Fibromyalgia: Men/ Women/ Sensitivity and Empathy

“Men are from Earth, women are from Earth. Deal with it”, George Carlinp1010023

To-day one of my favourite comedians died. I shall miss his humour and while I obviously agree with Carlin’s view that both men and women are from earth, I cannot be quite so cavalier about dealing with many known differences. Sensitivity and empathy, for example, are human emotions that are often expressed very differently among men and women and both of these affect or may even be responsible for fibromyalgia.

So, the first issue to be explored is the relationship between these two emotions. I have a difficult time separating the two as they are so closely related. Basically, sensitivity means being receptive to the verbal and non verbal cues of others. Empathy is the ability to identify with another person’s feelings. People who are said to be insensitive to others are thought to lack empathy,whereas those who are nonempathetic are said to lack sensitivity. However, these descriptors are still not so clear cut. In a negative sense people can be sensitive in a highly intuitive way but lack in appropriate empathetic behaviours, such as those who abuse others while being aware (sensitive to) the pain they are causing others. But for now I will focus on the positive aspects of both sensitivity and empathy and the implication being that one without the other is less than desirable.

Within the past few decades the term ‘Emotional Intelligence’ has been used to both critique IQ tests (a practice which I support) and/or to add to that framework human characteristics which are positively related to the so-called ‘intellectual’ abilities of people. In other words a person may have a high IQ, but without emotional intelligence the IQ is less note worthy, so say the EI experts. People who have a high degree of emotional intelligence are said to have empathy for feelings of others and insight regarding how others think, in short, they are highly sensitive. They can easily understand group dynamics, or individual feelings of others. This term emotional intelligence has been used in both the corporate and academic settings with differing perspecitves about whether or not it is useful as an endeavour to understand human capacity and emotions. My intent is not to discuss this in any greater detail but to show that the issues of sensitivity and empathy are now thought to be key in how people relate to one another.

So then, back to my same argument found in my other blogs, and my book, that persons (women in particular) with fibromyalgia have a highly over-developed sensitivity/awareness of someone else’s feelings and therefore experience too much empathy for others. It is as though these emotions become a liability in that the inability to shut down our feelings for others to a degree that is safer for us, prevents us from the recognition and understanding of the effect this has upon our own bodies (nervous system). Some would call this person an ’empath’, someone who takes on other person’s emotions and feelings as though they were her/his own. We are not able to relax into the state that is necessary to maintain a healthy body because we accumulate emotions of our own and those of others. In addition this is usually a person who is a high achieving, highly motivated,high energy individual. When the nervous system finally becomes continually aroused, perhaps due taking on the experiences of others or to an accident, illness or injury of our own, the diagnosis of fibromyalgia becomes a life sentence (this should not be construed to be hopeless as there is much that can be done to help relax the nervous system!). But, here are some questions you can ask yourself: when you see someone in pain, do you almost experience it yourself ( but others can compartmentalize the situation and not actually feel  the pain)?   If someone stumbles do you have a wrenching feeling in your stomach as if you too were about to fall (while others may get a chuckle out of the scenerio)? Do movies with loud noises and great stimulation evoke agitation in you (but others actually enjoy action movies)? Questions like these can prove to yourself that you are easily hyper aroused and highly sensitive.

But, why then are so many more women prone to fibromyalgia than men? Or, at least why do more women report their concerns to physicians and have the diagnosis than men? It seems likely that it may be due to the differences between the genders and the ways in which sensitivity and empathy are experienced and expressed. However, we often focus on the differences between  men and women rather than observing similarities. Not all women are sensitive and empathetic nor are all men insensitive and lacking in empathy. Expectations that all women should be nurturing, and caring while men should be tough and non intuitive is limiting. The jury is still out trying to assess how many men suffer from fibromyalgia and are not reporting their symptoms or being diagnosed. However, for the time being we have to accept that there is a significantly higher incidence of women with this condition than men. The incidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may eventually raise the statistics regarding American men. It would not be possible for any caring human being to become distant from the horrors of war. It may just be that instead of the diagnosis (or in addition to) of PTSD, the veterans are suffering from fibromyalgia because of a hyper-aroused nervous system.

