HSP Topics: The Challenges of the Highly Sensitive Man
Sensitive Men: A Case of Statistics Masked by Cultural Biases
Dr. Elaine Aron, along with other researchers studying the trait of high sensitivity, often cites the statistic that approximately 15-20% of the population fits the definition of a "highly sensitive person." Furthermore, the indications are that equal numbers of men and women are highly sensitive. Whether one subscribes to the 15-20% figure as "truth," or not, it is often hard to believe that there are just as many highly sensitive men as highly sensitive women.
I have been part of the global HSP community since 1997, and personal observation—from workshops, online groups, local groups and surveys—suggest that HS women (at least in the United States) outnumber HS men by a factor of about 5 to 1. But appearances can be deceiving!
In digging deeper for a better understanding of this glaring disparity, I believe most of these outwardly visible differences are ultimately the result of cultural biases, rather than a statement about the true ratio of sensitive men to sensitive women. Stated a little differently, I believe there may be just as many men as women who fit the HSP description, but the majority of the men—for a wide number of reasons—remain hidden from public view, either by choice, societal pressures to conform to specific male ideals, or as a result of lacking information and awareness.
Highly Sensitive Men: the Hidden HSPs
I was motivated to write this article after I spent an afternoon studying the visitor logs from my blog and web sites about the HSP trait. On all three of my old"sites (for which I have more than ten years of visitor data), the single-most used search phrase leading people to those sites—by a considerable margin—is "sensitive men." On one site, this keyword accounts for 25% of all external search phrases, compared to the number two search phrase with 7%. I should add that the particular site in question has little more than a couple of paragraphs on the topic of "sensitive men," and 15+ pages on other HSP-related topics.
So, what gives? Why are so many people looking for information about Highly Sensitive Men when there appears to be so few? I believe this pattern of search activity suggests that there really are a large number of HS Men in the world, but they remain largely hidden from view.
The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron
Elaine Aron's original book on high sensitivity-- published in 1996, it remains "evergreen" for all those who are (or think they might be) sensitive.
As a man, I had some mixed feelings about this book when I first read it, but I highly recommend it for all-- men AND women-- who think they might be highly sensitive.
So why don't we see them?
I feel that that modern society—especially in the United States—has created a set of cultural ideals that make it particularly difficult for Highly Sensitive Men to learn about, and come to terms with, and then be open and honest about their sensitivity.
Apart from the many who simply ignore the possibility that they might be an HSM, I feel certain there are also significant numbers who may be aware of their sensitivity, but feel hesitant or afraid that anyone else might find out-- even their families and loved ones. They labor under our societal tendency to label sensitivity—especially in men—as a weakness, and even as something to be made fun of.
As a result, it is extremely likely that many HS Men live lives of quiet suffering—many choosing to mask and "narcoticize" the pain of not fitting the male ideal with alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, or other addictions.
Growing up Male: Welcome to the "Boys' Club!"
Let's review, for a moment: The human socialization process—especially in the United States, but also in many other western nations—tends to be centered around some fairly well-defined norms and rules, when it comes to gender roles.
Although the "New Age" and self-awareness movements have done much to encourage people of both genders to be true to themselves, there remains considerable—even if subtle—pressures for people to follow a set of guidelines as to "how men are" and "how women are."
If you're a guy and reading this, you might have been told, early on in life (as was I) things like "boys don't cry!" and that "being emotional is for sissies!" You were perhaps taught to be "strong," and to "tough things out" when difficult situations arose. Perhaps you were told that showing your emotions "was for girls." Most were also taught to be aggressive and competitive, and that—in many cases—it was okay to push other people out of the way (literally and metaphorically) to get what you wanted.
Written by Dr. Ted Zeff, this is currently the only book addressing male HSPs. Although written about boys and extremely helpful for parents raising an HS boy, it is also recommended for HS men who will gain insights and understanding into their upbringings.
The message was fairly clear: "strong" meant that you had to be forceful, combative, competitive and largely unemotional—and if you were sensitive, cooperative, and caring, you were perceived as "weak" or "effeminate."
These were—and largely remain—the basic unwritten rules of "the boys' club." And if you deviate significantly, you quickly get labeled as an outsider or "weirdo."
