Editors note: Hi, welcome to Christian Valour. This is an old post. A while back I changed the theme of this blog to Christian apologetics and creation, and as such this post is no longer consistent with my new theme. I’ve kept it here however because it’s a popular post and hopefully still helpful to anyone struggling with this issue. I hope you enjoy it and if you’re interested then feel free to check out some of my other posts.
The ‘Highly Sensitive Person’
Are you a bit of a perfectionist? Do you find it hard to form and keep close relationships? Do you often find that you need to take breaks, feeling overwhelmed by your environment? Do you cry or lose your temper easily?
You might be a Highly Sensitive Person… then again, you might not.
A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is a person whose nervous system has a higher-than-average sensitivity. Based on the work of Dr’s Arthur and Elaine Aron, and Dr Ted Zeff, HSP is a trait which characterizes approximately 20% of the population and is equally distributed across genders.
The following enormous, but not exhaustive, list captures the range of characteristics that a given HSP may associate with:
- Sensitivity/aversion to
- The moods of yourself or others
- The emotions of yourself or others
- Stimulants (caffeine, alcohol, etc.)
- Environmental changes (external stimuli)
- Excess noise
- Bright lights
- Health and mental states
- Coarse fabrics
- Chaotic environments
- Jump scares
- Team sports
- Excess social interaction
- Competition/‘male posturing’
- Wearing your heart on your sleeve
- Cooperative behaviours
- A tendency toward egalitarianism
- The need to withdraw occasionally
- Intense ability to focus
- A tendency toward the arts and creative endeavours
- Being easily startled
- Easily overwhelmed by tasks and chores
- Performance anxiety
- The classification as ‘sensitive’ by peers and guardian figures
- Appreciation for nature
- Allergies, skin sensitivity
- Heightened senses in general
- Low pain threshold
- Pleasure seeking
- Above average fine motor skills
- Below average immune system/responses
- Sense of justice
- Purpose driven
- Seek meaning and purpose
- Self sacrificial to a fault
- Fish out of water
- The ability to Love deeply people/humanity/nature/kittens/etc.
- Soft spoken
- Passive, non assertive
- Having a rich, complex inner life (seriously)
- A sense of duty/responsibility
- Being solitary
- Hard working
A fundamental claim of HSP theory is this:
If you’re a HSP and have lived your life trying to fit into the emotionally stunted alpha male stereotype then you are not being ‘true to your real self’. This has ultimately led you to living a life of intense anxiety and social stigma.
A culture and society which uniformly holds men to an impossible standard of masculinity is marginalizing male HSP’s and holding them back from true peace and happiness.
Examples abound of individual men who grew up being bullied and told that they were weak pussies and needed to basically stop being so sensitive.
This is sad.
I know intimately how this feels.
The literature does distinguish between the stereotype ‘new age sensitive guy’, and the ‘HSP’. The sensitive new age guy is a strawman. Supposedly it is a misrepresentation of the true ‘HSP’ which is a biological reality, a totally genetically determined and immutable character profile.
HSP’s are who they are and they cannot be forced to conform to a masculine ideal that doesn’t suit their biology.
HSP’s are not broken, they’re just misunderstood.
I’ve also come to realise that they also don’t exist.
How do I know?
I am a really sensitive guy…
Before my son was born, I just assumed that I wouldn’t fall ‘instantly in love’ with him. I didn’t feel overly emotional or connected to him when he was in the cauldron. I’ve never been overly emotional at the death of loved ones, movies, or other people’s kids.
Why would having my baby be any different?
But it was.
When I first held my son I almost lost it. I’d never seen anything like him in my life.
To this day I am a broken shell of a man. My son is my kryptonite. For months I would think about him during the day and spontaneously well up because I was just so friggin in love with my little boy.
Some guys, probably a lot of guys, report that they don’t necessarily ‘feel’ anything for their new born’s straight away. Which just means they’re not overcome with obvious emotion.
For these guys it takes time. They need to bond with them over bath times, nappy changes and laughs and other things. That doesn’t mean they don’t love their child. It’s just that they’re not overwhelmed with emotions for them.
But not me. I loved the crap out of my son the moment I laid eyes on him.
Have you seen ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting’? There’s a brief moment when Gary is sitting in the hospital waiting room anxiously fiddling with his wedding ring. Gary’s just been strong armed out of his own wife’s cesarean operation because her heart stopped.
He’s sitting there with no idea what’s going on. His child has just been born and he hasn’t even held it yet. There’s nothing he can do but sit in that empty, white waiting room thinking about his wife and child…
Nope… just… nope.
