When The Highly Sensitive Person was first published, someone told me that when they read it in public they kept a plain paper book cover on it so that no one would see the title. How much do you hide your sensitivity? Sometimes it is wise to consider when, why, and with whom you will discuss your sensitivity, but do you ever just think it would be better if no one knew? Maybe especially that you didn’t know?
In those early days I did many interviews with male TV and radio hosts, and quite often they attacked or ridiculed the whole idea of high sensitivity. Finally, I learned to tease them about it. “Oh well, you’re just like all the other male interviewers—you get all tense at the very idea of sensitivity.” Often, I uncovered the fact that they were actually HSPs and also high sensation seekers, the perfect combo for media workers.
These days, some people have asked me to stop using the term “sensitive” for the trait because it is too negative or has the wrong connotation. (Mainly I used it because it applies to the entire nervous system and to other animals, avoiding associating it only with conscious thinking, as in “reflective,” but if you prefer a “finely tuned nervous system,” feel free to use that.) Interestingly, sensitive is one of the few adjectives in English that has both a very positive and I guess very negative meaning, making it potentially neutral. Usually there are opposite words, positive and negative) for the same trait (stubborn/persistent, impulsive/spontaneous, thrifty/stingy, humorous/silly), not a single word.
Through all of this, I guess I have been discovering what we could call sensitivephobia.
As you can guess from the meaning of homophobia or xenophobia (the dislike of foreigners), sensitivephobia is the dislike or prejudice against highly sensitive people. All of these “phobias” are products of culture–starting in the family and going on through school, friends, doctors, therapists, the media. Some of you may live in the relatively rare culture with little or no sensitivephobia. But most of us do experience a subtle prejudice around sensitivity unless we hide our trait (which we usually can because it is invisible) or we bring it up very carefully.
The effects of prejudice are always bad for those it is directed towards–and even worse for those affected by more than one prejudice, such as sensitive African-Americans. Perhaps the worst effect is that prejudice is almost always internalized. Internalized homophobia is a good example, being a well-researched phenomenon. It causes gay men and lesbians to experience self-doubt and self-hatred. Can you relate? Surely many HSPs have internalized sensitivephobia, a feeling that something is wrong with them because of their sensitivity, so that they don’t like themselves because of it.
The phenomenon of self-doubt is often unconscious, and found in all who have experienced prejudice. For example, women, Latinos, and African Americans in the United States perform worse on math exams if they are even just very subtly reminded of their sex or ethnicity by filling in that information at the top of the exam. With just that reminder, they are primed to think they can’t do as well as others on the test—and they don’t. Social psychologists call this “stereotype threat.”
This internalized self-doubt and self-hatred is not innate of course, but baggage you need to discard. How is it done? Those who have experienced it will tell it is best done through solidarity with others having this trait. We have to validate each other.
Specifically about Highly Sensitive Men
Highly sensitive women seem to know the importance of solidarity, perhaps through their experience of sexism and sexual harassment. HS women are the majority of those who come to lectures and weekends for HSPs. Although the numbers vary, men are generally about a tenth to a quarter of the audience. What’s stopping them? Are HS men afraid that they will dislike their trait and themselves even more when they meet other men with the trait?
My response: As I have watched groups of HSMs start to talk, it seems that they find so much to admire in each other—the courage, accomplishments, honesty, or quiet, attentive reserve that creates the feeling of instantly understanding each other.
Do they fear that they WILL like the trait more after the weekend, and therefore have to accept it more, including being inconvenienced by understanding that to be their best they will need to adjust their lifestyle and accept that they can be easily overstimulated and need more downtime than others?
My response: The more downtime, the more effective you will be in the long run. (Look up “incubation creativity” in Google Scholar.)
Do they fear they will become over identified with their sensitivity, as some others seem to be?
My response: Most people, after they learn about their sensitivity, have it on their mind a great deal for a few months, and then it settles in as a factor sometimes to be considered when making a decision or interpreting an event.
Culture and Complexes
Another way to think about sensitivephobia is to treat it as a complex. I have often written about complexes. They are the building blocks of any personality. We all have them. Some examples are complexes about Mother, Father, money, food, authority, independence vs. dependence, God. A complex predisposes us to think in a certain, less objective way when it is activated.
Most complexes contain some fears, learned somewhere. These are dangers you have learned to avoid, but that can mean thinking you see some sign of these dangers where they don’t exist. For HSPs with a complex about sensitivity, the fear is surely about being different and therefore rejected. For sensitive men in particular, there is the fear, often learned unconsciously from their culture, of being seen as less competent than other men, weak, or less attractive. Or there are the well learned fears that come from actually having been bullied, teased, or humiliated, sometimes by one’s own parents. Of course, HS women can have very similar fears.
The way out of a complex? You never totally escape it, but the more time you work on understanding where it comes from and how it distorts your thinking, the less time you will spend in it. We all know that the culture, and therefore life itself, has been harder on highly sensitive men. Much harder. But persistent focus and time with other HSPs is going to help. Sensitivephobia is not going to go away by ignoring it.