tax us and having to put up with less than desired outcomes when we make personal wrong turns add to our rumination. We then ride the tidal waves of immense highs and lows. Finding the secret treasures in our journey, can rejuvenate and enlighten us, especially when we need that lift.
Allowing that mash-up of good and bad, to mix and ferment, can make the sum of the journey something to savor, a deep reflective lesson, one for growth.
Doing this with complex emotions, crammed life lessons, solitary journeys, all allowed without the ability to see far down the road, or where the path leads. You still need to step forward, one foot leading the other, not always knowing where the trail leads – bending around a broad tree, descending into a deep, dark glen. We never know for sure. The existence of the trail is a testament to the fact that others have preceded you, no braver than you. You must trust the instincts and history of the trail. Relishing every moment, fighting back the doubt, knowing that the trail is not always the destination, but the path wherein the journey lies. As Lao-Tzu, the Chinese philosopher expressed, “What is beyond, is also here.”
As for me, faith, trust, and anticipation of my destination keep me boot bound to the ground ahead of me. The power to imagine getting back home to familiar faces and longed-for places is what sustains me. Wasted and tired, beat down, but inspired, I keep looking to find my way home again. No longer the same man that left. Soon, I will know, like Forrest Gump – “I’m tired now. I think I’ll go home.”
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
The French have a term, L’Appel Du Vide, the call of the void, to describe that intrusive call to oblivion, of self-destruction or of jumping impulsively into the abyss, that we all experience from time to time. The moment happens to most of us, in a split second, standing near a ledge, or driving in a car, wherein we contemplate cutting across the line into oncoming traffic. It is like Carlos Castaneda’s ideology of death stalking us, tempting us with a moment, where we are dared to chase the reaper. A snap inner voice that says “Jump!” and for a split second, our minds drift over into the call to nothingness. A single moment of distraction, an alternate reality, and then just as suddenly back to normalcy, with a deep sigh.
We HSPs live a lot of our lives inside of our heads. Many of our self-concepts come from the conclusions we have drawn from our own deep analysis and deep processing. Many times we don’t validate those conclusions externally, because of our sensitivity to criticism and our fragile egos. We make ourselves subject to deep hurt when our carefully considered assumptions are proven wrong by expressing them to others. Deep processing does not always mean correct conclusions. In fact, I would argue that many of our conclusions are off the mark, like computer code stuck in an endless loop.
At times this can create a bit of an existential crisis with us, causing doubt about who we are, what we are and, thoughts on the possible need to construct a new model within our egos. A very conscientious individual can be severely rattled when confronted with logical holes in their reasoning or in their emotional position.
And, at that moment, does this create a metaphorical moment of L’appel du vide? You have to love the French for taking a very serious matter and give it an élan that only they can do. L’appel du vide is not always about taking the plunge, it is though a split second of resignation, passing quickly, offering a moment of liberation at the thought of no longer existing. We briefly escape our existence, jumping headlong into a dark nothingness, where we can abandon, our emotions and our hurt. Here, when our peaceful place of refuge lets us down, we can flash think into a nonexistence.
Of course, quickly we flash back to reality, shocked for the moment that the idea of nonexistence was presented in front of us. A fantasy suicide of sorts, that never happens.
Is this real? Does this scenario happen to HSPs? Are we subject to the un petite l’appel du vide thoughts? Or are we more practical, suffer the insults, process heavily, then pop our little heads out of the hole again, no worse for the wear? Suicidal ideation, fleeting thoughts, role-playing or incompletion of actually ending it all, is not so uncommon. But, it is a serious matter. Nearly four percent of adult Americans report having these moments. The underlying causes often come from mood disorders, depression or simply by feeling alone, abandoned or the stress of life. But, what I am speaking of here, is not that.
These moments of existential crisis, a moment when the individual questions if their life has meaning, purpose or value, may lead one to conjure an l’appel du vide moment. More often popping up as a spontaneous subconscious thought. Could heavy, deep processing of a bad decision, or wrong conclusion, lead one to doubt oneself or to provide too many options to choose from, lead to this same internal crisis?
Is this just a miscalculation? Can overprocessing of highly energized emotional input cause us HSPs to over calculate causing an internal crisis? Dr. Elaine Aron acknowledges to our deep processing cycles with the acronym, D.O.E.S. The D represents the HSP depth of processing, that deep contemplation of what others might see as minutiae. The O stands for overstimulation, a common characteristic of HSPs, our world of overwhelm. The E is for emotional reactivity, our energizing quality, and finally, the S is for seeing the subtle or our high marking sensitivity. Now granted all of these qualities have and can be seen as positive in many ways, bringing us the ability to be intuitive, empathetic, cautious and careful planners. But, can too much processing be a two-edged sword?