That scene changes when you’ve been through a similar experience, it becomes real. You become Gary.
There are other things too.
I love hugs. I’m unhealthily affectionate. Two of my favourite things on earth are:
- When I pick my son up out of bed in the morning and he drapes himself over my shoulder like a blanket
- Just watching movies on the couch with my wife.
I take criticism to heart. I get hurt, distant and deflated.
I’m a creative, thoughtful, introspective, introvert.
A friend of mine once charged me with the exact phrase ‘stop being so sensitive!’.
Is any of this familiar to you?
In many ways I am the textbook example of a ‘Highly Sensitive Person’.
But on the other hand…
I am really insensitive
Some time ago I was trying to get work done in my office. I asked my wife nicely to keep my son from distracting me for an hour or so while I got this work done. He then proceeded to come and bang on the door every minute or so. I put up with it for a while but eventually I got so frustrated that I snapped.
I stormed out and rudely lashed out at my wife. She got visibly upset. I later apologized, and she apologized and it was all very good, but at the time I was cold as ice.
As I said, I don’t think I’ve ever shed a tear over a deceased person.
I’m concerned about the pain and suffering of others, but this is a very objective and pragmatic concern. I don’t cry myself to sleep.
I value truth, justice and rationality far more than tolerance, peace or encouragement.
I do take criticism to heart, yet I seek constructive criticism like a ravenous wolf. I would honest-to-God take one thoughtful, reflective criticism of my writing before a thousand adoring well wishes.
Some of my greatest academic achievements are the direct result of my response to criticism. Yes it hurts, a little bit, for a little while.
But you know what? You get over it, and it transforms you. The more you get used to it, the less it hurts.
I love violent movies. I love pop culture icons of masculinity: marvel movie’s, nineties action hero’s, spaghetti westerns, war epics. One of my dream Christmas presents is to get the entire collection of Rawhide in a box set.
I’m sporty…ish and I’m competitive… when I feel like it.
The myth of the ‘Highly Sensitive Person’
If my life went any differently than exactly how it did I might’ve considered myself a HSP too. But I’m not a HSP and neither are you.
You’re a normal guy who’s different from other guys. Maybe in some ways you’re really different. You copped a hard time as a boy when others didn’t.
Other boys cast you aside. You internalized your experiences and the world made you cry sometimes.
Everybody kept telling you to stop being sensitive, be a man. But no one ever actually taught you how. So you grew up surrounded by other boys acting like brutes, fighting and playing sports and generally just being rude assholes.
You were bastardized for not being competitive or ‘tough’. You were the ugly duckling. No one seemed to understand that you just weren’t like those other boys.
You distanced yourself from other men. You learned to ‘hide your feelings’. You made friends with girls because they were nicer, or you made friends with your school library, and buried your head in books, or video games.
Your whole life you just felt kind of… broken.
You came to believe that being a man simply meant not being you.
Then you discovered you were a HSP, and everything changed. All of a sudden you had an explanation for everything. It felt like you’d just lifted a lifetime of burden, confusion and brokenness off your shoulders.
I get it. If that’s you, then you need to know I’m not here to bastardize you. I’m not here to say that actually, you are still broken. You’re not.
I’m here to tell you that what you’re looking for, will not be found in HSP theory.
Even if you identify with many of the traits. Having grown up as the ugly duckling you found comfort and belonging upon discovering after all this time that you’re just a HSP.
So if there are so many guys who have identified with this trait and it’s been studied by psychologists and is all scientific and the like, then what is the problem?
I see at least three major problems with HSP theory:
1. The ‘alpha jock’ does not exist; it’s invented by fiction, by Hollywood
This was the most confusing aspect of researching HSP’s… what’s the alternative?
Perhaps it’s best described by the popular coined term ‘toxic masculinity‘, which according to many is the source of all the worlds problems. This toxic masculinity is embodied in the ‘alpha-male’ or as I prefer ‘alpha jock’.
What constitutes the ‘alpha jock’?
The ‘alpha jock’ is this sort of warrior type, doesn’t care about feelings, doesn’t have feelings, does what he wants to get what he wants kind of beast. He shrugs everything off and roughhouses his way through life succeeding by way of his assertive, dominant prowess.
He is impervious to emotional stress. He always knows exactly what to do in every situation and can make decisions with unflinching resolve, no matter the personal cost. He’s strong, courageous to a fault and almost always violent. He’s sporty and active, and loves doing ‘manly’ things like hunting and football. He’s a real life Gaston…
But Gaston isn’t real. Neither is this mythological man’s man.
