“You’re too sensitive for this world,” I thought to myself as I walked into the psych ward of a local hospital with my mother.
I wasn’t moments away from killing myself, but I was feeling suicidal. It’s the low hum of depression somewhere in between the extremes that I find most terrifying, and it’s a raw place for a man to be. Many people don’t have patience for a man in distress. We’re expected to pull ourselves up, lick our wounds and soldier on.
Things looked good on paper. I’d recently taken a new job, moved to Manhattan and weaned myself off antidepressants with the consent of my doctor. I have a large family who loves and supports me. I have a few friends — not many — who are incredibly close to me. I have a meaningful relationship with nature, the outdoors, animals. I belong to none of the numerous marginalized groups whose existence is increasingly threatened in America — socially, politically, economically — every single day. Why, in spite of such auspicious circumstances, was I still so enveloped in emotional pain? How did it get this bad?
I’ve always been super sensitive — the highs are high and the lows are low. In this case, my experience of despair felt severe enough to warrant a higher level of care. I’ve since come to understand the way societal and cultural stigmas against sensitivity in men exacerbate my issues by leading me to deal with them in isolation.
About 20 percent of humans are considered highly sensitive people, or HSPs, per research done by Dr. Elaine Aron and others (Aron has written several books on the subject). HSPs tend to show “heightened awareness of and attention to subtle stimuli,” per Aron’s research, and they are “more reactive to both positive and negative stimuli.”
While Aron’s research doesn’t indicate that sensitive folks are predisposed to depression, in my experience, sensitivity and depression nourish each other. When you’re sensitive, everything hits you harder — sounds, smells, tastes and especially feelings.
The sensitivity trait was clear to me from a very young age but started to feel like a real problem in adolescence. It always seemed like I felt things deeper than the people around me. In a gaggle of teens, my attention competed with roaring laughter to try to understand why that one person in the crowd looked upset. I burst into tears after my first day of middle school because I was so overwhelmed by the act of changing classes. The daunting sound of a large group of people still rattles me the way walking into the boisterous school cafeteria did.
Today, I start to get overwhelmed about 30 minutes into hanging out at a crowded bar. That’s pretty common for HSPs — when you feel everything more acutely than others, the end result is almost always being overwhelmed. The decibel levels, the sheer number of people per square foot, and all of it compounded by shame that causes me to try to hide how overwhelmed I am. (After all, it’s a bar and everyone else is having fun.) It all contributes to the idea that there’s something fundamentally wrong with me.
My sensitivity extends to others’ body language, their mood, their tone of voice — all of it can indirectly inflict pain. Nearly every disappointed glance anyone has ever shot me is stored in my memory — from friends and bank tellers alike — and each new one hurts more than the last.
I distinctly remember leaving the house in high school — dressed up and ready to go hang out with friends — when my mother would say something like, “Is that new?” or “Where’d that come from?” I’d study her body language and general reaction to whatever I was wearing and suddenly the scarf or the color of my pants felt like a mistake.
“For men, the ability to manage your emotions in interpersonal relationships so well that it looks like you don’t have any is the gold standard. Being an HSP makes that complicated.”
For me, all it takes is a little shrug from someone else, signaling potential disapproval, to trigger the rumination process. Whereas, someone with a nervous system that’s a bit more robust might think nothing of such an inquiry. “Yep, I just got this scarf. I love it!”
These things are not supposed to faze men. We are taught from a young age that our worth is in our strength — both physical and emotional. “Movies, advertisements, the design of public spaces, all tell us we should be as tough as the Terminator, as stoic as Clint Eastwood, as outgoing as Goldie Hawn,” Aron wrote in her book The Highly Sensitive Person. “We should be pleasantly stimulated by bright lights, noise, a gang of cheerful fellows hanging out in a bar.”
For men, the ability to manage your emotions in interpersonal relationships so well that it looks like you don’t have any is the gold standard. Being an HSP makes that complicated.
Sometimes good-natured ribbing between friends can take a turn and end up really hurting me. Male bonding involves a lot of teasing, and if you can’t “take it,” you’re thought of as less than.
I recently initiated a conversation with a male friend about how I’d been feeling isolated because I didn’t enjoy typical young-people activities. Going to bars and meeting lots of new people at once are really hard for me, I explained. It’s so easy to become over-stimulated as an HSP, and it’s incredibly lonely to feel misunderstood by non-HSP friends and colleagues.
“I’m not a therapist,” he quickly rebuffed me.
I clumsily tried to explain that I wasn’t trying to solve anything — I just needed someone to talk to. His eyes darted elsewhere. He was polite but firm, and the message was clear: Talking about feelings so directly wasn’t welcome.
In typical HSP fashion, I thought about our interaction for a couple of weeks afterward, trying to figure out what I did wrong.
This conversation reinforced the perception that there’s something “unmanly” about feeling too deeply, or trying to talk about those feelings. It’s the same stigma that keeps many men from admitting they need help and getting treatment for mental health issues. Men die by suicide 3.5 times more often than women, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Our society generally does not recognize sensitivity as a strength for men. Don’t let the romantic comedy talk about how desirable “sensitive” guys are fool you. More than once, I’ve been ridiculed by women for not taking charge in romantic situations, for being too attentive, even for just voicing an appreciation of beauty in everyday surroundings. I’m painting with a broad brush here, but there’s certainly a threshold for how sensitive men are allowed to be before it stops being desirable and even starts being irritating.
But I’m also learning that sensitivity is what makes me an excellent listener, a considerate friend and thoughtful about things beyond myself. It allows me to notice subtle changes in people’s behavior or mood, which improves the quality of my relationships, and it allows me to notice the most granular of details in my professional life. It’s what gave me the wherewithal to eventually ask for help, to which I owe my life.
I’m not going to try to assert that I’m completely comfortable with my place in the world as an HSP. I try as best I can to reframe sensitivity as my own little superpower — like heat or night vision — that allows me to perceive the world with heightened intensity. That I can see and feel things that other people cannot. It doesn’t make me weak.
I hope that one day I will know this to be true: There is nothing that makes a man more human, empathetic and courageous than embracing his feelings head-on, without shame.