Sometimes the pain is the lesson. Suffering through deep processing should eventually lead to some type of action, but with HSPs not always is there follow through. A constant churn of revisiting, rethinking and reevaluating conclusions may not be a great strategy for solutions. Even with our need for solitude, alone time, silent reflection – in the end, a decision or action is needed. Too much solitude can lead to a distortion of perception, increased anxiety and perhaps sensory illusions.
When a computer program goes into an endless loop, it follows the code, regardless of the flaw and loops back endlessly to the beginning, only to start again. It wastes computer time and resources, perhaps generating needless output, yet never concluding. When confronted with painful reality are HSPs subject to endless loop processing?
Then, does inaction lead us to those moments of l’appel du vide? Does our deep processing lead us to wish we could let go of the processing cycle? Do we fall into an endless loop, not deciding, not concluding, but caught, lost in too much information – and in our imaginations, staring blithely through a rain-soaked windshield at the oncoming traffic ahead and flashing a moment of nonexistence for a respite?
So, what do we do? Follow up the deep processing with some type of action. Don’t get caught in the whirlpool, getting sucked down into the vortex of overthinking. Don’t let frustration get you down, heads up, keep looking to break the trend of over processing. And, if that moment of l’appel du vide comes into conscious awareness – consider it rather as a leap of faith. Yes, process as we do, but at some point face the uncomfortableness and take action to resolve. You’ll never know if you are right or wrong until you expose your thinking to the outside. Take the leap into the void of uncertainty but leave the leap from the cliff alone.
Note: Suicide is a serious matter. If you are having recurring suicidal thoughts, please seek immediate help from a medical or mental health professional. The gist of this article was to take the French concept of “the call of the void” and use it in a metaphorical way, describing a brief mental escape. L’appel du vide in this context was also used to mean responding to the call as a mental leap of faith or better yet, taking a calculated risk towards positive action, expressed as leaping into the unknown. Breaking the habit of overthinking is probably a good thing, but don’t abandon careful, considerate deep evaluation. Consider it carefully, as I know you will.
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
Are HSPs any better or luckier in love than non-HSPs? Because of our affinity to emotion are we better lovers or more inclined to better, more loving relationships? You would think we’d be all-stars at love – compassionate, caring and nurturing souls that we are.
The research doesn’t seem to support this. According to Dr. Elaine Aron, we have a tendency to be less happy in our romantic relationships. Simply put, we tend to be too idealistic, too caring; too easily focused on the needs of our partners, that we often fail to get our own needs met. In fact, we are typically drawn to people who have problems and these people tend to drag us down into their own insular world, leaving us to abandon our needs in favor of theirs. This deep focusing on pleasing our mates is known as mate sensitivity or finding what pleases our love interests and giving them what they need at all costs.
My own experiences, when it comes to love bear this out. It’s not that my selections were all bad; it’s that I was badly suited to their needs and them to me. Yet, someone in need almost always draws me in. Two failed marriages, several failed recent relationships highlighted that I have not been where I needed to be, to truly have love or to share it.
But what special needs do HSPs have in regard to garnering a fruitful and successful love relationship? For one, it is always best to spend some time determining what your needs are. Take the time and dwell deeply on this.
This goes way beyond the physical and the initial attraction. Take time to get to know the other person. Know who they are at their core. It’s easy to fall prey to the notion that the physical will overcome in some way any of the other components of a person’s personality that are not clicking with you. That never works, no matter how good the physical relationship appears.
It’s also important to set boundaries early on, on how much you give, how much you take. Locate the perimeters of those boundaries in regard to respect, your privacy, your solitary time. Focus on how you communicate – the style, the intensity, the frequency. Note how sensitive they are to your sensitivity, do they accept your peculiarities, your intuitive ways, your skills of anticipation. Do they exploit your willingness to dive in on their problems, do they begin to focus only on their needs, do they minimize you. Stay close to your intuition here. And by all means, get this on the table early on.
You need a relationship that will bolster your self-esteem and build you up. If you find yourself creeping around on eggshells, every cracking egg should be a warning to you that the environment for love is not there, not for you.
And if the “other” is a vampire, an emotion sucker, run like hell to the nearest exit. Note how you argue/disagree with the person, note how quickly it gets emotional or worse yet, hysterical and or violent – either physically or verbally. These should all be big red flags. If the conflict becomes attacking and personal, then get out quickly. You CANNOT fix their underlying issues.
