What do you think of when you hear the word “sensitive”? Chances are, some of the first words that come to mind are things like “weak,” “overly-emotional,” or “unmanly.” Even if your first thought isn’t negative, you probably still don’t think of words like “strong,” “masculine,” or “courageous.”
I’m using words like “unmanly” and “masculine” because today, I want to talk about sensitivity in men. At this point, you might be wondering why a female blogger is writing about how men think about sensitivity. Even with this outside perspective, I’ve seen how cultural definitions of sensitivity affect the men in my life. And even though the way that other men view sensitive men matters a great deal, how women view sensitive men also matters.
When Brené Brown started studying shame and vulnerability, she did not interview men for the first four years. Then at a book signing, a man came up to her and said this:
“You say to reach out and tell our story, be vulnerable. But you see those books that you just signed for my wife and my three daughters? They’d rather me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall down. When we reach out and be vulnerable, we get the shit beat out of us. And don’t tell me it’s from the guys and the coaches and the dads because the women in my life are harder on me than anyone else.” (from Brené Brown’s “Listening to Shame” TED talk).
This man wasn’t talking about high sensitivity but I think a lot of men (including those who are highly sensitive) can relate. Our culture puts unreasonable expectations on men for how they handle anything that makes them seem vulnerable, because for them “vulnerability” (much like sensitivity) is considered weakness. That perspective really needs to change.
Also, if you’re still thinking this post would benefit from the addition of a man’s perspective, I agree. You can read a couple articles like that here: “The World Needs Highly Sensitive Men Now More Than Ever” by Ted Zeff and “The Double Whammy of Being a Highly Sensitive Man” by Quentin Stuckey.
Sensitivity and Struggles With Society
I blog quite a bit about Myers-Briggs® types and I’ve already addressed a similar topic when talking about the struggles of Thinking-type women and Feeling-type men. Our culture tends to code traits associated with Thinking personality types (such as logical thought processes, impersonal decision making, and internally processed emotions) as “masculine” and Feeling traits (like having a social personality, using people-oriented decision making, and being more emotionally open) as “feminine.” Dealing with social pressure that says your personality doesn’t fit your gender can be a huge struggle for women like my INTJ sister or men like my ISFJ father and ENFJ brother.
A similar thing happens for men who are Highly Sensitive Persons. Or, to use the more technical term, men who have the Sensory-Processing Sensitivity (SPS) trait. Though this trait is normal (it’s found in 15 to 20 percent of the population and is equally likely to show up in men or women), it’s not well understood by the majority of people. And because it’s not well understood, people who are biologically hard-wired for sensitivity often find that one of their fundamental personality traits is looked down on by society as a whole.
They might even look down on their sensitivity themselves, feeling ashamed of it as if sensitivity is a bad thing. But if you see high sensitivity as bad (whether you’re a man or a woman), then perhaps “sensitive” doesn’t mean what you think it means.
What Sensitive Actually Means: 5 Key Traits
Being sensitive is not something that’s inherently bad or good. It just is. Sometimes there are positive sides to the trait (like being more attuned to beauty in the natural world) and sometimes there are frustrating sides (like when you want to watch a film because people say the story’s brilliant but you know the violence will give you nightmares). Being highly sensitive just means you have certain traits that influence how you process life.
The following list of traits is adapted from the “Are You Highly Sensitive?” test in Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person.
1) You’re hyper-aware of subtleties in you environment
One thing Elaine Aron found in the research where she discovered high sensitivity is that it’s not only found in humans. For “all “higher animals — mice, cats, dogs, horses, monkeys,” etc. about 15 to 20 percent have the SPS trait.
I bring this up because it’s easy to see how being extra-aware of your environment helps animals. Where would a herd of wild horses be without the individual who notices the first hint of a predator’s scent in the air or who can smell a distant water source?
Thankfully most of us don’t have to think like prey animals to survive, but maybe keep that horse in mind the next time you’re irritated by the fact that you jump at loud noises, notice the lights are a little too bright, or wrinkle your nose at a smell no one else notices. Being perceptive is not a bad thing.
