For Crying Out Loud, Can We Please Stop Calling Them Highly Sensitive Men?

cryingguys

Mark Greene asks, how is it that empathic men have been collectively tagged as “easily hurt” or “delicately aware?” Who made that decision?

Lately, I’ve seen a number of well written and thoughtful articles about highly sensitive men. The 20% or so of men who, in theory, pick up on lots more information from the world around them. These articles seek to empower men who are more aware of emotional expression in the people they deal with. It is an effort to create space in our cultural dialogues for men who show pronounced empathy for others and manifest a wider range of male gender roles, such as care taking.

All very important and very necessary. All very fine and good.

Now, Google “sensitive man” and look at the images that come up:

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What you get is pictures of men crying.

What you get is pictures of men crying. You get pictures of men looking miserable. Distraught. Anxious. As if the very process of being aware or expressive is the instantaneous emotional equivalent of not getting picked for kickball.  Where I come from, the kid who didn’t fit in was called “a little bit sensitive” by his mom. It was not a positive thing. It was a general apology for a son who couldn’t stop cringing during batting practice.

But don’t take my word for it. Let’s look at the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary’s definition of sensitive:

:  highly responsive or susceptible: as
a (1) :  easily hurt or damaged; especially :  easily hurt emotionally
(2) :  delicately aware of the attitudes and feelings of others

How is it that empathic men have been collectively tagged with a term which defines them as easily hurt emotionally or delicately aware? How did the word sensitive suddenly become what we call these men? Who made that decision? Language is a powerful thing. You might as well be calling them “special” and dropping your voice slightly when you say it.

We are very close to pathologizing emotional awareness in men. Because we continue to insist that thick skinned emotionally distant men are the baseline for men.

We are very close to pathologizing emotional awareness in men. Because we continue to insist that thick skinned emotionally distant men are the baseline for men. (You can thank the man box for that helpful discourse.) But emotionally distant men are a product of their environment, not a genetic inevitability. Why emotionally distant men get to be the baseline against which “sensitive men” are judged needs to be reexamined. Like, right now.

Don’t get me wrong. Most articles extoll the virtues of highly sensitive men. Why you should date one. Why you should get one as your nanny. But the language we are using is framing these guys as fragile; as if the capacity for emotional connection is a one way ticket to anxiety for men. Moreover, as much as these sensitive guys are being promoted as better husband material, there is still the ongoing subtext that women want a sensitive guy at home while they go party with the bad boys. Grotesquely, our cultural narrative about sensitive men undermines male emotional awareness as a recipe for being taken advantage of by women.

And so, we end up with yet another damaging binary. (God, we love those in American culture.) In this case, we are at risk of creating a false masculine binary that places over-emotional weepers on one end, and bull-in-the-china-shop alpha males on the other. Which does a disservice to men across the spectrum of our gender. I would suggest that all men have a capacity for sensitivity and emotional expression. Some just choose not to engage it. They turn it off. And for good reason. See: The Man Box: The Link Between Emotional Suppression and Male Violence

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So how about we change the whole conversation? First, how about we frame empathy as a natural expression of male strength; a sign of a more emotionally stable and capable man? Or better yet, lets just pull out all the stops and make the capacity for emotional connection central to being thought of as a real man. Because the idea that only a limited number of men are “highly sensitive” reinforces  yet again the damaging view of emotionally closed off masculinity as normative for men.

And secondly, if we continue to equate emotional awareness with fragility, encouraging emotional awareness and connection is going to be a hard sell to men and women alike. Let’s call the capacity for emotional connection what it is, a strength.

Yes, there are some contexts in which being compassionate is not immediately an asset. It sucks to be anything other than an emotional robot and play football with Richie Incognito. And yes, the prevailing (false) narrative in our culture continues to be that the thick skinned alpha males have the easiest time of it. And yes, to this day, we believe that women love a strong confident man. But here’s where I have to note a sea change.

The question we should be asking is not “what is a sensitive man?” The question we should be asking is “for a man, what is true strength?”

