If you’ve ever visited a discussion group on high sensitivity, one thing will not go unnoticed: it is a topic debated almost exclusively by women. My personal estimation is that 95 percent of the people I have spoken about the highly sensitive trait are women. With the lack of highly sensitive men participating in discussions around this you could be left wondering if high sensitivity is an exclusively feminine trait.
But this couldn’t be more far from the truth. In her research on highly sensitive people, American psychologist Elaine Aron concludes as many men as women are affected by this trait.
So where are the highly sensitive men?
About 20 percent of the population are highly sensitive. With a world population of seven billion that is at least one billion highly sensitive people, of which half are men. Not all of the highly sensitive people know that they have the trait. Most do not even know the trait exists, though they will have noticed from an early age that they feel differently than others. A highly sensitive person may think something like:
“I’m the only one in the office who gets bothered by the tapping sounds of the PC keyboards—there must be something wrong with me.”
There is still a long way to go in bringing high sensitivity to the attention of the general public. But this does not explain why highly sensitive men—compared to highly sensitive women—are so invisible. The reasons for this lie in our our cultural images of masculinity and (high) sensitivity.
Sensitivity has a bad reputation
The dominant image in our culture of the man is that of someone who is strong, domineering, status-oriented and unemotional. From childhood on we are brought up with this image: not only in movies and on TV, but also at home, at school, at the sports club and even at work. Someone like Jordan Belfort aka The Wolf of Wall Street— fearless, ruthless and extremely competitive—is generally considered more masculine and more successful than a male nurse who is kind, compassionate and caring, but deemed feminine.
Sensitivity—and certainly high sensitivity—are associated with weakness, vulnerability and unmanagable emotions. Just search Google for “sensitive” and you’ll find snapshots of timid children and cloying sweet butterflies. In other words: just about everything that a “real” man is not. Sensitivity has a reputation for being soft and is therefore considered a trait that fits women better.
Women do boxing … but men don’t do zumba
In recent decades, women have shaken off many preconceptions, especially that they are overly emotional, vulnerable, and weak creatures (although in some places little has changed). Nowadays, women can also appear strong, dominant, status-oriented and coldbloded. The image of the powerful woman has been around for some time.
At the same time men barely managed to emancipate. Certainly, a large number of people no longer consider men to be the callous types we know from TV series like Mad Men. But men will often not feel able to show too much of their sensitive side.
Dutch journalists Jop de Vrieze and Stephan van Duin write in an article titled “Why Women Do Boxing, But Men Don’t Do Zumba”:
“Men still don’t register en masse for pilates, horse riding or power yoga courses. They are still severely under-represented in what is seen as ‘soft professions’. And they still spend much less time with their families than women. All these things, as is still the prevailing view, are not meant for men. That is our masculine mystique.”
As a result men themselves impose all sorts of restrictions on themsleves and choose lives that does not necessarily suit them. Even their physical and mental health can suffer because of this. Men are keeping up appearances, just so they won’t come across as soft or unmanly.
High sensitivity makes a man strong, in a way
But are highly sensitive men by definition soft-hearted? Is high sensitivity a trait defined by weakness?
Being highly sensitive means: being receptive to stimuli from the environment and processing these stimuli more intensely. In some situations this can increase vulnerability. The highly sensitive man can experience anxiety, stress and disappointment more intensely than other men. He may be stung by a friend or colleague’s unkind comment more easily and he may quickly become overwhelmed by an overstimulating environment.
But this is only one aspect of high sensitivity. Being receptive to your environment also reflects a great aptitude for creative thinking, to perceive nuances, to make informed decisions and to quickly understand the mood of a group. It can also mean thriving in an environment that is suited for people of high sensitivity. This is generally one that is significantly muted with less sensory stimulation. High sensitivity makes a man far from being weak or incompetent.
Men are just as sensitive as women
Also, the prevailing view of a “real” man is no longer sustainable. Research confirms that sensitivity and emotions are human qualities, and not reserved for one gender. In an article about highly sensitive men the American psychologist Ted Zeff writes:
“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.”
Thus, men are as sensitive as women; they just may not feel comfortable to show their sensitivity.
Highly sensitive men must overcome an additional obstacle
For every highly sensitive person (man or woman) recognizing and accepting their trait is an exciting and sometimes difficult process which takes many years. But men have to overcome an additional obstacle: their image of themselves as a man.
If you are a man who grew up in an environment where being a man is measured by things like coldbloodedness, dominance and competitive drive, it may be very difficult to admit that you might be more sensitive. Many men are therefore inclined to hide their high sensitivity.
Personally, I totally understand this feeling of shame. When I read a book about high sensitivity for the first time, it really struck a chord. But I told myself: “I’m not highly sensitive. Well maybe just a tiny bit!”
To admit that you are highly sensitive—even if it’s just for yourself—is to admit that you are somehow not a “real” man. If you have accepted the standard image of the “real” man, owning your high sensitivity feels like admitting that you’re unmanly.
How do we break the taboo for highly sensitive men?
Unfortunately, there is no easy solution for this. But I do believe that change is possible. We need to recognize that all kinds of men are required in our world and coolbloodedness and an aggressive competitive drive are not requisite for living a meaningful and rich life. We need to give highly sensitive men (and highly sensitive women) permission to fully be their sensitive selves. Only then can they fully share their wonderful qualities into our world.
- Rick Belden about his experiences as a highly sensitive man: “I Am a Highly Sensitive Man”
- Ted Zeff on the masculine ideal and the prejudices about high sensitivity: “Healing the Highly Sensitive Male”
- Dan McLeod, a psychologist from Sydney, recently published a book on highly sensitive men: “The Highly Sensitive Man: Embrace the kind, strong and wholehearted man within”
Photo credit: Getty Images