If you're male and an HSP (which I typically shorten to "HSM" for Highly Sensitive Man), you may actually have been quite successful at doing these things, and at adapting yourself to the boys' club rules of conduct. I did, for many years. But, at the same time, you may also have felt a sense that something was "wrong," like you were putting on an act just to get along, and like you weren't truly being yourself. I felt this, for many years, as well.
Gender and High Sensitivity
I've touched briefly on the issues of traditional gender roles and the fact that HS women seem to outnumber HS men by a wide margin. I also used the phrase "cultural bias," and I'd like to expand a little on this.
Whereas it may seem a bit unfair, it is a fact that most western societies regard sensitive men and sensitive women quite differently. I'm by no means implying that being a highly sensitive woman is easy; I am just pointing to the fact that the phrase "SHE is so sensitive!" doesn't carry the depth of negative connotations attached to the phrase "HE is so sensitive!"
A highly sensitive woman will struggle with precisely the same issues of overstimulation and overwhelm as a highly sensitive man; however, public perception will be different. The woman may be regarded as "fickle," "high maintenance" and "a fragile flower," but it may not all be framed in a negative light. In some instances, "being sensitive" may even be regarded as a positive attribute.
With very few exceptions, a sensitive man is labeled negatively the instant he identifies himself (or is identified) as such. At best, he can hope to be labeled as a "sensitive New Age guy" and might become a bit of a "ridiculous character"—at worst, he is perceived as a "weakling," "sissy," or not a "real" man. Of course, these are just superficial characteristics.
For an HSM, there are actually some serious practical implications, relating to how we choose "leaders" in our playspaces, workplaces, and relationships. Whereas it may be an outdated paradigm, fact remains that "sensitive" and "gentleness" still tend to work against men, in a group of their peers. Hence (for example) one of the reasons why HSM tend to be underemployed at their places of work, and seldom rise to leadership roles in traditional company settings.
Recognizing the Highly Sensitive Man
In 1996, Dr. Elaine Aron created a self-test that helped people determine whether or not they are highly sensitive. This free test—still available on Aron's website—is equally valid for men and women. If you have not already taken it, I highly recommend taking five minutes to do so. As I said, it's free.
Take Elaine Aron's sensitivity self test (opens in a new tab)
In addition, here are some general attributes often common to HS Men. This list is by no means exhaustive, nor do all these characteristics apply to all HSP men. They are the result of meeting and knowing dozens of HS Men over the course of the past almost 20 years. In no particular order:
- HS Men are often soft spoken and "yielding," rather than forceful and assertive.
- HS Men often have more female than male friends, but are not necessarily "sexually involved" with their female friends (if heterosexual).
- HS Men were often not interested in-- or good at-- team sports, while in school.
- Heterosexual HS Men have often been told they are "effeminate" and frequently misidentified as gay.
- HS Men spend more time in solitary pursuits than most men.
- HS Men tend to be drawn to the arts and creative pursuits and often have limited interest in "traditionally male" pursuits like hunting, working on cars and watching sports on TV.
- HS Men are often more "right-brained" and intuitive rather than "left-brained" and logical, unlike about 75% of the male population.
- HS Men tend to have fairly low involvement/participation in typically male "posturing" and "territoriality" behaviors.
- HS Men are typically highly intelligent, conscientious and and hard working, but tend to underachieve at work, relative to their skill levels.
- HS Men typically start dating and relationships later in life than non-HSPs.
- HS Men have typically had fewer sexual partners by age 30 than their non-HSP counterparts.
- HS Men typically favor "cooperative" problem solving over "competitive" problem solving.
Naturally, there are many other attributes common to HS Men, but these are some of the most commonly observed, and they seem to hold true for HS Men, regardless of socio-economic background or nationality.
Where ARE the Highly Sensitive Men?
Over the years, I've discovered that HS Men fit loosely into three distinct categories:
Category 1 - This is typically the largest group. They display all the characteristics of high sensitivity, but forcefully deny and reject the possibility that they are "sensitive." The have fully bought the concept of the boys' club and conventional ideas about how men "should" behave. A few may be secretly aware that they are sensitive, and almost go overboard in their attempts to "prove" they are not. Whereas we don't get to see their inner sensitivity directly, we get to see the side effects of them ignoring their inborn trait which often manifests in unhealthy ways: When they start feeling overstimulated—as all HSPs do, from time to time—they often dull their senses with drugs, alcohol or other addictive behaviors, while insisting that nothing is the matter. Short tempers and irritability are common, as are periods of depression—typically unaddressed. Loved ones might hear phrases like "I just need to be alone!" after which the HS man-in-denial secludes himself in a study or in a solitary hobby of some kind.