It doesn’t exist. It’s the masculine equivalent of the models in women’s magazines. It’s kind of based off reality, but is photo shopped into an ideal.
HSP’s have never been able to live up to the picture of masculinity to which they’ve been held their hold lives, because no man can.
Toxic masculinity may formally describe a legitimate problem that affects some men, and can lead to issues of self-image. This makes sense because if it’s impossible to be the perfect ‘masculine ideal’ as defined by toxic masculinity, then it’s sure to lead some men astray. But that just further emphasizes that it’s not a true trait. It doesn’t really exist and men who aspire to it fail.
This is a problem for the HSP theory, because the HSP is an identity that’s designed to contrast itself with some meaningful real life alternative. But the alternative is not an existing thing, it’s just an ideal, one which most people understand to be unhealthy.
So if there’s no such thing as an ‘alpha jock’, then there’s probably no such thing as a HSP either.
2. It makes highly spurious assumptions about what’s genetic
There is a belief that true happiness is found only when we are being ‘true to ourselves’.
This belief is so ingrained in our culture today that no one challenges it. It’s a very intuitive and attractive idea. Supposedly there is some ‘self’ that perfectly captures your inmost being, and is unique to each individual. There are countless variations but the overall theme is that we need to just ‘be ourselves’. If we’re not doing this then we’re destined for a lifetime of unhappiness and misery.
It’s so ubiquitous that it doesn’t even cross our minds to question it.
The HSP theory wholeheartedly embraces this platitude. You were born sensitive, you’ll die sensitive, so just accept it and learn to love yourself. A HSP is completely genetically determined and immutable.
Almost as soon as you think about this it seems obviously false.
Do you expect me to believe that everything about who you are is not in the slightest way influenced by your environment; not by your diet, friends, family, culture, background, location, profession or most importantly your personal decision-making ability?
Random science fact (Warning: there is jargon):
It is basically the consensus view in genetics today that the vast majority of ‘traits’ are complex, which means they are influenced by a combination of both genetic and environmental factors. Furthermore, individual genetic variants can only explain a tiny fraction of the variability for a complex trait (HSP would unquestionably be a ‘complex trait’ if it was real), except in cases of very rare, high effect genetic mutations. So when HSP advocates argue that some gene has been discovered that associates with HSP, at best this will have a negligible effect on an individual.
You might be tempted to think that if you try to be someone you’re not you will just box up all your feelings and all of your hurt and pain, put on a brave face and it will then eat you up inside until you let it all out.
Nope. I’m sorry, but that’s wrong too.
Feelings don’t bottle up. Feelings come, and they go. When you lose control of your emotions it doesn’t make them better, it doesn’t make them go away. In many cases it makes them worse right?
You can build resilience over time with effort and practise.
Self proclaimed HSP’s themselves are proof of this.
“It was simply too dangerous to my well-being to allow my sensitivity out into the open any more than I had to, so I tried to harden myself up. I got fairly good at it over time, good enough to survive through adolescence and into young adulthood, but I felt lost most of the time, and I was. That’s the inevitable price of denying any core element of who we are.”
Notice the recourse there to ‘who we are’.
HSP’s attest to having to ‘learn’ to ‘hide’ their sensitivity. For the vast majority of cases you can bet that this just means learning not to be socially awkward and needy. More importantly though, it can be done.
This is just an important part of being a well-adjusted, conscientious, socialized man. It simply means learning how to express feelings in a meaningful, socially appropriate way, and allowing them to pass naturally; like farting.
If you can hold in a fart, you can hold in a feeling.
There’s no such thing as being ‘true to yourself’ because who you are, is almost completely within your power to define and actualize.
Don’t let anyone try to tell you what you are.
3. The HSP criteria
The third and possibly the worst problem with HSP theory is the criteria itself.
The character profile is simply enormous. It is far too large and general to be useful. There are so many things on this list that it could easily apply to anyone.
It contains traits which are seemingly unrelated. What do ‘fine motor skills’ have to do with being ‘compassionate’? Nothing. I doubt being creative and being a more cooperative person have any causative genetic relationship.
Many of the criteria are vague and poorly defined.
What is a ‘complex inner life’? That’s not even a thing. How do you measure intuition? You don’t. Intuition is a relative term, and is context dependent.
Some of the traits are simply character virtues. Compassion, loyalty and a sense of justice are all things controlled by your personal decision-making, not your genetic personality. Sure your level of ‘compassion’ might vary depending on your personality, but you either choose to show it, or you don’t. Compassion is not a part of ‘who you are’ unless you will it to be.