Because the question we are finally beginning to ask is not “what is a sensitive man?” The question we are now asking is “for men, what is true strength?” The positive aspects of the highly sensitive man narrative isn’t about sensitivity at all. Its about intentional awareness. A simple choice by any man who is willing, to care about what is going on in the emotional lives of the people around him.

If a man chooses not to value empathy, it is most likely because he was not raised to see how central it is to living a full life. The result is a man who is isolated behind a wall of disconnection.

But no matter how we are raised, the ongoing lack of emotional connection in our adult lives is a personal choice, not some gender-based genetic predisposition. Men who do not honor the emotions of others, who do not call on their natural capacity for empathy are at risk of living lives that are emotionally empty and unfulfilling. They drink too much, self medicate though consumerism or sexuality and ultimately feel isolated. Its a choice a lot of men make, but it is by no means natural or predetermined. It is a choice.

Likewise, boys or men, young or old, can make a very different choice.  They can choose to activate that most central of their human capacities; the ability to sense and value the emotions of others. It is a choice that results not in sorrow and fragility, but in laughter, joy, connection and play. Moreover, it results in resiliency, community, capacity and strength; strength to weather the challenges of life and to help those they love do so as well. These men are not “delicately aware”. They are not “easily hurt or damaged”. They have made a choice to be strong. And in choosing to be strong in this way, they will change the world and the lives of those they love for the better.

So, enough with the “highly sensitive” man thing. How about we just call them real men?

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Read more by Mark Greene:

The Man Box: Why Men Police and Punish
“Every time you do this, you become less free. A rat in a cage. A dog on a chain. A prisoner.”

Why Men’s Friendships Can Feel So EMPTY

Man Box: The Link Between Emotional Suppression and Male Violence

The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer

Touch Isolation: How Homophobia Has Robbed All Men of Touch

Boys and Self-Loathing: The Conversations That Never Took Place

Our Society’s Brutal Economic Message to Straight Men About Expressing Gender Differently: You’d Better Not…

The Dark Side of Women’s Requests of Progressive Men 

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About Mark Greene

GMP Senior Editor Mark Greene writes and speaks on Men's Issues at the intersection of society, politics, relationships and parenting for the Good Men Project, the New York Times, The Shriver Report, Salon, HLN, The Huffington Post, and Mamamia. You can follow him on Twitter @megaSAHD and Google.
Click here to read more GMP articles by Mark Greene. Get Mark's fully illustrated children's book FLATMUNDER for iPad from iTunes about kid's fears and the power of play. For kids ages 4-8.

Comments

  1. Timothy Hill says:

    It’s sort of ironic that this article gets posted the same day I hear about a new campaign to stop calling women “bossy” or “pushy” if they show leadership qualities. To me it’s two sides of the same coin.

  2. David Wise says:

    I’m getting like John Boehner when I watch a sad movie now. I guess I’m getting sentimental with old age.

  3. “We are very close to pathologizing emotional awareness in men. ”

    Society has always pathologized emotional awareness. It has been used as a reason why women are incapable and incompetent. It has always been seen as weak and a burden more than benefit. This is nothing new as men have been doing this to women for thousands of years. Men are just becoming aware of the policing that happens when it comes to emotionalism because that policing is now being focused on men also, which brings it in to the light. the fact that men are talking about this as if it is something new goes to show how blind people are to how others are treated… until they start being treated the same way.

    • Hi Lynn,
      If men are to move toward creating parity across the board in partnership with women, we can not do so in absolute silence or it is not a very good example of parity. Thanks for your comment.

    • Michael Rowe says:

      Lynn, when emotional awareness is expected, and rewarded, as it has traditionally been in women in society, it’s not pathology. Men have always been expected—including, perhaps even especially, by women—to be strong and stoic. Sensitivity has traditionally been suspect in men. It has always been “policed.” Policing men for sensitivity has always existed, even as women have complained that men aren’t sensitive ENOUGH. Your casual, flippant dismissal of the situation is not only not helpful, intelligent, or intuitive, but, weirdly, serves to illustrate the problem even as you obliquely tell men to suck up the phew policing and responding emotionally to it, since they’ve allegedly always done it to women.

