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Sensitive Men

Sensitive men have particular challenges in aggressive Western cultures. Males are taught from an early age to act tough and not to express their emotions. According to William Pollock, the author of Real Boys, whenever boys do not conform to the "boy code" and instead show their gentleness and emotions, they are usually ostracized and humiliated (1998). Highly sensitive boys learn to deny their real selves in order to be accepted and approved by their peers. This denial can create fear, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Paul Kivel has written in his book Men's Work that boys are put into a "act like a man box," which means that they must be aggressive, tough, strong, in control, and active. According to Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, authors of Raising Cain (about protecting the emotional life of boys), if boys express emotions such as fear, anxiety, or sadness, they are seen as feminine, and the adults around them typically treat them in ways that suggest that such emotions are not normal for a boy (1999).

One highly sensitive man, Dan, told me that when he used to go to the movies with his friends as a boy, he would pretend to really enjoy the bloody and violent scenes while secretly looking away from the screen. He was always afraid that some of the other boys would see him avoiding the screen and tease him. He also shared with me that he was humiliated for not following the current sporting events when he was in junior high school. One time another boy sitting next to Dan asked him how he liked the big game and when Dan responded that he didn't know there was a game, the other boy started laughing at him and told the other boys that Dan was a nerd. Dan then decided to spend every day reading the sports page in order to feel accepted by the other boys. Dan also told me that he didn't like fighting. However, he attended martial arts lessons in order to not be physically abused by aggressive boys in high school. While most sensitive boys would not be attracted to violent sports like boxing, learning martial arts may be beneficial for some sensitive boys to learn so they won't be hurt or humiliated by violent bullies.

In our society, being sensitive is generally associated with being feminine and weak and can be quite emasculating for males. Sometimes sensitive men have internalized the false belief that there is something wrong with them because they are gentle and can't tolerate stimulation. One sensitive man told me that he was taught as a boy that he shouldn't let anything bother him. He did his best to follow a stereotypical "masculine" like style by working out every day at the gym, having a good sex life with his wife, and denying his sensitivity. However, he constantly experienced anxiety from emulating non-HSP male values.

Alex is an HSP father of a twelve-year old HSP son, Noah. Even though Alex suffered as a boy for not conforming to the boy code of acting tough, he felt animosity toward Noah whenever his son appeared weak. Noah's soft and gentle demeanor reminded Alex of how he suffered as a boy when he was teased and humiliated for his sensitivity. Even though he knew it was wrong, Alex pushed Noah to go out for the football team and pursue traditional masculine activities even though Noah had no interest in sports. Noah became traumatized when trying to compete with the other football players and quit going to practices. At his mother's urging, the family entered counseling. Once Alex began attending family counseling sessions, he realized that he was forcing his son to deny his gentleness due to an internalized self-loathing for his own sensitivity. After some time, Alex was able to accept Noah - and himself - as highly sensitive males.

The Highly Sensitive Person's Survival Guide - Ted Zeff, PH.D. (pg 14-16)
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May 2012

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