In his book, The Highly Sensitive Man, psychotherapist Tom Falkenstein offers insights into the nature of sensory processing sensitivity for men and how our masculine ideal in its present imagined form is literally killing people right now.
I was delighted to have the opportunity to chat with Tom recently, and we delved into some of the challenging facing men at the moment. And how those of us with deep sensory processing sensitivity can cope with, and respond to a collective self-sabotage when we seem hell bent as a species on rejecting the full sensory experience at our fingertips.
Tom's book takes ideas that have been touched on in other resources about high sensitivity. And he unpacks them in a more comprehensive way, specifically addressing issues around high sensitivity in men. Creating space for understanding, awareness, and an exploration of the unique advantages and challenges they might face.
Our conversation follows the thread of the book, which seems to run along two separate but interweaving strands:
1. The Impact of The Current Masculine Ideal
What it means 'to be a man' has changed throughout history. It's not a fixed thing.
“There’s an English term, ‘toxic masculinity,’ used to describe a form of masculinity based on dominance and violence that rejects emotions. It’s a problem that boys and men are constantly told that ‘real guys’ don’t cry, are highly, almost animalistically sexual, and crush anything that stands in their way. It’s a problem for both men and women. This is the form of masculinity that we need to address. Just because it’s widespread doesn’t mean that it’s natural.” - Margarete Stokowski
2. The Highly Sensitive Man and a Turning Point in Masculinity
The tide is changing, and the old masculine ideal is dying. We see this talked about with phrases like 'men in crisis' and questions such as, 'who's the weaker sex?' appearing in the media. And these feed the sense that men are losing something. But what if this was a moment of emancipation for men from the social conditioning of alienating masculinity itself? What if this turned out to be a long overdue opportunity for men to finally gain access to our full selves?
Tom talks about his belief that highly sensitive men have a key role to play in this long-overdue emancipation of men from classic stereotypes of masculinity. He suggests we are in a unique position because we challenge and therefore expand the image of the “typical strong man.”
What pops into your head when you hear the term 'highly sensitive man'? I bet you can envisage them and they have particular characteristics. If the image is a negative one, then it's almost certainly an incomplete picture, or just plain wrong.
The case studies that Tom uses in the book paints a picture of a different kind of strength that we see in sensitive men. An embrace of their whole selves, the courage to transcend the performative demands to shut up and 'man (bottle) up'. And how when they're not driven by a need to fit in and conform (and alienate themselves from themselves), they are able to access a much fuller, richer, and more attractive expression of who they are capable of becoming.
The Myth and Performance of The 'Masculine Ideal'
Like any ideal, our notions around masculinity are first and foremost constructed. And as with all ideals, they are symbols into which no one truly fits.
It's a performance. We see this because most people adapt and shift their behaviour to suit the situation in which they are operating. Within the performance of masculinity, we see people behaving out of character in ways that are destructive to themselves and others.
The performance isn't a conscious thing, it's been programmed throughout our lives. And it triggers into action around certain people, in particular contexts and backdrops. It's an act of perverse selflessness where we let go of who we really are in order to give ourselves to some notion of what we need to be in or...