A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
Have you ever felt disconnected from your emotions so that you couldn’t find the words to express them clearly? Perhaps, you learned early in life that certain emotions were not to be expressed by men or boys. As a result, you learned to suppress those emotions under penalty of punishment or shame. So what happened to the feeling? Did it disappear or go away? Not hardly, you may have suppressed it, but the energy lingered within you -festering and eating at you, but you couldn’t talk about it for fear of appearing to be less than a man. A term for that in psychology was coined by psychologists John Case Nemiah and Peter Sifneos – male normative alexithymia. It is a personality function that, although not clinically defined as a disorder, does make it seem dysfunctional in the individual experiencing it.
Male normative alexithymia borrows the term from a personality trait known as alexithymia, which we will discuss briefly. In Western society, men are not often allowed to express difficult emotions that appear to expose a vulnerability, such as sadness, deep compassion, overt fear, or tenderness. Men are shamed or guilted if they express these emotions openly. In this context, the suppression of feelings is known as male normative alexithymia. It is a culturally assigned emotional regulation requirement that men are placed under to bolster their standing as strong, masculine men. It is pervasive in our male-dominated, hyper-masculine culture. For this article, we will focus on the impacts of male normative alexithymia and how we might change masculinity requirements to reflect a healthier relationship between men and their natural human emotions.
What is Alexithymia?
First, let’s describe alexithymia, the personality trait. Although not classified in the D.S.M. as a disorder, it certainly manifests as dysfunction and may vary in intensity depending on the individual. Alexithymia comes from the Greek literally meaning “no words for emotions.”
Typically, there are four components of alexithymia: 1) difficulty identifying feelings, 2) difficulty describing feelings to others, 3) a stimulus-bound, externally oriented thinking style, and 4) constricted imaginal processes. In addition, alexithymia serves as a temporary defense against emotional pain where the individual suppresses or represses the conscious awareness of the emotion. This trait manifests more often in men than in women. Hence, the name male normative alexithymia.
All emotions are biologically necessary for humans and are essential for our survival. Yet, males in our masculine-dominated culture are taught not to show feelings that portray any vulnerability. Instead, they are taught to display gestures of domination, aggression, extreme competition, and emotional stoicism. This monkey suit of masculinity is the main factor in creating male normative alexithymia in men and contributes to physical and emotional health issues. Although men and male peer groups foist this philosophy onto boys, women as mothers may also contribute to what is seen as the estimable cultural norm.
Often this manifest as guilt or shame in men/boys who find the performative nature of this expectation to be difficult if not impossible to comply with. Often this creates aggressive or violent behavior to outlet the suppressed emotions. Yet, somehow this is seen as an acceptable way to show emotion. Male normative alexithymia is directly connected to this shame.
The End Result of the Inability of Male Expression of Emotions
When does all of this begin for males? Males are socialized early in life to suppress certain emotions. This socialization begins in boyhood, perhaps as early as infancy. Male children are treated differently by parents who model or encourage certain emotional responses which they feel are appropriate by gender. As boys reach school age, peer groups continue the reinforcement of the norm throughout schooling. Participation in organized activities such as sports, Boy Scouts, or activities where male prowess is prized continues the indoctrination. Although, in recent years, more awareness has been placed on gender roles and how they are differentiated amongst individuals, the prevailing ideas of masculinity vis-à-vis emotions remain largely traditional.
When the boy reaches adolescence, the pressure continues where peer pressure is greatest. The pressure to conform is the genesis of guilt and shame or showing tender emotion. Unfortunately, as noted above, the result often is a violent and aggressive release of these suppressed emotions. Indeed, not a healthy release.
Our stoic warrior culture breeds this line of thinking. The toxic masculinity that most males are brought up in is also harmful to males. The seeds are planted early, but the dysfunction grows throughout life. This masculine norm is a slow-release poison, much like nicotine is to the smoker. It rots our capacity to express a fundamental human trait, the expression of emotions: including tenderness, kindness, compassion, and love.
The natural conclusion often leads to violent aggression and behaviors condoned by the warrior mentality. The behavior leads to toxic behaviors toward those around the male, but also to self. This aggression can turn inwards and lead to self-destructive behaviors, addictions, or suicidal ideation. If that’s not toxic, I don’t know what is.
Is masculinity the root cause?
Masculinity is a socio-cultural construct. We make it up as we go along. It should be flexible and bend to the times or the greater need, but in our culture, it is rigid and inflexible. As a result, our definitions of male behavior are archaic and need to be updated. One suggestion is that we might consider a less gender-rigid model and move towards a more androgynous human model, where traditional feminine characteristics are allowed to blossom within the male psyche and vice versa.
Perhaps, we should make masculine norms sublimate to human criteria, where emotions and emotional expression are encouraged and modeled for our young boys and men. But, again, is this a place where HSP men can lead? Are we closer to our emotional source and express ourselves more freely with our emotions because we are wired by nature to do so? The urge to be more emotional overrides the cultural expectations of suppression, something at times even HSPs struggle with.
Lack of emotion is not healthy. Studies support this, and the alternatives men employ to cope with emotional distress ultimately lead to bad behaviors that fuel toxic masculinity.
