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 order to conform something bigger.
So what are the directions given to the role of our lead male character?
They should be…
“Stoic” is often used to describe the performance of masculinity. This is not the same as someone who practices the philosophy of Stoicism. In fact, as we discuss in the conversation, it is quite the opposite of a Stoic Practice. Because it rejects the presence of what is really there – it pushes down the truth. The presence of emotions, fears, and hopes etc is denied, as we bottle it up and pretend that everything’s fine.
Likewise, toughness is shown through control, violence, and domination. Exerting power and standing your ground. The worst thing you can do is admit you’re wrong, accept blame, or show any sign of weakness. For there is always someone waiting in the wings, ready to exploit any show of vulnerability and take your position from you.
This toughness dances with a drive towards ultra-competitiveness. Real men want to win, and they don’t care what it costs.
Angry Young Men
When young men get caught on the treadmill of the Masculine Ideal they believe it is weak to display any emotion besides anger. They are driven by a desire to fit in more than curiosity about the world around them. They are allowed to cry if their football team wins or loses, but not when they have their heart broken by the news or another person. It is expected that they might ‘take it out’ on the world outside of them.
They are allowed to engage in physical self-development (faster, fitter, stronger), but not emotional or mental self-development (reading or engaging in less mainstream, more cultural experiences). They don’t want to lose face by raising their concerns about the potential consequences of collective action. So they behave in ways they wouldn’t choose to if they were self-empowered. They will pursue things that they don’t have any interest in acquiring. And they pretend to value things that don’t actually matter to them.
Grumpy Old Men
We tend to celebrate the trope of the ‘grumpy old man’. But it’s tiresome. Yep, I slip into it occasionally, and when it happens I get bored of myself. I hear what’s coming out of my mouth, raise my eyebrows and shake my head. Yawn.
The same conversations about the same things. When the Masculine Ideal takes over at its purest, it wants us to indulge the anger and grumpiness. And when that happens, we become nicely predictable and boring.
Older men caught on the treadmill of the masculine ideal like to complain about: the kids of today, music, traffic, vegans, Greta Thunberg, the growing population, technology, and the fact that Mars Bars have shrunk.
The masculine ideal operates at the lowest level. It roots itself in the pursuit of consumption (not creation), use (not consent), and control (not collaboration). From a position of dominance and ownership. This underpins the masculine relationship with food (especially meat), of sex (the person’s sense of humour is an insight), and power (extrinsic measures like money and knowledge).
And it is this that indicates to us that we are selling men short. The masculine ideal wants to keep men pegged down to this lowest base level of reality. Where we don’t have permission to accept, explore, and embrace the higher parts of ourselves. The creative, playful, embracer of life’s mystery. And as long as we keep peddling this myth, we will continue to struggle in our effort to reach our potential as a species.
But so much of our rail against masculinity attaches these ideas as genuinely natural preferences that men want, rather than prisons in which we have been intentionally trapped.
More Compassion Needed
We need compassion for those inside this toxic trap.
We need to re-write the rules of masculinity. The suggestion that ‘masculinity is in crisis’ is not solved by going back to how things were. But moving forwards to how things might become. We no longer need the old masculine ideal (a product of the industrial revolution). The ‘crisis’ form of the masculine ideal was needed as a way to fill the factories and mines, and carry out long hours of heavy duty manual labour. The mines are closing, the factories increasingly automated, and the crisis is one of identity and purpose.
We now need men to be human again. To hold the complex grey areas that fill the gaps around the fringes of their true self. To relinquish our insecurity and anxiety.
We often see the old Herculean hero portrayed as a meat head and a subject of ridicule and laughter. And those traditional superhero characters who exude all those characteristics of the masculine ideal, have been replaced by more complex and realistic people with the full range of human experience and emotions.
We must hold those attached to the masculine ideal with a spirit of compassion. To provide space for failure, fear, and frustration. This requires us to re-write deeply ingrained scripts that run through the heart of peoples’ self-concepts. But if we can come from a place of grace and understanding, we will work out a way through the emancipatory process together.
A Crisis of Anxiety
Anxiety is the feeling that ‘we don’t know what we should do’. The world is becoming more and more anxious in this sense. Anxiety fuels the ‘crisis’. The parameters are changing and the foundation disappearing but there’s nothing there to replace it for many people. And this is where we need to bring a new masculinity. What do we need men to be?
There is a lot of groupthink that goes into masculine posturing and positioning. It is more present and amplified in groups or crowds. I’ve had some really powerful one-on-one conversations with men who are in the belly of the Masculine Ideal beast. And they almost always use the opportunity to talk as a way to share what’s really going on for them. And they admit to a desire to ‘do it more’. There is an intuitive awareness in many men. They know there is more to them than is seen on their ‘acceptable’ revealed exterior.
But it’s very hard to transcend the conditioned message…’to fit in (as a man), you must think, behave, and speak in a certain way…and not admit to thinking, feeling, or desiring the wrong things’.
Closing The Doors on the Masculine Ideal
So the tide is already turning. And we are waving goodbye to a sense of value that we placed on the masculine ideal in our collective consciousness. It served its purpose, and created a lot of suffering in the process. But we’ve now got a wonderful opportunity to open the doors for men to begin to see, explore, and embrace the fullness of who they are beneath their own masculine ideal performative stories.
The more of us who lead by way of example, the richer and more creative the world will become. This is where Tom Falkenstein says there is a role for highly sensitive men, because we already know how to live in conjunction with those ‘different’ parts of ourselves.
If we continue to pedal the masculine ideal we are selling men short in all kinds of ways…
Our Physical Health
The masculine ideal creates unhealthy men. Men who are less likely to visit the doctor, ask for help, or even eat healthy food. It says that salad is ‘rabbit food’, bananas will kill you if you eat too many, and your manliness increases with each pound of meat that sits on your plate.
Our Mental Health
Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45. Men are over 3 times more likely to die by suicide than women. And these men often avoid seeking help, and engage in the use of drugs and alcohol to self-medicate.
There are obviously different explanations and reasons for this. But if we combine the data with our own experiences, most of us will be able to see how the masculine ideal fails to create fertile ground for emotional and psychological wellbeing in men.
I have felt the toxic tug of the masculine ideal in my own life. The anxious feeling that I need to be stronger, more dominant, more powerful, and more protective. But with these calls to be more, the price I pay is personal. It is my spirit. My essence.
To become less of who I am, care less about what I value, and follow a set of rules that don’t fit with the better world I believe we are capable of imagining into existence.
Breaking up with the masculine ideal is an ongoing process. It takes renewed commitment to see things as they really are beneath. And it requires great courage to bring those higher parts of ourselves out to play. This is an emancipatory revolt against the chains of this performative masculine dance. We’ve are conditioned to believe the dance is real. It’s not. But there is a spirit inside us that is real. And it’s time to release it.