- Just as many men are highly sensitive people (HSPs) as women.
- False ideas around masculinity cause HSP boys and men to mask their sensitivity.
- Honoring sensitivity teaches healthy messaging around boundaries and consent.
Adolescence is a confusing time when we look to our peers to gauge how to act, so we can be accepted. One normalized right of passage with boys is riling each other for being “weak” among the pack if they refuse to participate in courageous, dangerous or risky behavior. This is not something innate but rather something passed down generationally to young boys in their journey toward manhood. While this dynamic can have lasting effects on all boys, it can be especially detrimental to those who are naturally more cautious and intentional in their choices—especially those who are considered "highly sensitive people" (HSPs).
Who Is the Highly Sensitive Man?
Highly sensitive people make up nearly 30% of the human population which is an adaptation present at similar rates in most animal species. High sensitivity is not a medical disorder nor a diagnosis but rather a highly genetic set of traits that makes someone more aware of social stimuli, more empathetic and more prone to overstimulation. According to Dr. Elaine Aron, one of the leading scientists on HSPs, the trait is no less prevalent in men than women. Interestingly however, men tend to score themselves subjectively lower on the 27-item self-scale than they actually are, leading some HSP men to be overlooked or misunderstood. Societal expectations and pressure around masculinity have skewed the perception that traits of sensitivity are “feminine,” while disconnection from emotions and acting on impulse is “masculine”. The result is that many HSP men tend to mask their personality and sensitivity in a variety of ways.
The concept of masculinity itself can be a mask worn to suppress any traits that do not appear stereotypically powerful. For example, being confident is often found on lists describing masculinity, while being expressive normally is not. This form of bias about what it means to be masculine can further ostracize highly sensitive men, making them feel “other” than the rest of their peers. The truth, however, is that highly sensitive men have a great deal to offer our society if they were encouraged to unmask. Dr. Aron explored how those who were most thoughtful and cautious in animal species tended to live the longest and create the most offspring.
When social pressure leads HSP men to mask their sensitivity, they suppress their natural gifts of meaningful connection, creativity, expression, and thoughtfulness. A number of issues can come from HSP men suppressing their sensitivity:
- Suppressed Emotions: It can be difficult to fit in and also want to express yourself as an HSP man. The result can be mismanagement of emotions and potential mental health or substance abuse issues. As Jenn Granneman and Andre Solo explored in their book Sensitive: The Hidden Power of the Highly Sensitive Person in a Loud, Fast, Too-Much World, highly sensitive people are more impacted by their environment, for better or worse. So HSP men who experience forced masculinity can be even more negatively impacted by the stress of that environment. Anecdotally, I have noticed a large number of men reaching out for therapy reporting issues with anger management, when in reality they are suffering from suppressing all emotions, not just anger. Once they feel safer to express themselves, they tend to lose the need to use anger as a vehicle to release emotional pressure.
- Social Defensiveness: Insecurity is a catalyst for defensive behavior, and this can carry over to the masking efforts of HSP men in social groups. Research shows that men tend to use more direct words, and present as more dominating in social interactions than women. Women on the other hand tend to use more expressive and prosocial language that communicates emotional and psychological states. There is lacking support in the literature that this is biological; instead these differences are likely due to societal expectations, gender norms and socialization. This can be frustrating for HSP men who feel more comfortable being emotionally expressive, and if ever their sensitivity is pointed out they may become defensive or withdrawn, says Vanit Shah, writer for The Highly Sensitive Refuge.
The Impact on Women
Shaming men’s sensitivity can be detrimental not just for men but for women when considering issues around consent. The “birds and the bees” talk has long been a rite of passage for young boys and girls and classically explored the mechanics of sexual intercourse, as well as the potential dangers of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Until recently the “talk” had not highlighted the necessary concepts around consent. It is imperative to teach children that they have the right to consent to physical touch of any kind and in all relationships. Consent is clear, and reversible at any time—no matter how far things have gone. If the person consenting is not sure, enthusiastic or coherent, it absolutely does not qualify. It is extremely sexy to allow for choice, and this goes for both men and women.
HSP men are no more likely to pressure women than non-HSP men, however they may have emotional wounds from not feeling comfortable saying “no” to things that triggered their sensitivity. In Justin Baldoni’s book Man Enough: Undefining My Masculinity, he recalled feeling terror as he stood at the edge of a cliff looking down at the water below while his guy friends pressured him to jump. His fear of jumping was overshadowed by the terror of being judged if he didn’t, and so he did what most other young boys would do in that situation— jumped against his will. In some small way the message that it is not okay to say “no” when you are afraid or hesitant as a young boy becomes a fundamental narrative received around consent.
Another issue for HSP men is the socialized pressure around physical intimacy when some would prefer instead to wait to have sex. HSP men who are comfortable with their sensitivity report being as motivated by emotional intimacy as physical intimacy and, when honoring this desire, having more satisfying intimate relationships. If, instead of mocking HSP men for not being more aggressive with women, we supported them, there could be at least 30% more men carefully considering consent. Encouraging HSP men to be their holistic selves would benefit our entire society while being a corrective step toward healthier gender dynamics as a whole.
Portions of this post were adapted from my book co-authored with Kendall Ann Combs, What I Wish I Knew: Surviving and Thriving After an Abusive Relationship.
Aron, E. (1998). The highly sensitive person: how to thrive when the world overwhelms you. New York, Three Rivers Press.
Aron, E. (2001). The Highly Sensitive Person in Love: Understanding and Managing Relationships When the World Overwhelms You. New York, Harmony.
Blum, Alon. "Shame and guilt, misconceptions and controversies: A critical review of the literature." Traumatology 14.3 (2008): 91-102.
Wahyuningsih, Sri. "Men and women differences in using language: A case study of students at STAIN Kudus." EduLite: Journal of English Education, Literature and Culture 3.1 (2018): 79-90.