We must liberate our men by freeing their emotions, not suppressing them. Teaching how to regulate emotion, especially intense feeling, is necessary. Male normative alexithymia is not good for any male. Instead, teaching men to express healthy emotion – focusing on the emotion that gives light to life and showing them how to deal with negative emotions, such as shame, guilt, anger, and aggressiveness. This is the call to redefine what masculine means – the call to return to our humanity.
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
Have you ever asked yourself, what is good enough? Anytime you start a task, what level of achievement do you expect? Do you have a benchmark for good enough? Is the amount of effort that matters to you, or is it the outcome? Is success an absolute for you?
Many HSPs are hung up on perfectionism. At times, I can be fanatical about achieving a goal or completing a task and being perfect. Unfortunately, there are many reasons why this is the case for some of us – from people pleasing, low self-esteem, or simply a programmed obsession with being perfect.
There appears to be a misguided notion that anything worth doing is worth doing perfectly, and if you’re not going to do it perfectly – why do it? But is perfection even possible? Isn’t this an impossible belief, a form of absolutism? A striving for excellence can only mean surpassing mere good enough or even your best effort to attain absolute perfection. It is a lofty aspiration.
What can we say about the belief that there is a universal truth that only perfection is acceptable?
First, let’s look at this a bit closer.
Striving for Excellence
As a primary mission, there is no fault in striving for excellence in any task or endeavor. Setting a goal and striving to achieve that goal, in my opinion, is a noble goal. But, like many life journeys, the road is full of potholes and detours. Our original goal need not be rigid, with one path, but should reflect and adjust to the many deviations that life throws us. In fact, rigidity is the enemy of perfection. Perfectionism is a corruption of excellence in that it embraces rigidity and makes the goal almost unachievable.
Rather than striving for excellence, we offer our best effort to any task, expecting alterations and changes in the route. This allows for a level of tolerance that is not perfect but still allows a completion close enough to our original goal that rewards our best effort.
Striving for excellence is how we perform our tasks. Making corrections and improvements along the way, like guided missiles, we ultimately make subtle, sometimes drastic changes to reach our destination.
This proposition requires the appreciation and adoption of good enough at times. Not much of a severe compromise if it gets us to our goal.
The Perils of Perfectionism
Perfectionism is like a disease that eats away at any effort and requires an impossible and absolute execution far exceeding normal human capabilities. The fear of perfectionism, or the withdrawal from an attempt due to anxiety that a task will not be executed perfectly, often keeps us from trying challenging tasks. Moreover, because of an absolutist expectation of perfection, we prejudge ourselves out of competition for fear that we can reach the elusive, not impossible, prize.
Perfectionism can serve as a convenient excuse not to like ourselves. For inherently, we all know that we are not perfect. And, failing to attain perfection, we reinforce an unrealistic notion that we are not good enough.
Perhaps, it comes through us as an attempt to please others, i.e., “if I am perfect, people will love me.” What a lousy bargaining chip for garnering love and acceptance. The stress on the self to achieve an uncommon perfection level can be debilitating for some. There is no room for ‘good enough’ in their lexicon.
Yet, what is good enough?
The Ideal Quest for Enough
First, we must eliminate the idealization of perfection and toss the idea that we can be perfect in all we do. The good enough mentality sometimes is the only way to accomplish a goal. This especially is true for first-time efforts and trying out new, unproven tasks. Accomplishments come easy to some, more difficult for others.
Secondly, find where the task or goal fits your values and priorities. Then, measure your success against those values and nothing else. Perhaps, just getting the job done is achievement enough. That’s what we call good enough.
Thirdly, don’t sell good enough down the drain as a mediocre or lackluster performance or, as they say, an “also ran” effort. Sometimes good enough is GOOD ENOUGH—everything we do need not be a record-breaking world performance.
Often what we see as perfection is an undetected series of good enough efforts to craft a fine point on something that is merely good enough. In effect, the polish on the silverware makes something ordinary look sparkly and perfect.
Lastly, we must learn to accept that we are not perfect in everything we do. Therefore, we give the goal and task our best efforts, fueled by passion and values rather than driven by some abstraction of idealized perfectionism.
A Happy Medium
Don’t get me wrong; I think striving for excellence is a good goal. It lifts our work from simply passable to something more indicative of our skill sets and talents. However, we should always do our best for nothing more than our personal integrity.
But, let go of absolutism. There is likely no absolute truth, wisdom, perfection, or knowledge that is not subject to criticism or improvement. For the most part, I think life is a series of successive approximations of truth. We are constantly correcting, allowing us to flow with the changes. Rigidity is the great destroyer of life. Perfectionism is a formulaic rigidity that stifles and is anti-growth.
Finding your “good enough” is about seeking a comfortable level of truth about your abilities, skills, etc., and how they can be used in the world. Letting perfectionism inhibit your willingness to fail and learn is a recipe for a frustrated and stilted life.
Good enough is not necessarily about resignation but agreement within yourself that you have worked something long enough and it’s time (good enough) to let it go into the world.
As an author, I have tried to write, rewrite and restructure books, written pieces, and articles to get them to their best. Then at some point, I let it go and release it as it is, knowing that it is not perfect. However, I have found that most people are not looking to read perfection but will be happy with a good enough read that has meaning and significance to them.
So, look for your good enough. Sometimes it’s a feeling, sometimes an objective optic that tells you that you have arrived at your place of completion. Don’t let perfectionism stop you, and recognize that you are good enough, just as you are. Rest in that.
Please comment with your thoughts.
Bill Allen currently 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.