Being a hopeless romantic, an erotic idealist does not make this any easier. The romantic part never prepares you for the practical matters of love. The day to day existence, the support when you are down, loving you between the poetic lines, understanding of your deep needs for space, for privacy, for emotional expression – the grind that a long-term relationship brings.
Then, dealing with the inevitable conflict that living with someone brings. Our penchant for avoidance of conflict, or shying away from blunt speaking of truth, which often brings accompanying accusations of lying when withholding our conflicted truth. To be honest or to hurt, tumbles around in our heads; two options that typically slay us in our bewildering internal map. And conflict brings a disrobing of our idealized self, often cloaked in secrecy – that sometimes reveals dark, deep warts, or exposing tender spots of vulnerability. Sometimes exposing our truth, lying deep within, withheld and festering, comes a dark moment of realization, looking starkly at the reflection of who we are in the real world of romance.
What we are ideally suited for is the romancing, the conscientious lover part, the creative artistic part of love. Yet, we are not practical lovers. Are we just romantic dreamers that once confronted with the real world, melt and fade away or leave, looking for that next impassioned high. Do we love too much for our own good? Are we addicted to the biochemical reaction of love, the brain-altering and heart-shaking love of first taste romance? Do we love the endorphin rush, the dopamine bomb, the oxytocin fix we all crave but rarely find?
Can Everywoman understand us enough to live and cope with our highly sensual natures? Does Everywoman match up to our idealistic constructs of the perfect woman? Do we all push through the existential pain of unrequited love of idealized love that seemingly we seem to all walk through – the deep loneliness that our personality makes for us? Or is it just me?
I wonder if we should just search for HSP lovers, those like us, who share our deep caring ways, our deep inner world or could we not stand to be around someone like us? Would too many HSP characteristics slopping around in the tank, make the whole engine guck up and freeze?
Finding your ideal lover is unique for all of us. Some will find their mates early on, stick with them and mate for life. Maybe for others, it’s the rebound of a second chance. The opportunity to learn and correct past mistakes. And there are those of us who are just seekers of experience. Drunkards for love. We are intrepid souls that enter other’s lives, with good intent (“yes, this time, its right”); we love them like no other and by circumstance or our own making, leave or move on, still yearning, still aching for perfect love.
In the wake of our search are those that we touch in our lives, and because we are not heartless bastards, don’t leave them without something of a glance of what a real caring lover can look like. But because of our betrayal, we stab them unintentionally, to loose us from our bond, so that we, ever seeking, can move on. The life of a gypsy is a lonely one and along the way, the fences all have barbed wire leaving trace scars on our hearts.
No, don’t date Everywoman, HSM men. You will likely fail unless she is a rare gem. You are not Everyman. You are both better and worse than that. Stephen Stills once said in song, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one your with.” And, I would add, until you find the right one. That elusive unicorn of love, that always sits at the edge of the horizon, where the sun is setting, silhouetted and motionless, directing you towards them. You need that special lover. They are rare indeed. You will have to look hard to find them, but with diligence and persistence, you will meet your special one. She may be looking for you now. Have faith.
P.S. To all my lady loves, I thank you. You have taught me both joy and pain, love and disappointment, hurt and ecstasy. I am far from perfect; forgive me my wonderings. You were all my muses. Thank you for the time together.
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
Growing up in the South in the sixties and seventies, there was no such thing as a highly sensitive male moniker. Men who fell into that category were labeled wussies, sissies or presumed to be gay. Needless to say, this created great angst for me as I did not routinely measure up to the gold standard of what boys and/ or men were supposed to be.
I was not much for roughhousing or being loud and rambunctious or breaking things – I was seen as a shy, quiet boy, different and maybe a little bit weird. I liked playing in my room, using my imagination to create a rich fantasy world with my toy soldiers (complete with complex dialogue) or doing solitary tasks like reading the World Book Encyclopedia from cover to cover. Once I traced the British monarchy from Alfred the Great to Queen Elizabeth II, just because I could do it. When friends came over I often feigned headaches, stomach aches and the like to forego going outside, just so I could complete one of my projects. At one point, my friends quit asking if I could go out to play but rather asked if I had a headache or stomach ache today. Clever lads they were.
It did seem to make me a bit of a “weirdling” amongst my friends, which also created some friction between myself and the neighborhood boys. I started then to begin to question about who I was since I was so different from the rest. I avoided fist fights or wrestling (rastlin’) matches or any opportunity to lose my teeth. Although the more I became acclimated to the neighborhood I began to do acts of bravado, like jumping from a huge rock and grabbing a supple young oak sapling to reverse pole vault to the ground. In hindsight, that one was pretty stupid.