2) Being overwhelmed stresses you out
Most people start to get stressed when they’re feeling overwhelmed, but HSPs hit the “overwhelmed” point earlier than others. That’s because we’re extra sensitive to sensory stimulation. Anything that triggers your physical senses or your nervous system — caffeine, pain, loud noise, changes to your routine, coarse fabrics, human touch, tight deadlines, etc. — can overwhelm HSPs more quickly than it would other people.
In our fast-paced modern would, highly sensitive people can be looked down on for this trait. But there’s nothing wrong with wanting to take life a little slower. And this is also the part of being sensitive that lets you be deeply moved by things like art, music, and beauty — would you really want to give that up?
This trait also acts as a warning system. It alerts us when to set boundaries, helps us be more conscientious about doing our jobs well, and makes us notice when other people aren’t getting their needs met. And if you do find that being overwhelmed is getting in the way of enjoying your life, there are ways to fix it. For some great tips, see this article: “Why Highly Sensitive People Get Overwhelmed Easily (And How to Fix It)” by Andre Sólo.
3) Your inner life is amazingly cool
I listened to a lot of country music as a teen, and one of those songs was “Online” by Brad Paisley where he sings from the perspective of a man who is “so much cooler online.” We HSPs could change that line to say we’re “so much cooler inside.”
Sensitive people process things deeply. We also find that the outer world is overwhelming and we need to withdraw to recharge (about 30% of HSPs are extroverts, but this point is just as true for them as it is for introverted HSPs). These traits both contribute to developing a rich, complex inner life.
Unfortunately, this can have the unintended side effect of other people overlooking just how amazing and interesting sensitive people really are. Don’t worry, though — if you make an effort to be friendly and open up, the best people will respond and take the time to get to know the real you.
4) You’re emotionally responsive and empathic
This is one trait of sensitivity that society sees as almost exclusively feminine. Men might “get away with it” if they’re interacting with women (which I suspect is one reason so many Feeling-type and/or HSP men I’ve talked to say most of their friends are women). But if you’re a man who’s in-tune with your emotions and the emotions of others, then there’s a good chance people won’t always respond well.
It’s really sad that others don’t appreciate this trait because honestly it’s one of the most amazing things about HSPs. Sure picking up other people’s emotions can be exhausting, but being able to understand the people you love on a deep, meaningful level? That’s priceless. And I’m saying that honestly as an HSP myself, and also as the daughter, sister, and friend of HSP men.
5) You don’t like competition and violence
Where you fall on this (like other sensitivity traits) varies by individual, but many HSPs are less competitive than other people. We’re also much more sensitive to cruelty and violence, even if it’s only happening in fiction. That’s why my dad and I don’t much care for Guardians of the Galaxy even though we generally enjoy superhero movies.
In a world where men are often taught to suppress any emotion other than anger (as Ted Zeff talks about in the article I mentioned earlier), this HSP trait can seem particularly unwelcome. And yet, hasn’t society been saying for years that men need healthier ways of expressing emotion other than violence? that cooperation is better for everyone than competition?
Seems to me that what the world could benefit greatly from listening to sensitive men instead of telling them there’s something wrong with them.
These five traits aren’t the only hallmarks of people with Sensory-Processing Sensitivity, but they cover most things that set HSPs apart from the other 80 to 85 percent of the population.
If you’d like to learn more, you might also want to check out the article “21 Signs You’re a Highly Sensitive Person” by Jenn Granneman. None of these traits are inherently bad and, in many cases, they can even be strengths. It’s time we all stopped seeing sensitivity as weakness, no matter what gender someone is.
If you’re interested in learning more about High Sensitivity, I highly recommend checking out Elaine Aron’s books. She did the original research on high sensitivity and is still studying the trait. You can also find free resources on her website hsperson.com and on Highly Sensitive Refuge. Here are links to Elaine Aron’s books (please note these are affiliate links which means that, at no additional cost to you, I’ll make a small commission if you purchase a book).
- The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You
- The Highly Sensitive Person in Love: Understanding and Managing Relationships When the World Overwhelms You
- The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When The World Overwhelms Them
Featured image credit: Pexels via Pixabay