      • Michael Rowe, the only thing I dislike about your response is the implication that women put the majority of social pressure on men to be strong and stoic. I think that needs some reevaluation since it is a preference created by patriarchal society and not necessarily one that I feel women have clung to. The female desire for a mature and responsible male isn’t mutually exclusive with stoicism.

        • Michael Rowe says:

          Lexi, thank you for your kind words. The patriarchy may have been created by men, but it has been maintained over the millennia by both men and women, and there has been as much of an emphasis of keeping men in their place, in order to maintain the “social order,” as there has been in keeping women there.

          In fairness, we’re not talking about “mature and responsible” males here, we’re talking about the right of men to be sensitive and/or emotional, and/or connected to their feelings, without being gender policed for it as “unmanly.” With all due respect, having actually been raised as male-identified in this patriarchal society of which we speak, I may have an insight or two about where demands for “manly behaviour” come from, and they don’t all come from fathers or brothers, or male peers, or authority figures, and they don’t universally come from other males. The come from mothers, sisters, teachers, girlfriends, wives, and the media. And there are prodigious penalties for transgressing those demands.

          The notion that only stoical men are “mature and responsible” is, in and of itself, the gender policing I’m talking about. There are many men who are mature and responsible, but rather than stoic, they’re effusive and emotional as well. This piece is about the pathologizing of male emotionality, exclusive of anger and violence, and the fact that it’s even being discussed or debated suggests that Mr. Greene not only has a superb point, but also that it deserves a really, really close look.

          • excellent posts,
            in both replies you knocked it out the park

          • Jon Jay Obermark says:

            Lynn. Have you ever been beaten for crying? Have you ever seen a girl beaten for crying?

            I grew up around a lot of abusive adults, with a lot of abused children, and you are just plain wrong. Women are not punished nearly as often for feeling bad (or for much of anything else). Boys in my life, including my few close friends, were consistently ‘beaten out of’ being ‘useless’ when they were ‘feeling sorry for themselves’. (Of course, a lot of them then ended up in jail. And, guess what, only one girl among the lot went there.)

            Women state a lot of incorrect assumptions about the minds of men, for pretending to be so empathic. Your analysis lacks both facts and empathy.

  4. Good article. Being in control of your emotions and having/expressing them are two different things. It’s good to have control, especially in certain situations, but it’s definitely not good to be so repressed as to be oblivious to emotional needs of yourself or your loved ones.

  5. Tom Brechlin says:

    You’re right Mark, we need to move forward. Even the so called “alpha male” has the capability of expressing sensitivity and that’s one of the reasons I struggle with the images of men who are “sensitive” being shown as some blubbering mess. Yeah, that’s the image we want to show men …. like it’s going to help?

    Part of the moving forward is to allow an environment that men can feel comfortable expressing their emotions without the “tag.” But that environment has to allow the perceived alpha male be be who he is but add the feeling that having other emotions in no way jeopardize who he is as that perceived alpha male.

    Am I making any sense?

  6. Tom Brechlin says:

    Awww crap, here we go again with the missing posts.

  7. That top left stock pic has been used to make fun of men and men’s issues so many time it makes me seize up. The emotion could be very genuine, but that’s what immediately came to mind – people mocking men even if they’re showing real emotion.

    And frankly, so what if men cry? That is not something worth mocking, and we have every right to do it.

    Can’t say I buy trying to reclaim “real man” either – just not worth it, but otherwise, another good piece Mark.

  8. John Anderson says:

    I heard that when women say they want a sensitive man they mean a man who is sensitive to her feelings not his own. I wonder how much of that is true.

    • Theorema Egregium says:

      As much as all other stereotypes, probably: Sometimes painfully true, but more often utter bullshit.

    • Jaimi Allers says:

      You make a good point there.