Oddly, enough, I was a pretty good athlete. Considering that my father was voted most athletic of his high school class, I must have retained a bit of the good genes for sports. My little neighborhood in suburban Columbia, South Carolina, would become a kind of “Little Rascals” world, in which I could help lead a group of boys into various adventures, with my burgeoning planning and leadership skills.
We marched down to the bottom of the neighborhood near the river, lawnmowers and swing blades in tow and crafted a right nasty little football field out of an abandoned lot. To be sure there were potholes on the fifty-yard line and one side of the field was lined with a muddy creek, in which I found myself being tackled into on more than one occasion. As a sandlot quarterback, my superpower was my ability to avoid being tackled with some pretty smooth jukes and head fakes. It really was a strategy to avoid getting creamed, but it made me popular with the kids.
I never translated this into organized sports, mainly because of the coaches, good ol’ Southern boys, trying their best to be Bear Bryant or Woody Hayes. I sometimes felt they were frustrated drill instructors, who relished the opportunity to berate and yell at anyone who didn’t perform to expectations. In fact, in the South, yelling at young athletes is somewhat of an art form. As a young HSM, I hated that. Vein busting, blood-curdling screaming was not my idea of fun. For many Southern boys, though, it was a rite of passage, an initiation of sorts.
My dad, an unrecognized HSP, would try his best to push me into Little League or Pop Warner football, but I resisted. I always found some excuse not to try out or if I did, find a way to quit before the yelling starting. He always tried to toughen me up with phrases like, “are you a man or a mouse?”, or giving me some rugged nickname like “Rock” or the generic Southern “Bubba.”
At some point, behind prodding of my fellow neighbor friends, I enlisted into the Boy Scouts. I stuck with it until I made First Class scout but found the regimented quasi-military environment, not well suited for me and it was becoming a little uncool for the late sixties. Our troop was a bunch of rabble-rousers anyway, we rarely went hiking or camping and when we did, we often found ways to be a little less like boy scouts and more like marauders. My patrol, the Hawk Patrol, would, after taps, go raiding other patrols campsites and pull tent pegs from their used army surplus pup tents or pillage the food trailer for late night snacks. Yet, none of this Tom Foolery transformed me into more of a prototypical boy. I was an outlier and I knew it.
In spite of my Lost in Space attitude, I did begin to display some leadership skills and helped organize the neighborhood activities. There were the neighborhood football and baseball games, complete with neighborhood cheerleaders (I thought that showed promise), camp outs by the river in a campground we scratched out with our bare hands (rakes, hatchets and all). We even built a miniature golf course crafted out of pilfered wood (from nearby construction sites), which we later were forced to dismantle by one of the neighbor moms who caught us red handed. We were entrepreneurial in a Casa Nostra kind of way.
But none of this prepared me for what was ahead. If being sensitive and being male was not bad enough, adolescence was a time bomb compounding jolt of new reality. Everything changed the rules, the players, our bodies and the tantalizing introduction into adulthood. At that time, I was becoming a man and the rules, regulations and the messages were pretty clear – don’t be sensitive. And, this was the 70’s – a time when long-established rules about gender role models were shifting daily. There was no compass, no roadmap, no Elaine Aron (well, she was there, but hadn’t written her seminal work) to guide a confused and deflated young man.
I had no idea at the time there were other boys/men like me, who didn’t fit neatly into the bucket. My parents, both HSPs, really didn’t know how to raise an HSP male child, although they tried. They had no roadmap, no guide on how to parent me towards success, considering my sensitivity introduced a new element into all of their hopes and dreams for me.
It wasn’t their fault, like most parents they wanted me to fit into the stereotype, with hopes that I would assimilate, prosper, be happy and healthy. I mean, who didn’t want that for their kid? Yet, it would be almost twenty-five years later before Elaine Aron would publish her book on the Highly Sensitive Person and literally put a billion people on the personality trait map. Her extrapolation of Sensory Processing Sensitivity into an approachable oasis for 20% of the human population has validated and vindicated our sensitive ways and established a criterion for researchers to continue to study in scientific and clinical terms that continue to give us a measure of legitimacy and respect.
Now if we could only get our own flag or coat of arms or something to rally around. Of course, I’m kidding.
Well, back to this week’s title. Had I known then, what I know now, I honestly believe I could have and likely would have made better decisions about career, education, life direction or purpose, relationship decisions, partners, business decisions and so much more. I could have made better decisions for me that fit me and would have led to a more productive and happier life. It would have been nice to have a sixteen-year-old me, reading a guidebook about my deepest nature, a roadmap if you will.
