Friday, November 30, 2012
Highly Sensitive Men
In her 1997 book, The Highly Sensitive Person, Dr. Elaine Aron described the experience of "high sensitivity" as neither a weakness nor a choice, but a matter of wiring and physiology. According to her research, about 15 - 20% of the population qualifies as "highly sensitive." And interestingly enough, equal numbers of men and women have been found to be highly sensitive. While sensitivity overall may be judged as more of a curse than a blessing in many circles, especially the business world, because of gender stereotypes, it is more likely more acceptable to viewed as a highly sensitive as a woman than as a man. If a man is highly sensitive, what does he do in a world full of stereotypes of male tough guys, emotionless corporate leaders and bullies who pick on anyone who shows an inkling of vulnerability? Poet Rick Belden wrote about his experience as a "highly sensitive man," noting that "being a sensitive man remains misunderstood." He describes an experience of trying to get closer with a woman he liked, someone he had worked together with for several years. He had written a book of published poetry and shared it with her. When he asked her what he thought, the response was not what he had hoped for. "I think you are abnormally sensitive for a man," she told him. How sad. And at some level, how tragic. Here, a man took the risk of showing his vulnerable side, and instead of being appreciated, he was judged in a negative way. Belden notes that as a boy, he was humiliated countless times for his sensitivity by both adults and other children. In a culture that attributes tenderness, compassion and sensitivity as primarily feminine qualities, Belden asked "how can I be as sensitive as I am and still be a man?" Belden notes a blogpost by Peter Messerschmidt: "Society has an alarming ability to 'steal the souls' of Highly Sensitive Men, leaving them feeling sad and confused." Our culture lacks heart in so many ways, and more fundamentally lacks emotionally safety. We have to be careful where we let down our guard or disclose our vulnerabilities. Belden also cites Ted Zeff, author of The Strong, Sensitive Boy: "By disowning their sensitive side, many males become half a person." While it hurts to show vulnerability and be judged or attacked, it may hurt even more not to be able to be who you are. One could argue that there is STRENGTH in sensitivity, not weakness, and the sensitive person--male or female--has a special and valuable power to express himself/herself and relate to other people at a much deeper level than the "non-sensitive" person. In fact, the power of sensitivity can add richness and meaning to the experience of life. It takes courage to be vulnerable. It takes courage to exercise sensitivity. Yet vulnerability and sensitivity can be stronger forces than intellect or brute strength. Sensitivity can pierce the veil of isolation that entraps so many people, perhaps more men than women, walking the earth. Self-acceptance may be the most powerful tool for the highly sensitive man. If you accept yourself for who you are and how you are, then your sensitivity becomes a kind of compassionate sword or even sword of precision discernment, rather than an open wound. If we bring more of the power of the heart to our culture, perhaps highly sensitive men will be held in higher regard than their less sensitive, more analytical counterparts. We need to redefine what power and strength really mean. And when we bring the power of the heart forward, we respect and admire the highly sensitive man, and the gifts he can bring to those he loves and the world at large.