    • This woman here would say she wants a sensitive man because she wants someone with emotional intelligence and good perception.
      Someone that at least try to understand his own emotions/feelings, and that always consider other people’s emotions/feelings – Generosity and Kindness are some of the qualities I admire the most in a man (or woman), and I believe only sensitive people can have them.

      • “This woman here would say she wants a sensitive man because she wants someone with emotional intelligence and good perception.”

        So why not refer to this paradigm of modern manhood as “perceptive” or “emotionally aware”?

  9. John Anderson says:

    There’s a lot of effort needed to hide your emotions. What could be accomplished if that was used constructively.

  10. Jaimi Allers says:

    At first I saw this article and went “oh crap, here they go berating the HSP” but I do think there are some valid and thoughtful points here. I am classified as an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) which makes me a fantastic nurse, but a mess in some parts of my relationships. The best description I have been given for an HSP is “Someone who doesn’t have a filter over their heart, like most people do. This person can be easily hurt by comments that most others would not even notice.” Now my husband is also an HSP, but of a slightly different variety, he is a High Sensation Seeking Person meaning he needs a lot of physical and emotional contact. This can lead to bad days for us when I am overwhelmed and withdrawn, and he is needing reassurance and contact. Anyway, I don’t think this article bashes the idea of the Highly Sensitive Person, I do think the point is it shouldn’t matter if a man is an HSP, that emotion is a sign of strength and maturity, and a new marker on the capacity to care for a family. We don’t need pure brute strength in our mates to fend off the tigers, we need someone who can manage the emotional ups and downs of each day in our lives.

  11. wellokaythen says:

    Being sensitive doesn’t simply mean crying. I agree, and I’d go one step further with a corollary:

    Crying doesn’t mean a man is sensitive.

    Just because a man is crying in public doesn’t mean he’s actually a sensitive man. Those photos reminded me of photos of Jimmy Swaggart crying years ago as he begged God and his followers to forgive him for all his indiscretions. I never thought of him as a highly sensitive man, crying or not.

    I’m not saying he specifically is/was an insensitive jerk. I’m just saying that insensitive assholes are perfectly capable of crying in public as well. Any manipulative psychopath, male or female, can shed tears. That’s no indication of how sensitive someone is.

  12. Denthris says:

    About time I’ve gotten a chance to read something like this. Their is so much more to being “Strong” than bench pressing, and their is so much more to be being a Man. Articles like this need to be almost viral as its a way to hidden truth, that media today completely ignores.

  13. Jon Jay Obermark says:

    Our rules for men, much more than our rules for women, are a mass of internal contradictions that dictate guilt for all the allowed responses, in a lot of circumstances? My father was raised with the Bible and then drafted. My friends were told they were valuable, and beaten bloody to prove it. I am told to be less competitive, but make the money my spouse requires, even though we already live way too well.

    Since everything is a double-bind, empathy and logic do not make for a happy man. If they just won’t leave you alone, and you really expect this mess to work, and make sense, you might actually cry a lot.

  14. Jon Jay Obermark says:

    Also, this is not new. This has not just started being applied to men. Remember any Art History or just basic Western Civ. or English from High School.

    Remember all those men of deep commitment who loved deeply and cried all the time, from the Iliad to Shakespeare to Wuthering Heights to the Brave New World? This is not something we are just now doing, it is a trend from forever.

    We have always worked hard to tell emotional men that they were specifically called out for either suffering or greatness, or well… for either outright suffering, or greatness combined with a lot of paradoxical suffering.

  15. “Sensitive” is a loaded word regardless of gender. “Don’t be so sensitive” is the ultimate exemplar of the widespread attitude of “If you don’t like the shit I say or do, that’s YOUR problem”. There’s also the assumption that women are already “sensitive”(often in a pejorative sense) so there’s no need to even mention it.

    “How about we just call them real men?” Ugh. Really? Anything with “real man” is invariably a lame publicity stunt or a crap ad campaign. How about we just call them human fucking beings? (The “fucking” is, of course optional, unless humanity’s essential sexual nature is a point one wishes to emphasize.)

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