Some of the traits are contradictory. How can one individual have both a ‘high ability to focus’ and be ‘easily distracted’? These are literally the opposite of each other…
When two characteristics appear mutually exclusive, they are no longer describing the same trait.
The selection criteria is a mix of obviously physiological traits (like sensitivity to the environment), and obviously psychological traits (like perfectionism), but it’s not clear how they are related or why they supposedly describe the same types of individuals (HSP’s).
Advocates combine these characteristics to give the impression that they describe the same trait. Anyone who is soft-spoken or timid has license to categorize themselves as ‘highly sensitive’, although it may have nothing to do with their nervous system.
Based on the size and the vagueness of the HSP criteria, anyone could be forgiven for thinking that they might be a Highly Sensitive Person.
In short, the ‘Highly Sensitive Person’ is a myth.
Why is this important?
There’s lot of reasons. I could talk about how the HSP has been used to excuse poor parenting, or how I think mostly this whole thing is just a huge cash grab.
But more than that men need to know that being a bit sensitive, or having a sensitive side doesn’t make you a ‘Highly Sensitive Person’, and it doesn’t mean you’re not a man.
If you’re reading this and have always considered yourself a sensitive guy, then know that this does not exclude you from true manhood. You’re not broken, or different, or a weak sissy… but you’re not off the hook either.
All men, no matter how tough or stoic they think they are, have the capacity for sensitivity.
You’re still a man even if you’re a book-worm, a sketch artist or a hugger. If some movies get you choked up, or you happily show your feelings, or you’re compassionate and loyal or all of the above, no problem.
When you look at the world around you, and sometimes the injustice and evil in the world overwhelms you to the point of tears, or anger, you’re still a man.
There’s nothing manly about being emotionally manipulative. There’s nothing manly about hiding inside a shell of vulnerability and expecting the world to do you a favour.
Do not use your emotions, or ‘sensitivity’ to justify failure, weakness, inaction or cowardice.
Being sensitive is not an excuse to be pathetic, and being emotionally resilient is not an excuse to be an asshole.
We all have the capacity for malice, apathy, weakness and selfishness.
The question is not ‘am I sensitive man’, but ‘am I a manly man’? These are not opposites.
Embracing your masculinity is a lot harder than simply ‘accepting who you are’. It requires making hard choices, consistently. It means being honest when no one else is. It means working out when you don’t feel like it, going to work when you don’t feel like it. It means getting a job, even one you will hate, if you need one.
To be a man is to fight the grain of nurture and to chase difficulty, adversity and excellence.
None of this depends on whether or not you think you’re sensitive.
You all have the capacity to do what must be done, regardless of your feelings (or lack of feelings).
Stop trying to define your life and personality as a reaction to a non-existent, impossible ideal and start understanding what it truly means to be a man.
You can do everything all the blogging authorities tell you to do, and you can do it absolutely correctly, and you’ll still fail. I guarantee it.
So, does that mean you’re doomed?
Not necessarily. Here’s why:
This isn’t about genetics. This isn’t about inborn talent. This isn’t about fate.
It’s about deciding who you want to be and then making yourself into that person.
Jon wasn’t born smart, and no one would’ve ever believed it if he didn’t put the effort in:
I was not what you would call a “bright” kid.
I goofed off in class. I failed tests. I skated through with mediocre grades.
But… I got fed up with myself and decided to change things…
Because that’s who I wanted to be…
By the time I was 16, I graduated high school with college credit, a full two years early. In college, professors regularly called me a prodigy.
Oh yeah, Jon also has SMA. Jon is one of the crazy few who made enormous achievements, despite crushing odds being stacked against him. Imagine if he just rolled over instead.
Winston Churchill is another perfect example. As an incredibly sickly kid, he would’ve seemed destined to a life of mediocrity, and no one would’ve blamed him for it. Fortunately for Western Civilization he didn’t. He fought tooth and nail his whole life, against his own biology, to become one of Britain’s greatest ever Prime Ministers and a model of manhood for men everywhere.
There is nothing special about these men, except that they willed there life into what it was.
I’m not saying you have to become the Prime Minister, or the world’s greatest writer, but you can be a better man… every day… by taking small deliberate steps toward a life of action, a life that is not shackled by the perception that you have a glass ceiling.
Do not learn to be OK with who you are. Don’t accept it, and don’t blame your genes.
Train every day to be the best possible version of yourself…
The question is not, what can you do?
The only question is, what are you going to do?
Fight to be better. The world needs you to.
The world needs men.
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