We cannot, however, disregard the fact that as much as things change, they often remain the same. So to suggest that there has been a tremendous amount of change since the latest women’s movement regarding how individuals should feel, express emotions and behave in order to fulfill societal expectations of feminine and masculine traits is not quite accurate. Women generally are more expressive, intuitive and more aware of subtleties in their environments than are men. They have a much harder time with giving up the need to be always ‘on duty’ for others. Women usually process more intensely the information they receive from others; they usually do more of the ‘interaction’ work in conversations and more of the ‘caring’ work based upon that interaction. Men generally have different ways of experiencing and expressing emotions such as sensitivity.

The field of Gerontology reports on hundreds of studies about the ways in which sons and daughters differ while caring for elderly parents. Sons, for example, often consider themselves sensitive to the needs of parents in terms of doing chores like mowing their lawns while daughters often care for the emotional needs. The ways in which sensitivity and empathy are defined differ between men and women (and cultures as well). Are we all so different or are we the same but expressing emotions differently?

Men have fibromyalgia so what is happening with them? Are these men who have what has traditionally been known as feminine traits? I wish I could consider myself an expert on men with firbomyalgia, but I cannot. While I have spoken with men who do have the syndrome I find it difficult to say that they are more sensitive, more empathetic and more intuitive than most men. Is it because they have a different way of expressing sensitivity than women? Generally the men I have spoken with have a very difficult time understanding why it cannot be ‘cured’ and denying it may be the result of physical and psychological trauma. I intuitively get the feeling they believe it is not a masculine condition and is a sign of weakness. Most men are still socialized to reject traits that are considered to be feminine in nature, like sensitivity and expressing empathy, although they may feel them intensely. Can it be that these men who do feel these emotions strongly suppress them to such an extent that the nervous system becomes hyper aroused because of  their attempt to reject them? The issue of male/female differences in fibromyalgia warrants research that has to this point been badly neglected.

If one accepts what I believe, that is, that the cause is social/psychological in nature, then it is also a political issue. I discuss how this is so in greater detail in my book. For now, as always, I am left puzzled about so many issues in this search for cause and its relationship to gender, race, culture, class and sexual orientation factors. I am left with another interesting question: are gay men more likely to have fibromyalgia than heterosexual males given that, in general, gay men are often perceived to be more sensitive, intuitive and empathetic? Hmmm… but certainly not all… what of gay men like J.Edgar Hoover who was certainly less than empathetic? Maybe he was sensitive to the pain he inflicted on many but not empathetic. I doubt he had fibromyalgia! We cannot generalize, nor stereotype all women or men, gay or heterosexual (and even these categories of people are not all inclusive).

All this brings me to this point… sensitivity must be accompanied with empathy to be positive traits. Furthermore, my conclusion… those with both, but too much of either, over stimulate their nervous systems, ignore their own needs and usually develop fibromyalgia! Human emotions! How complex they are and how culturally defined. More questions keep arising for me as shades of gray appear instead of black and white answers.

7 thoughts on “Fibromyalgia: Men/ Women/ Sensitivity and Empathy

  1. Paulette Parkes

    Hello Barbara, After re reading the above article I cannot resist writing to you. First please excuse my form as I am new at computer literacy. I have not read your book as I reside in Jamaica West Indies and its not only
    difficult to order a book but also much higher in price than in other places. Going to Us for a week in August and I will purchase it there. I was so thrilled to learn that not only do we have the same disease but that George Carlin was also one of my favorite comedians. I had the privilege of seeing him in person when I attended The
    University of Miami in the 70’s.
    Since you have made your research a longtime study I thought you might be interested in my story as it relates
    to my belief that one of the causes I have this dread invisible disease because of “empathy”.

