Pieter Offermans is an author, blogger and highly sensitive man. In 2015 he published his book “The Highly Sensitive Employee” (in Dutch). He currently writes about highly sensitive people in the workplace for several websites, including his own, HSWerknemer.nl
When did you discover that you are a highly sensitive person?
Around the age of 30, a couple of years ago now. I experienced some issues at work and went to see a therapist. I told him my story and he answered: it sounds like you could be a highly sensitive person.
I had no idea what he was talking about, so I started reading about the subject. It intrigued me so much that I haven’t stopped reading since. Two years ago I wrote a book on high sensitivity and started a website about HSPs in the workplace.
Did it make sense for you straight away or were there parts that you had to come to terms with (like me), around the baggage of the word ‘sensitive’?
When I started reading about high sensitivity, I immediately recognised myself in the description of an HSP. Finally, I realised why I often need to spend some time alone in a quiet place, why I dread big parties and festivals, why I hate open-plan offices and why I love working on creative projects.
There was no doubt in my mind that I was an HSP. But it took me another two or three years to fully admit this.
Partly this had to do with the way high sensitivity is often portrayed in the media. Quite a few magazines and websites maintain that it is intertwined with spirituality or the paranormal. I personally do not believe this to be true; I’m a pretty down-to-earth kind of guy. So only when I discovered there had been done plenty of scientific research on high sensitivity, I dared to talk about it more openly.
Then there is also the notion that ‘real men’ can’t be highly sensitive. So that also made it difficult for me to identify with being an HSP.
How do you describe the highly sensitive trait to people who haven’t heard anything about it before?
I often say something like this: high sensitivity is an innate trait that affects 20% of the population. A highly sensitive person processes stimuli deeply. This has both benefits and downsides. As an HSP you’re often very empathic and a creative thinker, but there’s also an increased risk of overstimulation.
All in all, it’s a perfectly normal trait, just like some people are left-handed.
Have you found that highly sensitive men and women interact differently with the topic of high sensitivity?
Absolutely. 95% of the people I hear talking about high sensitivity is female. So to the untrained eye, it appears to be a ‘feminine’ trait. But of course, simple math tells us that there are at least half a billion highly sensitive guys on earth.
Most of them haven’t heard about the trait, and those who have will have trouble admitting that they are highly sensitive.
What do you think stops highly sensitive men (who haven’t yet admitted themselves to be such) from getting involved in conversations about high sensitivity?
High sensitivity has terrible PR, that’s for sure. If you google ‘high sensitivity’, you will find pictures of flowers, butterflies and crying children. And although these things have nothing to do with high sensitivity per se, they are not what most of us men would like to be associated with. We rather like to be thought of as James Bond or a Clint Eastwood character. Tough and stoic, and all that.
How can we evolve our thinking from seeing high sensitivity as a feminine trait to being a universal one?
Where does the issue lay in your opinion? (the word ‘sensitive’? is there an alternative?)
This is a question I’ve been thinking about a lot for the last couple of years and it isn’t an easy one. First off, we should stop putting so much emphasis on things being ‘typically feminine’ or ‘typically masculine’ in general.
True story: I once ordered a mint tea at a restaurant here in Holland. The waitress rolled her eyes and told me to man up and order either a black coffee or a beer. She wasn’t joking. She genuinely thought drinking mint tea is an ‘unmanly’ thing to do. Eventually I had to let my wife order the tea, or I would have been a very thirsty man!
Then there’s another important topic to address when we’re talking about high sensitivity in relation to masculinity. And that’s the myth that high sensitivity is synonymous for ‘being highly emotional’.
In my opinion, the ‘sensitivity’ in ‘high sensitivity’ refers to ‘being more susceptible to the environment’. It’s about deep processing, not emotional behaviour. Sure, if you process stimuli more deeply, there is a chance you could be experiencing more intense emotions, too. But I don’t think ‘crying a lot’ is what defines an HSP.
Replacing the word ‘highly sensitive’ with something like ‘highly adaptive’ or ‘highly susceptible’ might be part of the solution. But I don’t think that will be enough. Because there’s something inherently ‘vulnerable’ about being more susceptible to your environment.
As I said, most men want to be tough and stoic. They don’t want to be influenced too much by what is going on around them. ‘Real men’ don’t go around complaining about bright lights, loud music or a big crowd – they’re supposed to either enjoy it or shrug it off.
How can we allow men to let their sensitivity thrive in a way that they are comfortable exploring?
As long as high sensitivity is being thought of as some sort of weakness or feminine thing, few men will be willing to explore the subject. So in communicating with men who are not yet familiar with high sensitivity, we should emphasise the following things:
- High sensitivity is not a disorder, but a common trait
- It’s not rare: 20% of the people has the trait. (You could also add: ‘To put that in perspective: only 10% of the people is left-handed’)
- The trait has been researched by many scholars since the early 1900s (starting with Carl Jung)
- An equal number of men and women are highly sensitive
- High sensitivity is not the same as ‘being highly emotional’
I’m convinced that if we keep communicating these points, high sensitivity will become more acceptable to a broader audience – and to more men in particular.
How can we give men permission to let their sensitivity out to play? How do we move this conversation forwards in your opinion?
Apart from the five points I just mentioned, I think we should allow ourselves to speak more clearly about what it means to be a highly sensitive male.
Platforms like The Haven and your podcast are very helpful in this regard. Only then we see we’re not the only one and that we’re perfectly normal people, not different from the rest of the population.
Also, I think it’s helpful to discuss the many benefits that come with high sensitivity. Tracy Cooper, who is a well-known expert on high sensitivity, once told me that a lot of the traits that go with high sensitivity – e.g. creative thinking, being alert, good cooperative skills – happen to be the same traits that make a good US Navy SEAL. I mean: if these tough guys can be proud of being highly sensitive, I think most of us can too!