No it would not have made my decisions for me, and yes, I would have still made boneheaded decisions, but the idea that my uniqueness, coupled with the HSP aspect of my personality could have benefited from the extra insight and the filters I use to process my experiences. Perhaps, more research is needed to produce such a work, to add and build on the work of Dr. Aron, Dr. Ted Zeff, and researchers such as Dr. Tracy Cooper, but I really believe it would be useful, particularly for HSP males.
Here are some things I think this all in one practical guidebook should contain (please add more in the comments section if you see fit):
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
We are a peculiar bunch, we HSPs. Some might even say we are a bit eccentric. This is especially true for Highly Sensitive Males. We HSMs are a small percentage of a small percentage of the human population and we just don’t meet, for the most part, the stereotypes of the modern western male. But, eccentric?
Dictionary.com defines eccentric as adj.: deviating from the recognized or customary character, practice, etc., irregular erratic, peculiar, odd. Noun: A person, who has an unusual, peculiar or odd personality, set of beliefs or behavior patterns. The word has its root from the (Medieval Latin) eccentricus from the Greek ekkentr(os) which is to be out of the center. It is used in Geometry and Astronomy to describe something that is out of center or not concentric. In other words, something that lies on the outside.
Eccentricity is often tolerated or even revered in the very wealthy or those who are celebrities. Their odd ways and behaviors can become fashionable amongst the masses, and are sometimes talked about as if these eccentrics were geniuses or acceptable outliers. In that regard, eccentricity can be a favorable quality, making one a leader or a trendsetter by walking a different path.
But what makes us HSMs seem eccentric to others? Is it the emotional aspects of our personalities, our broad accepting worldview, or our internal conflicts about our masculinity? What about our aversion to overstimulation, the hermitic deep processing of our experiences, or the masculine/feminine polarity, that many HSM men wrestle with? Are we too moody, too quiet, too sensitive to criticism, too introverted? We can be too empathetic, too observational, and too persnickety to environmental changes, but are we that different? Do we appear to the outside world to be outliers, strange, hard to figure out and hard to live with? In some cases, do people just want to throw up their hands and give up on us, because we are too much work?
But does that make us eccentric? Maybe. Eccentricity, also known as quirkiness, is not necessarily a maladaptive behavior. But, yes, we can be a bit off center from mainstream personality and behaviors. Many HSPs have an intellectual giftedness and curiosity, and a propensity for original and creative thought. That’s what makes many of us talented poets, actors, authors, painters and visionaries. We see things differently via our peculiar and unique perceptive lens. But are we eccentric?
The psychologist, David Meeks states that eccentrics are less prone to mental illness than the general population. Doesn’t that seem odd? Perhaps if you look at some of the other defining characteristics of eccentrics, it makes more sense. Eccentrics have an enduring propensity for non-conformity, they are creative (sound familiar?), have a strongly motivated curiosity (and I would add observational skills), an enduring sense of differentness and embrace this wonderful idealism that drives them to want to make the world a better place to live. In addition, eccentrics are intelligent, outspoken and have a quirky, mischievous sense of humor. With that battery of personality characteristics, it would seem eccentrics are well armed for survival in uncertain times, does it not?
Because we HSPs have an increased awareness and sensitivity to our environment and we do very deep and thoughtful processing, it makes sense that we may seem to the majority of the non-HSPs world to be a bit different, because of our peculiar way of looking at the world. And what about our tendency towards overwhelm, how we can so easily be affected by other’s moods or emotions, then retreat to our voluntary isolation, our emotional caves. We are prone to unrealistic perfectionism at times, which sometimes causes us to live out of sync with our environment and the people around us. So with our enhanced qualities of sensory detail, nuanced expression, and meaning, our emotional awareness which leads us to greater empathy and an expression of creativity, could we not be seen as eccentric?
Think about this: the following people have been associated with the quality of high sensitivity or Sensory Processing Sensitivity – Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Orson Welles, Edgar Allan Poe, Salvador Dali, Picasso, Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, Nicole Kidman, Katherine Hepburn, John Lennon, Elton John, Alanis Morissette, Neil Young, and Dolly Parton. And, my personal favorite, Robin Williams. That’s a pretty quirky bunch, wouldn’t you say?
Eccentric – well, yes, in a lot of ways. But, they turned that eccentricity into beautiful art. They are beloved by millions. And perhaps their sensitivity played heavily into their creative process. For some, it might have been a way to mask and protect themselves, for others it might have been a way to reach out and find common ground with the world. But for all of them, they risked being called eccentric and to rise above criticism to be themselves.
