A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
Like many Highly Sensitive People, I often ask a simple question, “What’s wrong with the word Sensitive?” I mean, it’s a word with multiple meanings, but the one that we home in is the one that tells the story of our lives. Unfortunately, it is the one-word trait that is more often than not used in the pejorative to describe our nature that is either abhorred or tolerated by less sensitive folks.
We live in a culture that values emotional detachment, stone-cold decision making, logical, warrior-like capabilities that seem so distant from the core behaviors of the clan of highly sensitive people. Our culture views sensitivity as a weakness, a lack of discipline, control, or maturity. An unfair and false assessment, if there ever was one.
This judgment is especially hard on HSP males, who already have difficulty with the trait in lieu of expectations the culture sets for masculine behavior. Technically our trait is called sensory processing sensitivity, which is tied directly to environmental sensitivity theory. It embraces the notion that environmental sensory sensitivity is expressed on a spectrum from high to low. The term sensory processing sensitivity is a mouthful but sounds much more palatable than just plain “sensitive.”
Yet, here we are, almost thirty years after Dr. Aron coined the term highly sensitive persons, and we still struggle with the concatenation of that sensitive moniker. Sensitive men struggle with the brand. Stacked up against their non-HSP peers, it does make them seem to be, well, less masculine.
But, what does sensitive really mean? We know the term has multiple meanings, but why do we choose the most degrading definition. We need to do some serious renovation on how the term sensitive is used, dig a little deeper and put some fine points on the explanation of the term to truly capture the complex nature of high sensitivity and reframe the meaning.
Definition of Sensitive
As stated above, the definition of sensitive in Webster’s is multi-tiered. I’m not going to recite the definition verbatim but will recap the main descriptions. The first definition is as an adjective referring to SENSORY. That’s it, one word - sensitive is a sensory-based term. So far, so good. The second definition states that sensitive is receptive to sense impressions. Again, good. That makes everyone sensitive. The third definition starts to get to the heart of the matter; highly responsive or susceptible to a) easily hurt or damaged – especially emotional hurt. Or b) delicately aware of attitudes and feelings of others. Now notice the keywords – hurt, damaged, and delicate. Not exactly how I’d like to be described when I say that I am sensitive.
When we move to the noun definitions, we get: 1) a person having occult or psychical abilities. Or, and here it is 2) a sensitive person. Nowhere is the definition describing sensory processing sensitivity, not even like - one with the personality trait of sensory processing sensitivity. So when you have a word that describes over a billion people on the planet and no specific description of them or accounting of them in the dictionary, that’s why we have a problem with the word sensitive.
Even in the Urban Dictionary, there isn’t a clear definition of the popular cultural definition of sensitive that accounts for HSPs. Yet, all HSPs are aware of the stigma that goes with the term sensitive, as it is popularly used to describe people with HSP characteristics. For example, we are often seen as emotionally weak, neurotic, or drama kings or queens. As for HSP males, we are seen as effeminate, ineffectual, and often self-absorbed and odd. None of this, of course, is true.
I sometimes think we are often framed by the least sensitive people by these worst possible definitions simply because they cannot see, hear, feel, smell, and taste the world the way we do. Their ignorance drives the narrative about who we are. Their impatience with our deep processing ways exceeds their capacities to value our thoughtfulness. Their lack of empathy causes their name calling, and their largely extraverted ways do not tolerate our need for solitary solace. So this lower twenty percent, although more adaptable, yet less environmentally sensitive, are calling the shots…for now.
Reframing the word “Sensitive”
It’s not likely that we will be able to rename the trait to something that describes us in better ways. We are too far down the road for that. And, I do not, repeat, do not fault Dr. Aron for her choice of words. It was a command decision at a point in time, it fit, and she went with it. And that is what we have to work with.
We can make the term more acceptable within the HSP community first. We have to have a definition that is empowering and something we can all get behind. The challenge is creating either a derivative of sensitive or perhaps developing a description that evokes the gifts and a certain degree of positivity to the word without losing the original intention depicting a highly sensitive person. The new sub definition of sensitive should be focused on strong words that imply the strengths and sensitivity of HSPs that suggest giftedness and normality. For HSP men, associating these positive descriptors will help in allowing more HSPs men to embrace the trait when seen in the light of its positive attributes. We almost need a collective push to get that idea out there.
How to make the word more palatable.
The next step is to socialize the new definitions to the masses. I like Dr. Tracy Cooper’s idea of metaphorically describing high sensitivity to a finely tuned measuring device. It reinforces the precision in which we sense the world yet implies a quirkiness that often occurs in such finely tuned tools as finicky but very environmentally sensitive. The upside and the downside go together, with the downside needing a bit more attention, but knowing that it does not negate the worth of the tool.
By socializing such metaphors and descriptions, we can teach the strong traits of HSPs and their practical use to society (as implied by our evolutionary purpose). We can then build acceptance within the non-HSP audience.
Most importantly, we need to empower HSP men to feel good about the term considering the definition limitations of present masculinity. And, with that, HSP men need to own the word sensitive and proudly speak of it.
Addressing the sensitivity deniers
There will always be those who deny that highly sensitive is a personality trait, often referring to it as a splash of common disorders. Even among the scientific community, there are doubters. Nevertheless, we can only do what we can do by planting seeds based on the emerging validating science.
Looking at the spectrum of sensitivity, we should move forward educating the top 20 percent of the population that are HSPs. This group will be the low-hanging fruit. It may be necessary to convince even some of our own about the trait and sell them on its positives. The challenges within the trait are there too. We need to educate and train HSPs on coping and living with high sensitivity, showing them there is a benefit to being an HSP. It’s hard to realize the gift when you are constantly fighting fires.
Next, we move to the big middle – the hump in the bell curve—the big 60 percenters. The upper 30% of that population will be the most like us, and I think they will be most open to accepting the trait in others and to some degree within themselves. So this group, together with us, represents the upper 50 % of the environmental sensitivity spectrum. This is where the greatest work will be done – acceptance of terminology and the trait. And the reframing of sensitive.
The next 30 percent of the spectrum is on the downslope of the curve. We may be able to make some inroads here, but as the curve slopes downward, we will not receive complete acceptance, but we can convince some with persistence. Then, finally, the lower 20 percent. I think this will be a waste of time. We may never be able to convince them of the science, they see the world from their own lens, and it likely has no tolerance for highly sensitive people. Let them go.
We should use metaphors and analogies to explain the trait in reaching out to others. For those that can comprehend the science, feed them that too. We can mix, match, and develop parables that everyone can relate to in describing who we are and why we are designed this way. Acceptance comes from understanding. Since language is the currency here, precise and uniform terms are important. That’s why I believe reinventing the term sensitive is less likely than reframing.
Finally, realize this is going to take some time. Maybe a long time. Perhaps, generations to let the message sink in. Share with the young first. We are helping shape opinions for the next generations. This effort may seem trivial, but it’s important not only for HSPs but for humankind.
Well, now the cat’s out of the bag, we don’t get do-overs…
The cat is out of the bag, and the horse is out of the barn as the sayings go. Coming up with other terms may be difficult, and I’m not sure after nearly thirty years, we want to do a reset on the base term. Then, perhaps, new names will arise and be cast for the trait as more research is made available. But, for now, let’s work with what we have.
There is nothing wrong with the word sensitive. My short-term advice is to try not to be, well, sensitive about the word sensitive. And that includes me. We need to start showing some pride in the trait as a group. Be armed with facts and science to shield against taunts and doubters. Stay calm, and don’t let emotions run high. We can do this if our message is consistent and persistent.
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.