Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive man

The Challenges of Being a Highly Sensitive Man

Men are raised to be “strong” and “tough” and to not wear their emotions on their sleeve — which can be difficult for highly sensitive men.

A culture that dictates a pattern of behavior where men cannot demonstrate emotions is harmful to all men, but for highly sensitive men, it is devastating.

For my entire life, I’ve always felt out of place and had trouble fitting into the traditional way that men “should” behave. I felt something strange, a senselessness, an anxiety, a constant feeling of always being in the wrong place and feeling the “wrong” way. I could never fit into the competitive discourse among men. It was like others didn’t feel what I felt, like they didn’t see the world the way my sensitive soul saw it.    

In many phases of my life, but especially when I was a teenager, I forced myself to adapt. I had a group of male friends and I’d try to be “tough” like them. But when I was alone, that’s when I really found myself and my sensitive nature through books, songs, and dramatic movies I watched, almost in secret, like I had a hidden identity.

For a long time, almost 40 years, I did not understand my sensitive side: my difficulty in adapting to certain environments; my need to be alone to recharge myself; and my deep emotional reactions to my environment. Needless to say, it was difficult to explain it to other people. I also never bought into the idea of success that people sell; I always cared more about the purpose of my work and the impact on the world than my salary or the value of a company on the stock market. Overall, I thought I had many flaws, which made me unable to meet the “tough” and “manly” expectations that society had of me.

How I Realized I’m a Highly Sensitive Person

One day, Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, caught my attention. In this book, I was introduced to the concept of highly sensitive people (HSPs) and, for the first time, I understood myself.

I started researching the high sensitivity trait, but I still felt that there was part of this puzzle missing: how being highly sensitive related to the fact that I’m a male. To explore this, I started attending a men’s group in São Paulo who met to express their feelings. There, for the first time, I was able to talk about my weaknesses, learned to be vulnerable, and was able to decipher the patterns of masculinity that we were replicating, which trapped us in pre-established roles. I began to understand how expressing my sensitivity — instead of repressing it — is a fundamental part of who I am. 

Men and Sensitivity

From a very young age, boys are subjected to a pattern of conduct that defines what it is to be “a man.” Men need to be strong, determined, and have control. We usually learn this from our parents, as well as from society through things like stories, books, movies, jokes, and conversations.

Boys who express feelings such as fear, insecurity, anxiety, and sadness are seen as feminized and are excluded and humiliated by other boys. They are labeled as “babies” and learn that they must swallow their crying and repress their emotions to avoid being harassed. For sensitive boys, the price to be accepted and approved in this society is to deny their own nature.

I decided to ask some other highly sensitive men about their childhoods. Several said they grew up with the label of shy, with no or few friends. Many also said that for most of their lives, they felt excluded. By denying their sensitive side, many men become half of who they really are.

These were some of their responses about their upbringing:

“They always said that I cried a lot.”

“I was obliged to repress my sensitivity, especially outside the intimacy of the family.”

“My mother did not understand… I was humiliated for being a crybaby and shy.”

“I repressed my feelings and repress them to this day… but sometimes you can’t hold them in.”

“I drew to be able to express what I felt.”

The fact of the matter is, boys have the same human needs as girls. Some studies show that baby boys even have a greater need for touch and cry more than girls when frustrated. Yet boys are often treated very differently from baby girls; they are not physically comforted by their parents as much and are forced to swallow their tears. In this way, they learn to suppress their emotions and the pattern continues as they become older.

Sadly, in many cases, the only emotion a father tolerates their sons to express is that of anger. Violence seems to be an accepted, and even encouraged, form of expression, and then boys seem to adapt to this pattern. Meanwhile, behaviors usually associated with girls (empathy, sensitivity, compassion) are also natural male behaviors — yet that way of being is simply not recognized or accepted in many societies.

But forcing yourself to be something that you are not causes suffering and is devastating for highly sensitive men, who have to work much harder than non-sensitive men to repress their emotions. Reports of highly sensitive men suffering from depression and/or attempting suicide are common.

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Highly Sensitive Men and Relationships

I think the lack of acceptance and repression of their sensitivity has a harmful effect on highly sensitive men’s relationships. Some of the highly sensitive men I spoke to believed that their high sensitivity was at least partly to blame for their romantic relationships ending. One said he’d had few romantic relationships, another said that he’d overthink things too much, and yet another revealed that it was hard for him to open up.  

Romantic relationships are not easy for highly sensitive men. I think this goes back to the fact that society encourages what standard a man should follow: to be strong and tough and not express his emotions. So romantic partners could have difficulty accepting a more sensitive man. Furthermore, non-sensitive types may not understand how HSPs need alone time to recharge; their partners could take this personally (but shouldn’t!).

On the other hand, when these men allow their sensitivity to be expressed, their fundamental qualities can better their relationships. A partner could see that they are empathic, idealistic, nurturing, care deeply about them (and others), and appreciate a deep connection vs. a surface-level one.

Highly Sensitive Men and Their Role in the World

The modern world seems to have been built under the command of the men who created and followed the established pattern of masculinity that led them to create a whole culture based on competition, where men must be powerful and conquering to have value. Men are revered if they conquer people, countries, and social positions. The use of violent strategies, too, is an accepted way to succeed in the world and is present in many male-centric activities, such as sports and in business and politics. The strongest men are awarded; there is a hierarchy of power where only the strong (and the “winners”) have a voice.

However, highly sensitive men play an important role in society because they are excellent observers, intuitive, have systemic vision, and the ability to see different approaches in problem-solving. They prefer working in peaceful environments without a lot of talking (which can disrupt their focus). They also tend to be guided by deep ethical values and place a sense of purpose above immediate personal gain. 

Some professional values sensitive men share are their sense of honesty, sustainability, creativity, efficiency, empathy, collaboration, understanding, transparency, integrity, freedom, and respect for others. HSPs capture subtle details that others may miss, and this can help them anticipate problems and create innovative solutions. All these qualities can transform organizations and politics. 

Regarding the highly sensitive men I spoke to, they said they can’t express their sensitivity at work; rather, it’s something that needs to be hidden. But for a society to function in a healthy and sustainable way, there must be a balance between the different styles of masculinity. Highly sensitive men can bring about this balance: Their deep opinions and observations should be considered, and more should take leadership positions. Instead of their sensitivity being seen as a drawback, it should be seen as the strength that it is.

We need to change the metrics of success, and the deeply rooted expectations that parents and teachers have for boys — to be “strong” and “tough” and to not wear their emotions on their sleeve — before they become men.

If everyone were to do this, then being a highly sensitive man would be valued, not shunned. In the meantime, all we highly sensitive men can do is our best to dispel the negative connotations that come with being HSPs. It may take a lot of work, self-reflection, and inner development, but trust me, it’s worth it.  

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