I’m a highly-sensitive person.
I used to think that I was on the autism spectrum. While that’s still possible, HSP is a more likely diagnosis. The highly-sensitive person experiences senses and emotions more intensely than others and can be easily overwhelmed. HSPs are often, though not always, introverted. They are also very empathetic. (More on this later.)
Growing up, I was a sensitive, shy kid who cried a lot, preferred playing indoors to rough-and-tumble sports, and only had a few friends at any given time. I was ill-socialized, behind my peers for much of my adolescence (another factor that led me to think I might be on the spectrum). A friend once said that, when I was 16 years old, I was mentally 20 but emotionally 9.
Someone, either a parent or another family member, called me spoiled because I cried so much. I was mocked for it. Later, I was spanked.
I stopped crying. I stopped complaining. I tried hard to avoid showing any emotion at all, as time and time again, I was told that my feelings weren’t wanted.
For a time, I wasn’t sure if I identified as a man. Besides ranking as a 4.5 on the Kinsey scale (read that as “not quite straight, but not 50/50 bisexual”), I don’t follow a lot of male gender roles. I prefer not to be dominant in social situations. I like domestic activities like cooking and baking. Apparently worst of all, I don’t change my own oil. But I don’t identify with other genders. “Male” is closest, even if it’s not the best fit.
If you see me ranting on Twitter about “toxic masculinity” or “normative gender roles,” this is why. Those that promote toxic masculinity – MRAs, among others – shrink the “male” box so that it only fits this hypermasculine, deformed ideal. This is harmful not just to people of other genders, but to men too. The documentary The Mask You Live In is a great starting point for exploring how these gender norms can cause harm.
Men aren’t supposed to empathize (but I do). Men aren’t supposed to express affection (but I do). Men aren’t supposed to communicate anything beyond the bare essentials (but I do!) Men are supposed to be perfectly rational creatures, always in charge, unconcerned with petty trivialities of living like asking for directions.
Which brings me back to empathy.
What grates me in particular about complaints from a certain political segment — that we’re just “liberal crybabies” — is the implicit assumption that feeling = wrong. “I don’t cry, therefore I’m a real man.” No, dude, you’ve emotionally castrated yourself and mock those who haven’t.
I was saving this topic for when I could explore in greater depth, but something happened recently.
There’s a leaked memo circulating on the internet. A developer at Google wrote a screed denouncing diversity initiatives at the company, repeating gender norms that belong in the 1950s but never seemed to die off in the intervening years. He says that women display:
Openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas. Women generally also have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men (also interpreted as empathizing vs. systemizing).
Somewhat surprisingly, the author was fired a few days after the memo went viral.
Now, I don’t care if he’s generalizing or actually thinks the traits he describes are universal. It also doesn’t matter if they’re inborn or, more likely, social gender norms.
See, I’m a man and I care about people more than things. I’m a man who empathizes more than “systemizes”. It doesn’t mean that I don’t care about things or that I can be as analytical as I need to, but those aren’t traits essential to my gender.
Another thing about HSP: they exist in roughly equal proportions (approximately 20%) regardless of gender. There is a significant portion of men who don’t conform to how the author describes them. I’m willing to bet that he doesn’t notice because 1) he sees them as too “emotional” to work with, and 2) avoids them because they remind him of what he isn’t allowed to be, according to these gender norms.
Growing up without understanding why I was so sensitive, I had to block or ignore a lot of “inconvenient” emotions. I have intense jealousy for others success, even for my friends, so it’s often easier to not react in any way at all. My crushes have always been consuming and painful, so I learned to avoid showing my affection unless they thought I was too overbearing or creepy. And I avoid people I know who show the same affection I do to others.
In particular, I have a hard time with grief. Recently, the family dog Scruffy had to be put down. I didn’t cry when it happened, or for several days after, even though she had been part of our family for a decade. When I see others in mourning, all I can do is hug.
But when I sit in mindfulness meditation and my mind quiets, the grief and longing and separation crash over me like a tidal wave. I acknowledge it and wait it out, but for a few seconds, I sob.
And I do my best to use my sensitivity in ways that are helpful. If I couldn’t empathize, I wouldn’t be as good a writer as I am (in a very subjective sense of the word “good” — I mean, I’m no Neil Gaiman!). If I wasn’t interested in people more than things, I wouldn’t be useful at church, I wouldn’t interact well with my coworkers, I wouldn’t be a good brother or son.
You don’t have to be a HSP to value empathy, but as one, it’s something I’m learning to treasure. I like being sensitive, being aware of people’s needs, feeling the world more intensely than others.
Even if that means crying when Jor-El sends Superman to Earth.