If you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP), you probably know about the stigmas that come with the trait, especially from people who don’t understand it. I’ve heard it all. Many times.
- “You need to stop being so sensitive.”
- “You need to stop taking things so personally.”
- “You need to stop beating yourself up.”
Yet the fact that I’m an HSP is more complicated by the fact that I’m also a man.
On the surface, being highly sensitive seems to be incompatible with what it means to be a man. Sayings like, “Take it like a man,” suggest that, when faced with criticism or a difficult situation, we shouldn’t let it bother us at all.
Of course, gender stereotypes are changing — it’s becoming much more acceptable for women to be “tough” and for men to show their emotions (at times). Yet, in general, it still seems to be more acceptable for women to be sensitive than it is for men. If men are sensitive, they’re seen as weak. It means they’re not tough enough. It means they don’t know how to be a leader or take charge.
How do we reconcile being a man with also being highly sensitive? Is it possible to be both? I’ve thought about this a lot. Really, I have no choice: I am who I am. I can work on my negative traits and continue to develop my positive ones. Yet, I’m always going to be highly sensitive. That’s not going to change.
The ‘Shame’ of Being a Sensitive Man
Over the years, I’ve felt ashamed for being sensitive. At times, that’s caused me to slip into a deep depression. If you’re male, in my opinion, there’s no worse feeling than that of feeling like you’re not really a man. And I’ve felt that way many times.
We all mess up and make mistakes, of course, but when I do something that doesn’t match the “stereotypical” macho role, I beat myself up extra hard — which only compounds my sense of insecurity. It’s a vicious cycle: I feel insecure, which leads me to make mistakes, which I then beat myself up for, and which ultimately makes me feel more insecure.
In spite of all this, there’s one thing I’ve discovered: you don’t actually need to match the stereotypes. Being a highly sensitive man doesn’t have to be a cage, restricting you to your own personal hell; it doesn’t have to be something you hide. And it doesn’t have to mean constantly fighting a war with yourself between two seemingly incompatible traits.
As I’ve contemplated the dichotomy of being sensitive and being a man, I’ve come up with five reasons why we need to rethink our understanding of sensitivity and gender. When those feelings of depression and insecurity come on, I try to keep these points in mind.
If you come to terms with who you are, you can learn how to love yourself. And you’ll be a lot happier because of it.
5 Truths About Sensitive Men
1. Toughness doesn’t have to be the defining characteristic.
When I was growing up, “Home Improvement” was on TV a lot. The show presented two different portrayals of what it meant to be a man: There was Tim “the Toolman” Taylor, who always tried to be super-macho, and his assistant Al Borland, who was much more gentle and sensitive. Overall, Tim was a good leader for his family, but his attempts at rugged manliness often got him into trouble.
Even though it was a sitcom, I’ve thought about this a lot: Why does being super-macho tough have to be the defining characteristic of being a man? Why does being a man even have to mean being super tough at all? There are many ways in which ALL of us should be tough — men and women. But there’s no reason why men can’t be sensitive, too. Of course, some men are really tough in the way I’ve described, and that’s not a bad thing in and of itself. It just doesn’t have to be characteristic of all men.
2. There are many other things that make us men.
There is so much more that defines a man than our stoicism in the face of highly emotional events, or the permissible emotions — like anger — which we’re allowed to display. How someone reacts to a situation, whether by taking it personally or beating themselves up, should be just a tiny fraction of what constitutes “manliness.”
I have a steady job and every day I work to support my family. I treat people — family, friends, coworkers — with respect. I am faithful to my wife and supportive of my children. I’m careful to use my time and my money wisely. These should be viewed as constituting a strong man. (And, of course, they can be important traits of a good woman, too.)
3. Being a man can — and does — mean being sensitive.
Even though the world suggests that being a man means being super tough, I’m going to do a 180 from that idea, and say that I actually think being a man means being sensitive — or at least it should mean that.
If you’re highly sensitive, it means you care about other people, especially those closest to you. If I wasn’t sensitive, I wouldn’t be able to show my wife the love that she deserves, nor would I be able to show love and respect to my other family members. If I wasn’t sensitive and attentive to the needs of others, how could I possibly be there for people in meaningful ways?
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4. Being a highly sensitive man means feeling deeply.
One important characteristic of being highly sensitive is having strong feelings (which boys should be taught to embrace). We feel things deeply. And because of that, we have strong convictions. And having strong convictions is a defining characteristic of being a man. It means that you act with strong force and leadership as well as great care and thought. There’s so much more to leadership than just being “tough” or demanding. Feeling deeply means understanding a situation and the people involved. And HSPs have that skill.
5. And that means always wanting to improve.
I can’t speak for all HSPs, but I can say that when I “beat myself up” for making a mistake, it means I’m not satisfied with where I am as a person and desire to get better. If you’re a man, I think that should mean that you always want to improve yourself and that you want to be the best person you can possibly be. If you’re highly sensitive, your self-awareness in this regard is especially powerful. Remember: the men who don’t reflect upon their behavior, who accept things as they are and never try to improve, are the ones who hold us back as a society. Highly sensitive men charge forward. And that’s a good thing.
There hasn’t always been an acceptable way to be a man and be sensitive. But as we highly sensitive men continue to find our place in the world, let’s focus on all the positives we offer. I’ve discovered that it is possible to be a strong highly sensitive man, but that first required taking the time to understand myself in order to eventually accept my sensitivity as a strength. The world is slowly changing how it views “manliness,” and by being who we are, we can help accelerate that change.