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Masculine Sensitivity: A Cure for Toxic Masculinity?

Embracing the many facets of masculinity can help tame the beast.

Shift Drive/Shutterstock
Source: Shift Drive/Shutterstock

Gender is a complicated topic and getting to be more so as society experiences tectonic shifts in our understanding and expectations of it.

We can only hope that as women start owning their personal power, the norms for men expand as well, allowing them to own their personal sensitivity. After all, Rhett Butler was sexy, sure, but it was dreamy, thoughtful, gentle Ashley Wilkes whom Scarlett pined for. (Until the end, when she realized her terrible mistake, which is the kind of thing art and the media do to uphold the outdated norms of which I speak.)

With The Highly Sensitive Man: Finding Strength in Sensitivity (Citadel Press), psychotherapist Tom Falkenstein has written a friendly, insightful book for men who know they are sensitive and feel the stigma of their counter-masculinity—and perhaps for those who don’t realize their discomfort in the world is because they have repressed their sensitivity to meet society’s expectations. (The call is coming from inside the house!) It’s a manifesto, but also a guide for living.

In an email interview, Falkenstein talked with me about his book.

Do you think more men accepting their high sensitivity can contribute to solving society's problem of toxic masculinity? How so?

Yes, I do! The reason I wrote the book The Highly Sensitive Man was because there was no book that addressed sensitivity in men, only in women, which struck me as odd and didn’t reflect my professional observations as a psychotherapist. The book is a plea for greater diversity in masculinity. A diversity I believe we need and which could represent a possible solution to the oft mentioned “crisis of masculinity.”

I believe that highly sensitive men play an important role in the long-overdue emancipation of men from classic stereotypes of masculinity, precisely because they challenge and therefore expand our image of the “typical strong man.” Every man can help to challenge this, of course, but in particular the highly sensitive man does, because his innate high sensitivity and the emotionality and subtlety of feeling that comes with it automatically questions, challenges, and ultimately broadens traditional masculine norms, values, and behaviors such as hardness, toughness, stamina, competitiveness, and self-control. This is the vital role that the highly sensitive man can play in society—challenging taboos around vulnerability, sensitivity, empathy, and, in particular, emotionality in men.

In this way, all men can profit, be they young or old, straight or gay, highly sensitive or not highly sensitive. If a more authentic, holistic, and multifaceted form of masculinity could emerge because of this, a form that would allow all men in society to be sensitive and emotional without having to feel shame, anxiety, or inferiority, then I would argue that, in the context of the current issues the world is facing, this is a situation from which we could all profit regardless of gender. In other words, a win-win situation.

Do you feel like your book’s focus fits into the shifting gender norms we are seeing these days?

I started writing the book in 2015 before it was first published in Germany in 2017. This was before the #MeToo movement and the Time’s Up campaign had kicked off, which helped to change the conversation around gender norms and the use/abuse of power in a patriarchal society significantly. When the American Psychological Association (APA) published their first-ever guidelines for therapists working with men and boys in 2018, in which they addressed a lot of the issues around the traditional norms of masculinity that I also write about in my book, I felt reassured that my hunch was right and relieved that the conversation around masculinity is indeed changing.

Where do high sensitivity and introversion intersect?

Elaine Aron’s research on Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), which is the scientific term for high sensitivity, showed that 70 percent of highly sensitive people are introverted, whereas 30 percent of them are extroverted. In other words, high sensitivity and introversion are not the same, but often go hand in hand. When I spoke to Elaine Aron as part of my research for the book, she told me that, in her opinion, introversion and extroversion are personality styles that develop over the course of one’s life and describe social behavior that is observable, whereas SPS is what is lying underneath. I think that explanation makes a lot of sense.

I noticed that nearly all the men you talked to have some sort of sexual/relationship discomfort—they struggled to connect with partners. Why is that?

Although they all share a particularly sensitive and reactive central nervous system, I tried to show the diversity of highly sensitive men by including interviews with very different men—single, married, straight, gay, older, younger, self-employed, and employed. This struck me as important, as I’m wary of making generalizations.

When it came to the questions of relationships, my impression was that some of them had very good relationships, emotionally deep and sexually satisfying, but most of them struggled with being “proactive” when it came to getting to know potential partners. Making the first step, feeling confident about approaching someone—all of this was often described as being very challenging. Maybe this has to do with self-confidence and issues around feeling “desirable and worthy” as a man. I think this is difficult to develop if you’ve felt “different” to other boys or men for most of your life because you were seen as “too emotional” or “too sensitive.” Not living up to the masculine ideal, not fulfilling the “boy code.”

Do you think a lot of men are unaware that they are highly sensitive?

I do! First of all, not everyone is aware of the research on sensitivity that has been taking place since the 1990s. Also, not everyone is struggling with being particularly sensitive to their environment, and therefore it might not be something they ever thought about. I suspect a lot of highly sensitive people live very well or have found ways to make their lifestyle more suitable to their temperamental trait. Often, highly sensitive people only find their way into my practice when they have developed a mental health issue.

How can men who are already aware of their high sensitivity benefit from the book?

It was very important to me include a wide range of practical strategies and practices that I’ve acquired and learned throughout my career as a psychotherapist that my highly sensitive clients, whether they are male or female, usually find very helpful. So there might be some ideas in the book that they haven’t heard of yet.

The Highly Sensitive Man offers practical solutions in terms of how to deal with overstimulation and strong feelings, two characteristics that every highly sensitive person has, but also how to deal with problems of self-worth and how to improve self-care. It features several interviews with men who have learned to live well with their sensitivity, as well as an in-depth conversation with Elaine Aron.

If highly sensitive men were to take away just one crucial skill from the book, what should it be?

How to pick just one? I think the skills in the book around mindfulness and self-compassion are particularly potent, and I have found them, on a personal level, quite transformative over the years. A lot of readers love the strategies on how to improve self-care as an HSP at the end of the book. See—it’s impossible just to pick one!

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