So, if we HSPs are that quirky, strange or weird, then what do we do about it? Is some eccentricity really good for HSPs? I mean, is eccentricity just really being different? But, wait, aren’t we different? Don’t we already admit that? I would say rather, how do we embrace our eccentricity? Can we stop worrying about what others think about us? Should we be promoting and socializing our uniqueness? And as people learn more about our nature, our personality our SPS secret, will they better understand us, and with that begin to normalize us?
Here are some things to think about concerning our “eccentricity”:
A blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the worldview of a High Sensing Male
This blog is and has been one highly sensitive man’s opinion, perspective, and worldview filled with my own speculation, conjecture, and wonder, with evidence-based studies sprinkled in to lend some credence to my opinion.
It is not intended to be a one-stop source of information on sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) (see the byline). It is filled with questions that have not been answered by mainstream scientific study or compiled by knowledgeable sources in handy guideline books written for Highly Sensitive People (HSP).
The point of the blog is to share information and opinion about experiencing life through the lens of SPS; the filter that all HSP’s share as common ground. In that, I believe we find common experiences that many of us share.
That is not to deny individual differences or to insinuate that HSPs are all alike. That would be foolish. Yet, I believe that some generalization is needed when exploring new ideas and concepts, especially when you consider the newness of the SPS concept. Although there has been some great research done on the neurological side of SPS, I think there is much more research needed to be done.
Human behavior is one of the most difficult things to predict. Often observable generalizations are used as hypothetical constructs for studies in Psychology. Nevertheless, even with rigorous American Psychology Association guidelines, psychological studies based on subjective criteria are sometimes woefully unable to predict with precision the reality of human behavior. This is often due to inadequate sample size, improper study design or the inability to produce repeatable results. When I was an undergrad in Psychology, I often heard that Psychology is not Chemistry or Physics; it’s considered a soft science at best. And believe me, at the time, those were fighting words to me. That makes research in Psychology sometimes a little squishy.
Now, I’m not anti-science, or for that matter anti-Psychology as a science, but I do feel sometimes folks in those areas get a little full of themselves. As if they are the only source of information and that the general laity cannot learn from their own experiences or the experiences of others.
Yes, I believe in rigorous study, especially in the field of human behavior, but I also know the frailties of science when it comes to the study of human beings. Yet, I think from experience we learn and yes we can conjecture and generalize on that experience and sometimes that can be relatable to others. This can be a source of inspiration and comfort to those that may be confused about what we don’t know about things we don’t know. A place where perhaps science has not yet trod. And one can dream, maybe a tantalizing lead for further research.
I am in awe of what Dr. Elaine Aron has done with her books and her research. She has done a mighty good for many of us, who had no idea why we were so sensitive, so different than others. It has in many ways freed HSPs from self-condemnation and being misunderstood because of their sensitive ways. I know for me, this has been liberation at its finest. And there are many more out there like me. Look at the number of blogs, articles, and publications now versus twenty years ago. It is legion. People are writing about SPS and taking many, many viewpoints. Many of these folks are not mainline scientists or therapists, just people trying to announce their arrival as HSPs and looking in true HSP form to help others understand and accept this wonderful trait. This will not go back in a box.
This reminds me of a dilemma that the founder of EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique, aka Tapping), Gary Craig, was experiencing a few years back. EFT was his simplification of other tapping techniques that he had learned for his own edification. His simplification of the process made tapping accessible to many people who would otherwise have not been able to use this technique. And, he gave it away for free to whoever wanted to use it. It began to catch fire and spread worldwide. It was used by therapists of all stripes, counselors and just regular folk.
With its spread, people began experimenting with it and started developing techniques of their own, still using the terms EFT. There were people marketing the tool, starting conferences and pretty much branching this out in a million directions. Craig became very concerned that the pristine roots of the technique were being bastardized, and he made some vain efforts to reel it back in. To no avail. It highlights a point about something that rings true. Once people are awakened to something new, it begins to take on a new life. He may have developed the technique, but he no longer owned it. It belonged to the users and practitioners.
I’ve been here for 63 years and have been an HSP my whole life. I come from a long line of HSPs, and I know full well the impacts on life when filtered through the lens of SPS. Yes, we are all unique individuals, but if the assertion that four characteristics (defined thus far by studies) cast a broad enough net to capture one billion individuals, then aren’t we making some generalizations about the personality characteristics of HSPs?
HSP life experiences, although highly unique and individualistic can, I think, be clustered to some extent due to our common processing techniques. Individual differences aside, the inputs may be unique and different, but the lens that the experience passes through is common, is it not? Would it not stand to reason that there would be a common thread on how that input is encoded, remembered and experienced? I see no harm in discussing personal experiences and offering suggestions to others on ways to cope with uncertain feelings.
It has never been the intention of this blog to offer clinical assistance or counsel and it never will be.
In addition, I am of the firm belief that most HSPs are highly intelligent and intuitive people that can decipher fact from fiction, speculation from science and understand when something is offered as opinion or conjecture. The intuitive nature of most HSPs will allow most to identify with concepts and ideas that ring true for them and to jettison those that don’t resonate.
Finally, I try to frame the HSP experience, mine and others, within a challenging and uncertain world. To reiterate what Dr. Aron has suggested numerous times in her writing that we (HSPs) are a natural survival mechanism for our species (and in fact, this is true throughout many animal populations). Perhaps, considering the condition of our planet, we should damn well be preparing ourselves to invoke that purpose soon. If that is considered to be an agenda, then so be it. Color me guilty.
Next week, back to blogging.
Highly Sensitive people are the least intimidating people that I know. Our highly empathetic natures just make us the last person in a crowd to stir up any trouble or to be menacing. Perhaps, that is because we tend to live a lot of our lives in the limbic portion of our brains. What’s that? Paul Maclean, an American neuroscientist, developed an evolutionary-based model of the human brain a number of years back. This structure he called the Triune brain, comprised of three successive layers of evolutionary development; three brains layered basically one on top of the other.
At the base of this system is the reptilian brain. The reptilian brain represents the most basic functioning as is characterized by actions that are focused on survival, the autonomic nervous system, muscle control and actions needed to keep the individual alive and functioning in a harsh world. Behaviors associated with the reptilian brain are aggression, territoriality, dominance, and I would add a kind of selfish, me-first attitude towards the outer world. The physical component of the reptilian brain is the basal ganglia. This brain level represents our basest instincts, and I think the image of a reptile is a perfect metaphor for this brain level.
Next up in the structure is the limbic brain or paleomammalian brain. This level of the brain is responsible for emotion, nurturing behaviors, social attributes most often associated with the pack mentality of mammals. Various physical parts correspond with this area of the brain and are regulators of emotion – the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus and the cingulate cortex. These areas are also influencers of the endocrine system and do affect the autonomic nervous system.
The final layer of the brain structure is the neocortex. This is the thinking brain, most pronounced in humans. The neocortex focuses on higher order functioning – rational thought, problem-solving, planning, abstraction and the integration of external stimulus. The three brain model is no longer supported entirely by current research and understanding of brain functioning, but I think the idea serves as an ideal metaphor for how humans can dwell in one area or the other within this model and behaviors tend to bear this out. Reptilian is a good metaphor for base human behavior, limbic sheds light on our more caring, nurturing and familial characteristics and the neocortex represents the detached, dispassionate rational, logical part of the human brain, kind of like man as machine/computer.
HSPs, as we have noted before, have a tendency to have an overly active amygdalae, which leads us to be well more emotional. It seems that we are more driven by the mammalian portion of our brains. Sensitive, cautious, nurturing types that are looking out for the tribe, being more pluralistic than singular. Contrast that with the reptilian directive, primitive and selfish that is about the survival of the individual. We have a more active nervous system, which is a key to our empathetic nature, and a higher order concern for others, exhibiting more of the mammalian herd protection. In addition, HSPs may have more mirror neurons or more developed mirror neuron functioning, which allows us to “mirror sense” the actions of others and contributes to our high empathy levels.
Which brings us to the focus of this week’s blog. Does the HSP limbic nature, inhibit our ability to succeed or excel in today’s world, a world dominated by the reptilian pursuit of greed, power, and corruption. In our current culture, it would seem so. Perhaps, it has been this way for a long time. I mean, consider the requirements necessary for a hunter-gatherer culture to survive. The need to cooperate, the need to look out for one another, the need to share and nurture the clan is paramount in survival. And that’s how we humans rolled until around ten thousand years ago. Somewhere around ten thousand years ago, we began to settle down and become more agrarian. We farmed the land, raised livestock for food and most importantly shifted from a pay as you go society to a society focused on accumulation and wealth.
It seems we moved backward, back into the reptilian brain of our long-ago reptile ancestors to focus on the individual pursuit of wealth. Settled, we became accustomed to regular supplies of food, a steady and persistent place of residence and the ability to look beyond our own stash and start coveting the property, land, etc. of our neighbors. Soon enough, came kings and lords, and landowners and wars; wars to protect the vested interests of the individual over the collective group. We moved away from our mammalian worldview, to the view of the singular reptilian. And in those ten thousand years since, we are not progressing at all. Our society today seems to wallow in our “reptilianess”, a worldview that prizes recoiled reaction over thoughtful consideration. Marked by selfish and self-serving interests.
