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There’s a lot of stigma when it comes to being Highly Sensitive, even the term ‘sensitive’ can conjure up a world of misleading preconceptions which makes it hard to discuss the actual facts. However, at the moment a lot of really positive things are happening in the HSP world. There are several worldwide retreats, many Universities are researching high sensitivity in both humans and animals, and the new documentary ‘Sensitive’ with Elaine Aron is due to be released this year. Then an article by Rebecca Bernstein was published in the Wall Street Journal
“Do You Cry Easily? You May Be a ‘Highly Sensitive Person’”

WSJ Page

WSJ Page

It features Michael Hassard, a ‘manly man’ who just so happens to cry over country songs, is moved by his religion and acts of kindness – which to me, seems like things that would cause many people to shed a tear over. His tendency to cry is frequently returned to throughout the article (at least four times by my count), it’s only in the penultimate paragraph that we find out that being an HSP has allowed him to have a more empathetic relationship with his kids, helped him save multi millions in his job by being the only person perceptive enough to notice the needs of the client and has a girlfriend who loves him. In short, being an HSP has empowered him, but that fact was barely addressed.

It’s clear that in order to make the article as hard hitting as possible, the author looked for the most contradictory extreme – a man who cried. There are two issues here, one is being an HSP – for which there were excellent references to research and comments by experts (although none mentioned crying as being a key HSP issue). The other is repeatedly going back to Michael crying; which is not only a cheap shot, but also buying into this toxic idea of masculinity that is rife within society – and in particular affects HSP men. If you want to know more about toxic masculinity, this is an excellent account about what a group of 9 year olds didn’t like about being boys.

There are some very interesting points in the article. There was mention of brain scan studies where the neural activity of HSPs were analysed and showed to be different than non-HSPs, with Lucy Brown from Einstein College of Medicine in New York saying “They think more deeply about things” – which is a pretty good summation of being an HSP! There’s also mention of genetic research into being an HSP, as well as a study in the UK showing how sensitive teenage girls have benefited from the reframing of depressive thoughts.

Then it is all undone with “HSPs get worn out by too much stimuli. They can become easily hurt or offended. And they have been known to overreact to a situation.”

Those two sentences are small but powerful. Why would it undo all the copy about the research that proves the legitimacy of high sensitivity, you may ask? Well, it’s how the article is framed. The expert opinions, compared to the rest of the piece were more complex and full of medical terminology that the reader could casually skim over, while the reporter uses more emotive terms which served to reinforce the negative issues. That opinion, along with the attention grabbing headline, the equally irritating photo of a cinema full of people bawling, combined with the repeated references about Michael crying are all reinforcing this message that ‘HSPs = Crying, overreacting, and easily offended’. Why would anyone want to be around an HSP, let alone admitting to being one with that write up?

If you still question the power of this, then check out the section on the Today show that brushed over the whole concept of being an HSP, with the discussion ALL about crying instead. Not to mention all the stellar comments under the article, that sniggered, poo pooed the research, suggested that it was PTSD or a liberal conspiracy (!).

One thing that was noticeable in its absence, was the plain and simple fact that aside from Aron’s DOES attributes, everyone’s high sensitivity is unique to who they are. Bernstein chose to focus on Michael, and in turn only showed high sensitivity reflected within his personality. He seems like a nice chap, but his sensitivity isn’t mine – nor is it like the dozens of HSPs (both men and women) I know. Now, this of course could be a T vs F issue. In the HSP T group, there was concern that the image of an overreacting crybaby had created a stereotype that would stick – as if we don’t have enough of those already. While in the mainstream F groups, they seemed happy to have any kind of mention even if it was skewed, nor did it seem to bother them that the facts took a back seat in exchange for sensationalism (and yes, I am very aware that my INTJ is showing!).

What I found particularly interesting was that Michael, who seemed at ease with himself, said that he “taught himself how to modulate his feelings and reactions—and to “dehumanize” situations to remove emotion.” ‘Dehumanize’ is an emotive term and suggesting that to cope with life as an HSP you have to dehumanize situations is very sad. I think that what he is probably trying to say is that HSPs have to know when it is and isn’t appropriate to show over emotion. I imagine that it is more difficult for men – and maybe that is why he used the word ‘dehumanized’ instead of say, ‘taking a step back’, ‘not being so emotionally invested in everything’ and so forth.

Instead of going to the many, many HSP experts (some of whom are men) the author relies on a Dr Julie Hanks who, by the look of her extensive media clippings, is something of a comment for hire and who doesn’t seem to have mentioned high sensitivity before. Her five tips focused on how to deal with your partner and less about self development and self acceptance (although maybe this is her being ‘on message’ for her new book, than specifically about HSPs). I think Bernstein missed a trick here as there are so many innovative experts who are about empowering HSPs who would have probably given her some excellent suggestions instead of relying on the insipid, ‘Make sure you rest’, ‘eat properly’ and ‘remember there’s positive and negatives to being an HSP’.

Finally, am I just overreacting? Well, having read the article many times, no. There were so many positives as far as the research, proving that being an HSP isn’t an affectation or a figment of the imagination, but they were eclipsed by sensationalising the crying issue. Michael’s true nature only comes into focus at the very end of the article. They could have so easily talked to and shown how HSPs are successful and yes, even powerful – and how being an HSP has helped them achieve things and enriched their lives. Not to mention that HSPs can also be highly masculine (and highly feminine), because guess what? HSPs are as varied as the rest of the population.

Ever since I found out that I was an HSP I have been fighting against the stigma of the ‘delicate ickle sensitive flower’ which was bad enough. Now we have a mainstream newspaper saying ‘Crying a lot? Then you might be an HSP – and more importantly what you are reacting to and how you are feeling can be dismissed in one fell swoop as “overreacting” or just as you’d treat a toddler, maybe you are just tired.’ It’s just another thing to add to the slow and subtle devaluation of the term ‘highly sensitive person’, something that by the look of the comments is to be mocked and rejected without further thought. Sure there may be people who tend to cry who are now looking into being an HSP, but what about all those who don’t, who will now dismiss the idea of being an HSP outright thanks to this article?

What it boils down to is that it doesn’t matter if Michael cries a lot, any more than it matters whether he’s left or right handed. What really matters is that his high sensitivity has enhanced his life and empowered him. Pity that wasn’t the point of the article.

Finally in response to all the comedians in the comments section who are sniggering behind their hands at a man who is confident enough to show his sensitivity, I’ll leave you with the words of Henry Rollins.
“Muscle mass does not always equal strength. Strength is kindness and sensitivity. Strength is understanding that your power is both physical and emotional. That it comes from the body and the mind. And the heart.”