by Ted Zeff, Ph.D.
Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: August 2010
According to research psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron, approximately 20 percent of the population is highly sensitive and the trait is equally divided between males and females. In other words, approximately 20 percent of all males are highly sensitive. Due to societal mores, males are not supposed to express emotions such as fear and sadness, and they’re told that they shouldn’t let anything bother them, making the trait of sensitivity particularly challenging for men. I’ve noticed a huge prejudice against sensitive males, such as the male talk-show host who interviewed me and uncomfortably made jokes about sensitive men, and the major book publisher who told me that there is such a stigma against “sensitive males” that no one would want to buy a book with those words in the title.
The sensitive man who reacts deeply to stimuli and exhibits emotional sensitivity is perfectly normal. However, there’s something wrong with a society that shames males who do not act in a tough, aggressive, and emotionally repressed manner–especially when such a significant portion of the population simply isn’t cut out for or comfortable with these behaviors. When sensitive males do not conform to stereotypical male behavior and instead express compassion, gentleness, and vulnerability, they may be shamed, or when they express normal levels of fear, anxiety, and sadness others may treat them as abnormal. The behaviors that are associated with females (actions that demonstrate empathy, sensitivity, compassion, and so on) are also natural male traits–they are simply not recognized as such in many societies.
Many sensitive men tend to pause to reflect before acting and would not be considered risk takers. This tendency can easily be understood as demonstrating a healthy caution. However, in most societies males are frequently encouraged to engage in risky behavior and are praised when they do so, while more cautious behavior is regarded with shame. The HSM (highly sensitive male) will notice potential danger sooner than the non-HSM and is very aware of safety issues. Interestingly, this sense of caution seems to be regarded highly in the animal kingdom. For instance, the sensitive horse that intuits danger first and is able to warn the other horses of potential danger becomes the leader of his group. This respect for the sensitive animal as leader is probably the reason why virtually no animals died in the tsunami several years ago.
Given our societal norms, it may come as a surprise that newborn boys are actually more emotionally reactive than girls. One study showed that baby boys cry more than baby girls when they are frustrated; yet by the age of five, most boys suppress all their feelings except anger. However, even though boys are taught to maintain emotional control, measuring their heart rate or skin conductance (sweaty palms) in emotionally arousing situations demonstrates that there is no difference between boys’ and girls’ responses. Boys have the same human needs as girls.
Many males who are destroying their lives to feel “manly” are not acting like real men; rather, they are performing a distortion of a cultural stereotype. By disowning their sensitive side, many males become half a person. The aggressive, non-emotional male needs to learn to emulate the behavior of the compassionate, emotionally sensitive male to become a fully functioning human being–acknowledging and honoring each of their human qualities instead of segregating most and aggrandizing a few.
While sensitive men may not be warriors fighting on foreign battlefields, their battles take just as much courage. Fighting to uphold righteousness in society, long the purview of sensitive men and women everywhere, takes a strong backbone and much fortitude. Personal and global peace can only be achieved through the resurrection of such masculine heroes as Jesus, Buddha, The Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. It takes a strong man to speak the truth about morality, virtue and justice as those great spiritual leaders have done.
The highly sensitive male may have trouble fitting into the narrow mold of a stereotypical male, but he has many wonderful qualities. Some of these include:
- The ability to act as a peacemaker
- Concern about the humane treatment of animals
- A sense of responsibility
- The tendency to feel love deeply
- A great intuitive ability
- An awareness of their unity with all beings
- The ability to have and appreciate deep spiritual experiences
Although many HSMs may not fit in with our competitive, overstimulating, and often violent world, the sensitive man tends to share many of the characteristics of the great male spiritual teachers. These men also had trouble fitting in with aggressive, combative males and were sometimes humiliated for their empathetic and compassionate behavior. And of course, this inability to fit in gave them the opportunity to do great things.
In completing research for my new book, The Strong, Sensitive Boy: Help your Son Grow into a Happy, Confident Man, I interviewed thirty sensitive men from five different countries. Virtually all of the HSMs in my study enthusiastically shared with me how much they appreciated the positive aspects of being sensitive. For example, many men discussed how their intuition, creativity and ability to notice subtleties in the environment has helped strengthen their relationships, succeed in work, and deeply enjoy music and art projects. One man noticed that his sensitive tactile sense gives him an advantage when landing a plane, driving, and tasks that require refined movement and dexterity. Another man shared that his increased awareness helps him fix things before they become a problem from hearing poor bearings on his vehicles to smelling small gas leaks.
When sensitive males feel free to experience their sensitivity, they discover the joys of their finely tuned senses. And when they are allowed to flourish, helped and supported by family, coworkers and friends, they know the peace of self-acceptance.
Dr. Ted Zeff is the author of The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide and The Highly Sensitive Person’s Companion. His new book is entitled The Strong, Sensitive Boy. Although much of the information is aimed at helping school-aged boys, the book is also important for sensitive men to read. It will help them heal their childhood wounds, learn how to navigate through our aggressive, overstimulating world, and accept themselves as sensitive men. Finally, this book is also important for sensitive women since how society treats sensitive men deeply affects highly sensitive women–and all women close to sensitive males.