Dear Men: ‘Sensitive’ Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

A sensitive man looking up

‘My wife and daughters would rather see me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall down’

What do you think of when you hear the word “sensitive” to describe a man? Chances are words like weak, overly-emotional, or unmanly may come to mind. Even if your first thought isn’t negative, you probably don’t think of words like strong, masculine, or courageous. The world holds men and women to specific standards of behavior, and those standards often carry heavy expectations. 

In her TED Talk, Brené Brown shares an anecdote about meeting a man who told her about the unfair expectations placed on men, and the sheer impossibility of being emotionally vulnerable. “You say to reach out and tell our story, be vulnerable,” he told her. “But [my wife and daughters would] rather me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall down. When we reach out and be vulnerable, we get the shit beat out of us. And don’t tell me it’s from the guys and the coaches and the dads because the women in my life are harder on me than anyone else.”

The man wasn’t talking about being highly sensitive, but the pain he felt about those seemingly impossible expectations that surround gender, behavior, and emotion are something sensitive men can relate to. Our culture looks at sensitivity in men as a weakness because it doesn’t understand the truth of sensitivity.

It’s time that perspective changed. 

How Society Genders Our Behavioral Expectations

At this point, you might be wondering why a female author is writing about men and sensitivity. I often blog about Myers-Briggs® types, and I’ve previously covered ”thinking” or logic-driven women and “feeling” or emotion-driven men

Our culture tends to code traits associated with thinking personality types as “masculine,” and feeling types as “feminine.” Dealing with societal pressure that says your personality doesn’t fit your gender can be a huge struggle, as I’ve seen with my INTJ “thinker” sister, or my “feeler” father and brother (an ISFJ and ENFJ respectively).

A similar thing happens to highly sensitive men

At least 15 to 20 percent of the population is considered highly sensitive — meaning their brains process everything a little more deeply, including emotions and their physical environment. This trait is equally likely to show up in men or women, but it’s not well understood by the majority of people. And because it’s not well understood, men who are biologically hard-wired for sensitivity often find that society looks down on them. 

They may even look down on their own sensitivity, feeling ashamed, as if sensitivity were a bad thing. But sensitive is not something that’s inherently bad or good — it just “is.” There are many positive sides to the trait (like being more attuned to beauty in the natural world) and sometimes there are frustrating sides (like when you want to watch a film because people say the story’s brilliant but you know the violence will give you nightmares). 

Being highly sensitive just means you process life differently. And one way beyond thinking of sensitivity in men as a weakness is to understand what it means to be sensitive in the first place — because it’s not what most men think. 

The 5 Key Traits of Sensitive Men

1. You’re hyper-aware of subtleties in your environment

Elaine Aron found that high sensitivity isn’t limited to humans. For “all higher animals — mice, cats, dogs, horses, monkeys” and more, about 15 to 20 percent have the highly sensitive trait.

I bring this up because it’s easy to see how being extra-aware of your environment helps animals. Where would a herd of wild horses be without the one who notices the first hint of a predator’s scent in the air or who can smell a distant water source?

Thankfully most of us don’t have to think like prey animals to survive, but maybe keep that horse in mind the next time you’re irritated by the fact that you jump at loud noises, notice the lights are a little too bright, or wrinkle your nose at a smell no one else notices. Being perceptive is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a key quality associated with leadership, which is something — surprise surprise — highly sensitive people (HSP) excel at.

2. Being overwhelmed stresses you out

Most people start to get stressed when they’re feeling overwhelmed, but HSPs hit the “overwhelmed” point earlier than others. That’s because they’re extra sensitive to sensory stimulation. Anything that triggers your physical senses or your nervous system — caffeine, pain, loud noise, changes to your routine, coarse fabrics, human touch, tight deadlines — can quickly overwhelm HSPs.

In our fast-paced modern would, highly sensitive men can be looked down on for this trait. But there’s nothing wrong with wanting to take life a little slower. Plus, this trait also acts as a warning system. It alerts them when to set boundaries, helps them be more conscientious about doing their jobs well, and makes them notice when other people aren’t getting their needs met. 

If you do find that being overwhelmed is getting in the way of enjoying your life, there are ways to fix it.

Like what you’re reading? Get our newsletter just for HSPs. One email, every Friday. Click here to subscribe!

3. Your inner life is amazingly cool

I listened to a lot of country music as a teen, and one of those songs was “Online” by Brad Paisley where he sings from the perspective of a man who is “so much cooler online.” Highly sensitive men should change that line to say they’re “so much cooler inside.”

Sensitive people process things deeply. They also find that the outer world is overwhelming and they need to withdraw to recharge. (About 30% of HSPs are extroverts, but this point is just as true for them as it is for introverted HSPs.) These traits both contribute to developing a rich, complex inner life.

4. You’re emotionally responsive and empathic

This is one trait of sensitivity that society sees as almost exclusively feminine. Men might “get away with it” if they’re interacting with women, which I suspect is one reason so many feeling-type and/or HSP men I’ve talked to say most of their friends are women. But if you’re a man who’s in-tune with your emotions and the emotions of others, then there’s a good chance people won’t always respond well.

It’s really sad that others don’t appreciate this trait because honestly it’s one of the most amazing things about HSPs. Sure, picking up on other people’s emotions can be exhausting, but being able to understand the people you love on a deep, meaningful level? That’s priceless. And I’m saying that not only as an HSP myself, but also as the daughter, sister, and friend of HSP men.

5. You don’t like competition and violence

Where you fall on this (like other sensitivity traits) varies by individual, but many HSPs are less competitive than other people. They’re also much more sensitive to cruelty and violence, even if it’s only happening in a fictional realm.

In a world where men are often taught to suppress any emotion other than anger, this HSP trait can seem particularly unwelcome. And yet, hasn’t society been saying for years that men need healthier ways of expressing emotion other than violence? And that cooperation is better for everyone than competition?

Seems to me that the world could benefit greatly from listening to sensitive men instead of telling them there’s something wrong with them.

These five traits aren’t the only hallmarks of highly sensitive people, but they cover most things that set HSPs apart from the rest of the population. It’s time we all stopped seeing sensitivity as weakness, no matter what gender someone is.

You might like: