“People who choose a vocation strictly on economic grounds sometimes underestimate how long an eight hour day can be when there is no challenge or interest in the activities they must perform during those hours.” ~Marvin Zuckerman
Have you ever thought “boy, this job is so boring?” For the sensation seeking highly sensitive male this question comes loaded with complexities others might not experience, even sensation seeking highly sensitive females. Marvin Zuckerman found through extensive research that males who are sensation seekers tend to be higher in thrill and adventure seeking and disinhibition than females. Both are factors in a personality trait known as sensation seeking. Sensation seeking is a trait that approximately 30% of highly sensitive people have, in addition to sensory processing sensitivity. Sensory processing sensitivity is a separate personality trait that is seemingly completely dichotomous to sensation seeking because an HSP (highly sensitive person) is marked by deep reflection and processing of all experience in the brain, high empathy and reactivity, tendency toward overstimulation in certain circumstances, and a sensitivity to subtle stimuli. In this short article I will provide an overview of the interaction of these two traits in the sensation seeking highly sensitive male with an emphasis on vocational choice.
Sensation seeking is a personality trait defined by researcher Marvin Zuckerman in the 1960s as a result of sensory deprivation experiments and later delineated and defined as a distinct personality trait consisting of four factors:
• Thrill and adventure seeking (TAS) – a desire to engage in sports or other physically risky activities that provide unusual sensations of speed or defiance of gravity, such as parachuting, scuba diving, or skiing.
• Experience seeking (ES) – seeking of novel sensations and experiences through the mind and senses, as in arousing music, art, and travel, and through social nonconformity, as in association with groups on the fringes of conventional society.
• Disinhibition (Dis) – sensation seeking through social activities like parties, social drinking, and sex. Dis may include engaging in activities that are a little unconventional or illegal.
• Boredom susceptibility (BS) – an intolerance for repetitive experience of any kind, including routine work, and boring people.
There have been a number of instruments created to measure sensation seeking in individuals from varied populations and backgrounds. Three of the four factors from which the subscales were developed have shown good cross-cultural and cross-gender reliability. The boredom susceptibility scale has not been as replicable across populations. However a broad general factor contributing to the variance in all the subscales best explains the relations among the subscales (Zuckerman, 1994).
Sensory processing sensitivity
Based on the research of Aron and Aron (1997) and Aron, Aron and Jagiellowicz (2012) highly sensitive people (HSPs) are the 20 percent of the worldwide population who process experience more deeply — fueled by emotion — with no difference in the sense organs themselves. Highly sensitive people subjectively process experience before acting, may be overstimulated by sensory input, are aware of subtleties before others, are highly creative, intuitive, empathic, and conscientious (Aron, 2010). Seventy percent of HSPs are introverted, while 30 percent are extraverted; approximately one third of HSPs experienced unhappy childhoods predisposing them to depression, anxiety, and other psychological issues; approximately two thirds of HSPs experienced happy childhoods and may be no different than others except in terms of their sensitivity; lastly, HSPs tend to be more deeply affected by positive and negative experiences than others due to the depth of cognitive and emotional processing (Aron & Aron, 1997). Jaeger (2004), described HSPs as intense, which seems to be an apt descriptor given the above definitions.
SPS is an innate personality trait that is often confused with introversion and shyness. Introversion, while also a trait, is primarily a measure of sociability; shyness is a learned behavior based on past negative social experiences (Aron, 1997). Taken as a whole we see a group of individuals who think deeply and feel deeply, with a trait that is not widely understood or accepted as normative (Aron, 2010). Introverted HSPs, due to their quiet demeanors and propensity for thinking before acting may appear to others as complex, aloof, unfriendly, and even unintelligent (Bendersky & Shaw, 2013).
Extraverted HSPs may appear similar to other extraverts, yet may be overwhelmed by too much stimulation and need to withdraw and recharge. This may lead others to believe they are neurotic or fragile in spite of their sociability (Aron, 2010). A last group of HSPs exist called high sensation seekers (Jaeger, 2004). These individuals actively seek out stimulation and crave the novelty of new and exciting activities. HSPs with high sensation-seeking tendencies may find themselves simultaneously pulled toward stimulation, yet repelled by too much. Aron (2010) referred to high sensation seeking as having one foot on the brake and one on the gas meaning the craving for stimulation is equally as strong as the need to moderate its intake.