But what of us HSPs? Are we the passive little meerkats of the human species? Dr. Elaine Aron characterizes the HSP/Non-HSP dichotomy in a more positive light. She calls the HSP model of behavior more akin to shy versus bold or proactive versus reactive. We are more like the doves than the hawks. Each has a purpose and each survives based on different strategies. And, I think passivity is the wrong word when describing the HSP strategy. Impulsive action over careful planning, each may have their place in survival, but at some point, they can and should be complimentary. Hawks and doves, they both survive, using different tactics and they do coexist.
As for Highly Sensitive Males, does all of this make us more conflicted than most men? The typical scenarios of actions versus thoughtfulness, aggressive versus assertive, reptilian versus mammalian, blind selfish ambition versus cooperative team player, highlight some of the conflicts in terms of societal expectations for men. The normative and prized behavior for males has largely been to walk with the dinosaurs. The portrait for masculinity has been to kick ass and get yours while you can because the next guy is stalking you for your stuff. It in many ways has been the age-old battle for determining what a man is – reptilian (male energy) versus mammalian (female energy). “Pick yer team.” No blending the two, please.
Are HSMs the new role model for a new evolving male? I mean, we all share the neocortex, higher order thinking brain with reptilian leaning folks as well as other mammalian biased people, which does temper both dispositions. The key differentiator is empathy. HSMs are generally more empathetic than their reptilian counterparts. We may also have a few other advantages. We can learn to moderate our amygdalas with the use of our higher order thinking. And I think this can help us stay calm under fire.
That said, we do have a quicker responding nervous system, which with our amplified sensing systems and our highly active nervous system, helps us to pick environmental cues faster than most non-HSPs. Yet, we are not always the first to act. The mental aspect is there, but the physical response may be lagging. Most HSMs have a tendency towards ectomorphic body type characteristics - slim, less muscular, more cerebral, shy and introverted, you get the picture. That makes us less prone to reptilian (endomorph) physical reaction, which is driven by a more physical presence. We tend towards being more mental/spiritual creatures and this may be seen by reptilian focused folks as weak and passive or slow to act.
Nevertheless, we HSMs have keen awareness, long memory and the power of reflective thinking. We may not be the warrior kings of the past, but rather priestly advisors or thoughtful kings, rare but, needed now more than ever. We need to question our definition of power and not limit ideas of what constitutes real strength. Maria Hill, a therapist specializing in HSP counseling, has noted some excellent dichotomies of what strength and power mean in today’s culture and how they are perceived. A quick summary of her thoughts filtered through HSP eyes, considering new definitions: 1) strength versus power, 2) action versus contemplation, 3) logic versus intuition, 4) brawn versus compassion, and I would add, 5) singular versus plural.
Could HSM’s benefit from being more reptilian? Do we need to be more assertive, gaining our confidence by balancing our fears and stepping out to defend our worldview without backing down? In doing so, can we outwit our reptilian counterparts? If so, can we learn then to absorb the pain of conflict, if necessary, bodily, mentally and egotistically? I think the key is allowing ourselves to more assertive, without being aggressive. To be in the physical more, and to have a more physical presence. To lead by example, showing empathy, compassion, and decisiveness. And most importantly, to not suppress our sensitivity. Our magic power is that almost undefinable quality of being aware of the world, from many perspectives, and allowing our excellent minds to discern the right path of action with confidence and assurance of the benevolence of our decisions.
Now more than ever we are on a mission. We cannot evolve spiritually in a vacuum without awareness. Our role as HSPs is to seek and share wisdom and compassion when our world needs it the most. We are in some ways spiritual warriors battling for the soul of humanity, and I am not being melodramatic here. To be sure, some part of reptilian behavior is essential for survival. It would behoove us to adopt a more assertive stance, wielding the best of the two lower layers of our brains, tempered by our critical, rational minds. Look at our planet – war, climate change, inequality on a massive scale, and abject greed unchecked. The reptilian credo of me, mine and cutthroat survival -- needs an antidote now.
Thoughts to ponder:
Bill Allen lives in Bend, Oregon. He is a certified hypnotist and brain training coach at BrainPilots.com. He believes that male sensitivity is not so rare, but it can be confounding for most males living in a culture of masculine insensitivity which teaches boys and men to disconnect from their feelings and emotions. His intent is to use this blog to chronicle his personal journey and share with others.