Category 2 - This is also typically also quite large. It consists of HS Men who are aware they are sensitive, but live a bit of a double life: They accept their sensitivity at home, in private, but outwardly "fake it" that their lives are quite normal.
You might even hear them say things like "Yeah, I'm an HSP, but I don't really pay attention to it."
The primary challenge they face is that they end up participating in a lot of things they don't really like or enjoy, in service of keeping up this outer appearance of normalcy. In the long term, this can lead to resigned sadness about life, and even depression and unexperienced anger at the situation.
I have personally met quite a few HS Men from this subgroup—and I can usually recognize them by their words; phrases like "I really like the idea of your online support group for sensitive men, but I can't join because what if someone from work/my family found out that I am like this?" A small number of this group acknowledge their sensitivity but normalize it by setting out on quests to "cure it."
Category 3 - This group is somewhat smaller but growing. It is made up of HS Men who have come to understand and embrace that they are Highly Sensitive, and have found ways to integrate the effects of the trait into their daily lives—without feeling like their sensitivity is a "burden."
Often they are the "cultural creatives" of society; men who have found ways to publicly be themselves without sacrificing any of their sensitive traits. They may even be public figures like musicians David Bowie and Neil Young, although most are more behind the scenes like the late Thomas Leonard, founder of global life coaching organization CoachVille.
These men have typically also moved beyond the point of getting bogged down in extensive self-analysis surrounding being highly sensitive, and quietly go about their lives, understanding how the trait affects their lives, but not making a big deal of it.
The Challenges Ahead
Bottom line: Regardless of who you are, it is neither fulfilling nor healthy to live an inauthentic life.
If you are a highly sensitive man, the ultimate goal is to craft a life that allows you to be part of the third group mentioned above, in which you can be fully yourself and thrive—not just as a highly sensitive man, but as a human being. It allows you not only to honor your sensitivities, but also to be respected for your contributions to whatever work, causes, organizations, groups and communities you're involved in.
When we don't feel free and safe to be ourselves, we tend to get angry and/or depressed. Both of these can have a negative impact on our health, especially if we allow them to persist for long periods of time... and perhaps even reach for unhealthy ways to self-medicate in order to deal with our frustrations.
When learning about the deeper implications of being an HSP, Elaine Aron's companion workbook can be an excellent tool. This is more intended for those ready to do some "in depth" personal work to re-frame their self-perception. Highly recommended!
The first challenge HS Men face is to simply recognize and be aware of their sensitivity, as sensitivity, rather than as weakness or some kind of illness or pathology. This requires us to change our negative beliefs about the implications of sensitivity and the masculine.
The second challenge is to then accept and incorporate the different aspects of sensitivity into our lives, without relegating ourselves to the ranks of "misfits." This requires us to abandon old habits of ignoring the effects of high sensitivity, and accepting that they are simply part of us, and we must be willing to plan our lives accordingly.
The third challenge is to create a life and lifestyle that honors and utilizes the strengths of high sensitivity... and then to fearlessly embrace and LIVE that life. Often that will require us to let go of old beliefs centered around early lessons about "what it means to be a man," and creating our own definitions and embracing our own sense of personal power.
Now, some may be thinking "I can't just DO that!"
I'm not for a moment suggesting it is an easy process, nor that it is something we can do overnight. However, part of the process is about overcoming our fears of (potentially) negative judgments. I am absolutely not suggesting that HS Men start running around telling everyone that they are highly sensitive—often this self-development process is quite private. However, we gain nothing from living a life in which we fear being ourselves.
Changing our personal paradigms is an essential process, if we are to live well and thrive as Highly Sensitive Men.
Where Can I Learn More?
The book recommendations made on this page are all from my personal library and include only titles I have read and found useful/relevant/insightful.
In addition, you might consider reading some of my other articles about various aspects of being an HSP:
On a more personal level, you can read about my own discovery of being an HSP, back in 1997. If you're curious about the person behind these words, I have a fairly extensive author profile posted on this site, as well.