    Being born in Belgium in 1938,and having to flee the Holocaust a year later began my problem I believe.
    First to feel the guilt later on in life that I had survived while many of my close family members did not.
    After overhearing the conversation between my mother and her sister one night while they thought I was asleep
    I heard things I not only never forgot but I thought of them everyday of my life. This was around the age I was
    10 years old. My aunt had survived but died shortly after. She had been imprisoned in one of the worst of all
    concentration camps.
    My father was smart and lucky enough to escape before we were captured and we fled to Cuba where we lived
    the entire time of the war. By a weird turn of life he died of a heart attack at the very early age of 42. I was 5
    years old. My mother never felt it necessary to explain anything to me and I was shuffled to some friends house
    while the funeral arrangements etc. were made. This was the first scare I remember.
    After that we returned to Belgium as it was the common thing to do and get the right documents to migrate to
    the USA. There I was exposed to many scares as I was shuffled to a Catholic boarding school where I was looked upon as a freak by the other children. I am positive this was the cause for my low self esteem which I
    still suffer from. As we know children can be very cruel especially when the grown ups in charge are in total
    agreement with their cruelty. I will never forget a jewish orphan this home had acquired who would be taken to the basement alost regularly and beaten with a belt for no other reason than laughing with me. This was the oy reason I could see. And the screams haunt me until today.

    Finally and not a day too soon I was removed and taken back to where we resided and until we left for the USA.
    In New York where was to be our new home I was enrolled in a public school in a rough neighborhood but by
    this time this was nothing scary for me. And the people seemed to treat me so well compared to what I was used to. This is when I started to get sick very often with no particular sickness. The doctors always said to
    my mother that I shold stay home for couple of days. I never slept. I still don’t. I would get a feeling of weakness and felt feverish with little real fever. I would regularly get very painful earaches. Pains and ailments
    came and went and by the time I was a teenager I was a nervous wreck. I began to act out in self destructive
    ways and doctor after doctor never had aconvincing diagnosis. Being self aware and interested in my health
    I took up Yoga and became a vegetarian. Even then the pains came and went and sleep was always a problem.
    I tried many drugs to chase away the demon but nothing would help except to give me temporary relief.

    I tried counselling because I tried in a very childish way to take my life. Then I joined a religion which dealt
    with health issues (Christian Science) but this one was too incompatible with my beliefs. I am not a religious
    person and can never be in the organized way. I believe in helping others and I’ve always been involved
    in helping others. My friends and I have many call me their saviour or their psychiatrist. I seem to be able to help others. I tried unconventional cures such as accupuncture, accupressure, herbal doctors but the same result.
    Nothing. When my mother was dying at the age of 93 and she lived with me here in Jamaica I was very stressed
    out and a friend recommended me to a doctor from Burma. I called him and he came to my home where my Mom was. He took care of her and when we talked there was an instant connection. He prescribed me some
    tranquilizers and asked me to visit his office when things calmed down with the responsibilities of my mother passing on etc.

    I did and thats when I was diagnosed with the Fibro. I had never even heard of it and it was such a relief to
    finally know I was not out of my mind. Then I started to read and study ally ailments and was put on a cocktail
    of medicines which have saved my life. I have regular visits with this wondeful doctor but as of yet as you well know it still is a mystery and an invisible disease. Much of my family think its all in my head because they nevr take the time to read on it. But I cannot expect more from them as they are old. My brother is 80 and my sister is 82. I am a young 69, going on 70 next week. I did write to you last week that a new tender point has come to me in the form of toothaches. Thats how I found you and I am so grateful.

    I have been a dog breeder here in Jamaica and have wanted to write a book either on dogs or my memoirs.
    But the CFS and my depression holds me back. And also the fact that I dont think there is any interest in my
    story. I live alone and very secluded with my large sweet dogs. They are the only natural medicine which at times helps relieve my pains. You have a fan here in Jamaica. Love, P.P.