Gender is a broad construct that is socially derived and culturally specific. The division by biological sex assignment is reinforced by what are known as gender role norms. Connell (1995) referred to these as hegemonic masculinity. Donaldson (1993) defined hegemonic masculinity as comprising several key characteristics males are supposed to embody including violence and aggression; emotional restraint, courage, toughness, risk-taking, competiveness, and achievement and success. Males who fail to present this version of masculinity, including gay males and males who act even slightly effeminate or who fail to completely adhere to the hegemonic view of masculinity, are subject to ridicule, shaming, and physical and emotional abuse (O’Neil, 1981; Pleck, 1981). Further, males are conditioned from a very young age to believe that aggression and lust are the only acceptable forms of expression (Zeff, 2010; Slater, 2009).
This narrow interpretation of masculinity serves as a gulf that divides the way sensitive males and sensitive females experience life. Many of the qualities of an HSP are more closely identified with the societal definition of femininity than masculinity. Thus, it is more likely that a female HSP will be accepted for exhibiting emotionality, deep empathy, a susceptibility for overstimulation, and high reactivity. This divide, for many HSP males, represents a deep inner conflict calling into question their sense of “manliness,” as defined by the society. There may be real repercussions for males who do not follow this fairly narrow interpretation of masculinity in some regions. In other regions masculinity is being redefined and may lead to a broader conceptualization in time.
For the male who is highly sensitive and a sensation seeker the inner conflict may be even greater, though no less confusing. In most western societies sensation seeking is viewed as more acceptable as an expression of masculinity, even expected. The struggle for the highly sensitive male is how to simultaneously embody the four factors of sensation seeking (each to a varying degree) while experiencing a counter-intuitive inner impulse for restraint, caution, and careful planning. Too often the highly sensitive side is in for an uncomfortable time when the sensation seeking side dominates in some new activity that has not been carefully considered.
The typical image one calls up when confronted with “sensation seeker” involves risky thrills, crazy adventures, and other extreme activities. All of these are glorified in the mass media as the desired embodiment of “real” manhood and masculinity. For the highly sensitive sensation seeking male there may be more interest in experience and novelty seeking than in thrill and adventure seeking. My research seems to indicate boredom susceptibility is common, but disinhibition is less well understood, but generally agreed to as a factor in the lives of HSS/HSP males. The HSS/HSP male may engage more in interesting travel, new and novel experiences (not necessary involving risk), and activities that serve to “keep the boredom away.” The HSS/HSP male exists within a complex, dynamic space where masculinity and femininity merge into psychological and emotional androgyny.
Learning how to effectively express and equal balance of both genders in one being while negotiating a mostly invalidating society that neither understands nor appreciates sensitivity is a minefield of potential conflicts, internally and externally. It is likely many HSS/HSP males simply squash the sensitive side of themselves early in life, or have it squashed for them, by parents, friends, or peers. To do so raises the specter of repressing an important and integral aspect of ourselves whereby we can never be truly whole. For many males these considerations are outweighed by the need to choose a vocation and fulfill their roles as providers, husbands, fathers, and employees.
The choice of vocation is tremendously complicated for many people with numerous factors impacting eventual choice/s. Many young people are attracted by high earning careers and neglect the long-term considerations of career satisfaction, growth opportunities, and quality of the interpersonal and physical working environment. For the HSS/HSP male these issues take a backseat to the prime consideration, as espoused by western societies: the earning of an income. Too often the individual finds himself in work that fails to meet his actual needs. HSS/HSPs are in a more complicated position due to their susceptibility for boredom, need for new and novel experiences, and possibly the sensations associated with thrill and adventures. Disinhibition is higher in sensation seeking males, but for the highly sensitive male this would not likely be as true because the corresponding restraining impulse would serve to provide a cautionary and reflective component. The HSS/HSP male would seem to require a vocation that supplies sensation within an optimal level of arousal, but the considerations are deeper.
The HSS/HSP male is not limited or defined by sensation seeking, though many times the sensation seeking side dominates. The many HSS/HSP males I have interviewed to date have expressed a depth of personality and character that seems to belie Zuckerman’s descriptions of sensation seekers. On some level this would be expected as we are depicting the interaction of two very different personality traits with one, SPS, representing a deep, reflective capacity that may serve to enhance and broaden the sensation seeking drive. I have observed and interviewed a number of HSS/HSP males who seem to quite successfully embody the best of both traits.
Careers for HSS/HSP males
The choice of a career, defined here as a series of interrelated positions typically requiring specialized training, is always complex with certain ambiguities and complexities. One can never predict future long-term satisfaction, only proceed based on a carefully considered benefits versus drawbacks scenario in which issues of compensation are weighed against important issues for HSPs and HSS/HSPs like the need for autonomy, meaningful work, growth opportunities, and appropriate interpersonal and physical working environments. There are however some commonalities that may serve as an effective framework in which one may consider a range of career options:
• Based on one’s expression of sensation seeking (degree to which each of the four factors are expressed) does the proposed career engage these appropriately for you? Will you be too bored, will the work provide a variety of sensations, perhaps allow you to move about or travel? If not are you willing to accept that compromise and indulge your sensation seeking needs after work?
• Is the work meaningful? Does it connect you to others in ways that honor and respect your deep empathy?
• Are the physical and interpersonal working environments appropriate for you? Is it too noisy, too crowded, and too dirty? Are the people you will be working with interesting and creative people? Will they bore you? Are your supervisors arrogant or obnoxious? Are there quiet places you can retreat to on lunch or a break if you need to (outside or at least spacious break rooms)? How demanding is the work on you socially? Will it exhaust you and leave you too drained to be your vivacious sensation seeking self?
• Will you have autonomy? Will you be given the authority to carry out the work you are assigned? Will you be working one-on-one? Will you have a blend of in-office time and field-time? Is telecommuting an option?
• Will you be able to practice the kind of fierce self-care you must as a HSS/HSP male? It’s a delicate balance with real health risks for those who fail to consider the importance of self-care.
• Will the career allow you to effectively and authentically express and embody the complex, dynamic, androgynous male that you are/seek to be? Does the opinion of others, especially those who are more conformist-minded, matter to you? If so how will you compromise and are you willing to do so?
I have interviewed HSS/HSP males from nearly every social class and profession. HSS/HSP males are not limited to any one vocational field. The choice of a career is always a compromise between wants and needs. For the HSS/HSP male the balancing of two personality traits offers tremendous advantages in terms of creativity, drive for novelty and new experiences, but coupled with a susceptibility for boredom and a propensity for disinhibition, which may be less in some HSS/HSP males.
The majority of HSPs are in helping professions, followed by creative, health sciences, and human services. It is my feeling that HSS/HSP males may do quite well in teaching and advisory capacities. The form this may take is myriad and may be as the foreman of a work crew, a trainer at an IT agency, or as the leader of a small business. Formal teaching also offers significant engagement of capacities if the individual is able to become established in secure employment. Other teachers may prefer the independent contracting basis and the freedom of lack of attachments. Most HSS/HSP males that I have interviewed strongly indicate a need for short-term projects and a distinct dislike of long-term projects. Some have indicated that they seek fulfillment of their needs outside of work and are willing to view work in a more limited role, ie., the earning of an income that allows other activities they wish to engage in. Others have sought opportunities for novel and new experiences through their work. Lastly, some have withdrawn from careers they were interested in at first, but ultimately realized were not temperamentally appropriate.
The complex nature of career choice and embodiment for HSS/HSP males enfolds the added dimension of a still narrow view of masculinity. The challenge for this segment of the population is to develop a deep self-awareness, learn to accept themselves as dynamic, reflective beings who can range across the broad scope of human expression while doing so in a way that feels personally authentic. Culture is relative and continuously in a state of renegotiation by its members. For HSS/HSP males the opportunity is to redefine masculinity as a construct that is more inclusive of what it means to be an integral being with a strong drive toward novelty and new experiences coupled with a counterbalancing reflective and empathetic component. As HSS/HSP males redefine themselves they/we also redefine society.
Dr. Tracy Cooper offers one-on-one career consulting from his web site at drtracycooper.com. Dr. Cooper has been a member of the US Army, a builder of alternative architecture, a grower, a soccer/softball coach, a fine artist, and a host of other positions not always well suited to the HSS/HSP personality. He is now an author, consultant, and higher education professional living in the Springfield, Missouri (USA), metro area. For more information visit his web site at the link below.
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