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How to Thrive as a Highly Sensitive Man

Part 2: How to be both sensitive and strong.

Paul Sijtsma
Source: Paul Sijtsma

In my previous post, The Highly Sensitive Man, I described how society makes it difficult for men to express their feelings or even to admit to being sensitive. Men are supposed to be tough, aggressive and active. They are discouraged from showing emotions such as fear or sadness, as if nothing should ever bother them, because that would make them appear weak. This negative stigma makes life even more challenging for men who are highly sensitive. Their natural inclination for empathy, compassion, art appreciation and creativity are scorned as “feminine” traits and expected to be repressed, which can cause stress, depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.

Research psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron says that approximately 20 percent of the population is highly sensitive and the trait is equally divided between males and females. That means approximately 20 percent of all men are highly sensitive.

In their book Raising Cain, authors Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson show how the emotional lives of boys are curtailed by both adults and their peers as they are discouraged from developing qualities such as compassion, sensitivity, and warmth. Boys are at high risk for suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, violence and loneliness. Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 and in the US, men are 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than women. Rather than seeking help, some men attempt to “self-medicate” with drugs or alcohol.

According to Ted Zeff, Ph.D., author of The Strong, Sensitive Boy: Help your Son Grow into a Happy, Confident Man, even though boys are taught to maintain emotional control, studies that measured their heart rate or sweaty palms in emotionally arousing situations demonstrated that there is no difference between boys’ and girls’ responses. Boys have the same emotional needs as girls.

All HSPs absorb more information from the world around them than non-HSPs, which can lead them to feeling overwhelmed, emotional and in need of solitude to recharge, and that includes highly sensitive men. It is essential for highly sensitive men to find ways to express their feelings in a healthy way, but how do you do that? When you’ve been taught to hide your feelings and tough it out, just the thought of expressing emotion can make you feel like you’re exposing yourself to ridicule, contempt and shame. But embracing your sensitive side doesn’t mean giving up your masculinity. As a highly sensitive man, you can be both sensitive and strong. Here’s how.

How to thrive as a highly sensitive man

Learning how to express yourself and accepting yourself as a highly sensitive person takes practice. When you’ve spent your life believing that boys don’t cry and showing compassion is a sign of weakness, it might feel strange letting your guard down. But it will also be a relief. And you will be a healthier and happier man who is able to love himself and give back to the people you love.

1. Self-acceptance. The first step is to recognise that you are a highly sensitive man. It’s an important part of who you are. If you’re not sure, you can take Elaine Aron’s test here. There are many positive characteristics shared by many sensitive people, including sensitivity to sensory information, intuition and creativity, which can help strengthen your relationships, succeed in work, and deeply enjoy artistic pursuits. Awareness can help you notice changes in the environment, from a gas leak to the tone of your child’s voice. Sensitivity is a strength, but not in the stereotypical aggressive way. Aron describes HSPs as “priestly advisors,” who provide an essential balance to the world’s “warrior kings.” We are the thinkers, who pause to check and consider, who take time to reflect on what’s going on beneath the surface and who advise with our insight and intuition.

2. Self-awareness. If you don’t know how you feel, how can you express it? Understanding who you are and what you’re feeling is key to building your confidence as a highly sensitive person. Ask yourself, how do I feel about this situation? What am I trying to communicate? Perhaps you’re unsure if you should be feeling this way, or you’re not sure how you can express those feelings in a constructive way. Maybe you’re wondering if you will be judged negatively. Or will it come out the wrong way? As an HSP, your natural intuition and empathy will help you to find answers to these questions. The key is to ask them and wait for the answer to appear, rather than brushing your feelings aside. With practice, you’ll gain confidence in your ability to understand your feelings and express them in an appropriate way.

3. Honesty. Once you are aware that you’re feeling an emotion, ask yourself, Where is this feeling coming from? Am I angry at this person or am I in a bad mood because I was stuck in traffic? Am I feeling anxious because I’m worried about the speech or what my family will think of me? Once you can be honest about the real causes of your feelings, you will be better able to manage your emotions and express your feelings.

4. Attention. Pay more attention to your body’s physiological signals. Our minds and bodies are connected, so when you feel a strong emotion, like anger, worry or anxiety, it often shows up in some physical form, like sweaty palms, a headache or an upset stomach. You might notice you clench your teeth when you’re stressed. For HSPs, that could mean a trip to the grocery store or a room full of kids. Again, ask yourself, Am I angry? And what could be causing that? In many cases, you may just be overwhelmed by too much sensory information or distraught by absorbing the feelings of others. If you are, take a break, find somewhere quiet and breathe. HSPs need rest, down time and quiet time to recharge. You don’t have to participate in everyone else’s idea of fun. Do what’s right for you, whether that’s walking in the woods or just listening to music.

5. Creativity. Highly sensitive people are often very creative, so try expressing your thoughts and feelings through a work of art, such as drawing, painting, writing, playing or writing music, or cooking. Creative pursuits help you to tap into your thoughts and feelings and express thems in symbols, metaphors and images. It’s not the finished product that matters, but the freedom it gives you to express yourself in your own way.

6. Self-compassion. You deserve love and respect as much as anyone else. If you are worried that people are going to think badly of you for being sensitive, showing empathy, expressing your creative side, remember that the only opinion that matters is yours. If anyone has told you that you need to “suck it up, tough it out and be a man,” they lied to you. All you have to be is yourself because the world needs you and your sensitivity.

Most boys are raised to hide their feelings and avoid showing their emotional side, but that has only created men with an inability to understand themselves or communicate their feelings to the people they care about. For the highly sensitive man, self-awareness and self-acceptance are crucial because sensitivity is such a fundamental part of who you are. Repressing your true self can create depression, anxiety or substance abuse problems, along with low self-esteem, lack of confidence and unhappiness. Sensitivity in a man is not a trait to be buried, but embraced. Its benefits, like empathy, creativity, intuition, and awareness can make you not only feel good about yourself, but become the kind of man you were meant to be.

My new book, Sense and Sensitivity: Why Highly Sensitive People are Wired for Wonder, will be available on June 9.

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