  2. barbara keddy

    Dear Paulette:
    Thank you so much for sharing your story with me. You have had many sad experiences that have left your nervous system in a high state of hyper-arousal! You are so lucky to have such an understanding doctor who can give you the support you need. I hope that your 70th year brings you better health and joy. I am currently reading ‘Full Catastrophe Living’ by Jon Kabat-Zinn and hope to discipline myself “to live in the moment” through the practice of ‘mindfulness’. I hope you can access that book as I have found it to be very helpful. Happy birthday!

  3. Leslie

    Dear Paulette:

    I think you should write your memoirs. Those experiences should not be lost to time, and you should not have to live with it yourself. By sharing what you have gone through, you may help people by showing them how lack of empathy by others can greatly affect someone. Put your words down on paper – even in a journal. Do it now and write a little each day.

    …and lastly, if you can find it in your heart, forgive everyone who did not show you empathy.

    Take care.


  4. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Hi Vince: Do you mean the issue of empathy or fibromyalgia in general? My topics evolve from my readings and my experiences. New ideas seem to be out there just waiting for me to delve into them:-) Currently I am sloughing through issues related to the brain/mind and neuroplasticity and it isn’t easy going; very complex stuff! I just think I have a little inkling about certain aspects of fibromyalgia and along comes more information to guide me further into these mysteries. Trying to take fibromyalgia out of the realm of general medicine isn’t easy. I think it belongs in neuropsychology/psychiatry, not rheumatology! Thanks for your comment! Barbara

  5. Bill

    I realize that these post are quite old, but I I must say I feel so compelled to reply, none the less.
    I am a 45 year old (non gay) man who has had Fibromyalgia for over 15 years, and the degree to which I have suffered from the constant pain i have experienced is indescribable. I have spent LONG periods of time unable to barely move due to the level of pain. I have tried so many therapies both natural and allopathic, that have little if any effect at all. The entire year of 2012, I spent with taking any medicines or therapy, and moved no more than 19 feet per day ( that is the distance between my bedroom and living room). I guess my main point is YES men do get Fibromyalgia, and suffer immensely due to the effects. i am hypersensitive to so many things, including changes in temp., pain is my worst, emotions, any exposure to tv shows/media of suffering people/ animals/ etc.
    I have had periods of insomnia that lasted many days- up to 10 days with out sleep. All doctors want to do is either cast me as having Psych. problems, or you name it, I have been labeled as “it”. It is a joke to me, in a way because after about 9 years I began my own research, based on the facts of the experience, speaking to others with the condition- who were being treated the same, I have done SO much introspective work, I know myself on so many levels- Spiritual, Physical, molecular, I have come to have come to the point where I know far more than most M.D.’s do, and have learned volumes from journals written by people and Dr.’s throughout the world- that most American Dr.’s are really just afraid because they have no real understanding of the complex nature of the condition and how the symptoms vastly differ from person to person. They are unable to “put you in a box” and treat you so they do little, if anything, then send you to the Psych. dept. I have actually learned
    what I believe to be the cause, but it is a theory that comes from studying everything from what the Guru’s were saying 3,000 years ago to Quantum Physics ( which are in many ways the same thing) that it is result of being EXTREMELY hypersensitive to certain levels of vibrations that over-stimulate the nervous system on many levels- exhibiting the variations in symptoms due to the way an individuals brain is “wired” so to speak, and how sensitive they are to certain vibrations in the universe, and how the Spirit/Body/ Mind/ multidimensional beings that we all are. I currently have found a certain combination of meds., herbs, yoga, that allow me more “Life” than I have in over 12 years, but it was NOT an easy journey, and it is no cure- it does allow me enough relief that I can to continue to find/ receive the cure.
    Follow your instincts, and push through the FEAR the path will illuminate itself for you if you have the courage and belief in your self.
    Bless you all.

  6. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Thank you so much Bill. You are very insightful and of course I agree with all you say! And also of course I know that many men have fibromyalgia. ou have studied this so much and have so much insight into your conditions. It is so hot and humid where I live this time of year that I too am affected greatly by the weather. Please keep in touch; I appreciate your knowledge sharing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *