Highly Sensitive Man

Highly Sensitive Man
With Tom Falkenstein

Being highly sensitive isn't a disorder. And it also isn't gendered. It's a biological trait that manifests equally across the gender spectrum. So why a podcast episode specifically about Highly Sensitive Men?

Because of the way the patriarchy affects men. When you're highly sensitive, being trapped by a narrow definition of masculinity can make life even harder. The good news? Being a Highly Sensitive Man can show other people new ways of defining masculinity.

"These men were describing a sensitivity that they had experienced since childhood. A trait, rather than a state" ~ Tom Falkenstein
In this episode

  • the specific challenges Highly Sensitive men face in a world with a limiting view of masculinity
  • tips and strategies that can help Highly Sensitive men become more resilient
  • what we can do as friends, partners and parents to support the Highly Sensitive men in our life


Tom Falkenstein 0:00
I knew that you could be particularly sensitive to your environment if you were going through a mental health crisis. So these men were describing a sensitivity that they had experienced since their childhood. Although I’m a psychologist and a psychotherapist, even then I hadn’t really heard much about the idea of sensitivity being a trait rather than a state.

Tahlee Rouillon 0:26
The term Highly Sensitive Person has been around for a few decades now, with Dr. Elaine Aron, coining the term in 1991 after her research into sensory processing sensitivity. According to Dr. Aron, about 20% of the population is highly sensitive. High sensitivity isn’t a disorder. Rather, it’s a biological trait of the brain and nervous system that has also been found in over 100 other species, including other primates, insects, dogs, fish, and birds. Also, high sensitivity isn’t gendered. Because it’s a biological trait of temperament, high sensitivity manifests across the gender spectrum. So why an episode specifically about Highly Sensitive men? Well, because of the way the patriarchy affects men. You’ve probably heard the term toxic masculinity. But a definition I heard recently that I prefer is limiting masculinity. It’s the way in which patriarchal views about manhood and masculinity can trap and limit men, the way in which men’s emotions are dismissed and stifled, leading to high rates of depression and suicide, or the need to aggressively compete with or dominate others, leading to high rates of violence and imprisonment. And when you’re Highly Sensitive, being trapped by such a narrow definition of masculinity can make life even harder. The good news, being a Highly Sensitive man can show other people identifying as men new ways of defining their own masculinity.

Tahlee Rouillon 2:15
You’re listening to the Seekers’ Sanctuary, a show about creating sanctuary in life, work, relationships, and home so you can embrace a life that matters to you. I’m your host Tahlee. On today’s episode, I speak with Tom Falkenstein, a psychologist, psychotherapist, and author of the book Highly Sensitive Man. We talk about the specific challenges Highly Sensitive men face in a world with a limiting view of masculinity, tips and strategies that can help Highly Sensitive men become more resilient, what Tom’s non-negotiables are that help him personally thrive, plus some things that we can do as friends, partners and parents to support the Highly Sensitive men in our life. Enjoy.

Tahlee Rouillon 3:03
Hi, Tom. But thank you so much for joining me on the Seekers’ Sanctuary podcast.

Tom Falkenstein 3:08
You’re very welcome. Thanks for having me.

Tahlee Rouillon 3:10
I am so excited to chat to you. Because I have read your book, The Highly Sensitive Man and I have so many questions for you.

Tom Falkenstein 3:18
Okay. Okay. Really glad our conversation is finally happening after we tried to schedule this for quite a while. So I’m glad we’re finally here. And I’m really excited to talk to you.

Tahlee Rouillon 3:32
Me too. So I want to dive straight in. I know that there are a lot of books on being highly sensitive but what led you to write this book specifically for men?

Tom Falkenstein 3:45
Yeah, so I have to start from the beginning because I… say about 2013… So about seven years ago, I was living and working in London. And I worked as a (well I still work), but then I worked as a psychotherapist in London at the clinic. And I had a lot of young male patients in therapy who all talked about struggling with their sensitivity. And it was just one of those… there are those moments where you feel a certain topic comes up pops up in different sessions. And it just, it just made me think about sensitivity and how little I knew about it. And I knew that you could be particularly sensitive to your environment, if you were going through a mental health crisis or you know if you felt overly anxious or depressed but these men were describing a sensitivity that they had experienced since their childhood. And that made me just sort of think about the term a bit more. And although I’m a psychologist and psychotherapist, I thought even then I hadn’t really heard much about the idea of sensitivity being a trait rather than a state. So that made me think about it. And then I did some research on sensitivity and, and then I found out about Elaine Aron’s research that she did on sensitivity since the 90s, amongst others, but she was one of the first and then I thought, okay, I really would like to give those young men a book or something to read about high sensitivity, because they might recognize themselves or they might not… I mean, I just wanted to offer it.

Tom Falkenstein 6:02
And then I went to, I remember very well, I went to a book shop, and I just looked at the section, I think they had a section on high sensitivity back then already, but they were all written by women basically. Which is not a problem. I just thought it was very interesting. I looked at this shelf and they were all clearly targeted at women. They were written by women. There was one book by the late Ted Zeff on Highly Sensitive Children and boys. But there was about it, and I just, it just didn’t match my, the impression I got from my sessions that this is not just a topic for women, but also for men.

Tom Falkenstein 6:46
And then I… and usually men were mentioned briefly in those books, but, but there wasn’t a single book where this was made a proper topic, you know. And then I just thought maybe I should write it. laughs

Tom Falkenstein 7:07
It wasn’t… I mean, I’ve always enjoyed writing, I never really thought about writing a book until that time that I just described in London. And then I basically just dived into the research and wrote a proposal for the book that I eventually ended up writing. And sent it out to a couple of publishers - four to five. And two wanted to buy it straight away. So then I started writing the book in 2015. And then eventually, it was first published in Germany in 2017. And since been published, and since been translated in, in, in several other languages. So that’s, that’s how it all started, basically.

Tahlee Rouillon 7:51
So do you personally identify as a Highly Sensitive man?

Tom Falkenstein 7:55
Yes, I do. I mean, I, again, because I wasn’t… I was a bit aware, I was aware of temperamental traits and differences in children through my psychology degree, but I never really thought… and I don’t know how it is in Australia, but in my post-college training in psychotherapy, temperament just was never mentioned again, or the idea that there are different temperaments. It was then very much on, obviously, psychological disorders and problems and symptoms, and schemas and core beliefs and negative thinking and negative automatic thoughts, and all these these things, but it wasn’t really so much a topic on… the idea of different temperamental traits wasn’t really a topic. So therefore, I didn’t know about the idea of high sensitivity. I didn’t really think about much about temperament during my training. And then through working in London, and in doing the research for those men that I just talked about, I then read about it. And I thought, Ohhhh laughs. It also describes me. Yeah, so. So yes, I do. Yeah.

Tahlee Rouillon 9:14
What was that process like? Hearing these men that are your clients describe these traits that you are thinking, gosh, that sounds like me, and then you know, you’ve gone on this rabbit hole of research into high sensitivity. What was that process like for you?

Tom Falkenstein 9:33
It was really interesting. I mean, I really I got excited about the whole research and reading about it, and then reading about it in preparation for my book and learning about it. And it really felt like I discovered something I wasn’t aware of beforehand. And personally, I feel like it it became a huge part of my life, obviously then writing the book for two years while working as a psychotherapist, so just took up a lot of time and a lot of space. So I feel it’s slightly enhanced or contributed to my work as a therapist, because I think it is a very important layer to meet patients or, potential patients, just to think about the idea, or could there be also be to think about temperament a bit more? And could there be, could they be highly sensitive. And so, in terms of my profession, I think it really changed quite a lot for me.

Tom Falkenstein 10:38
So it’s just been… so I think what I’m trying to say is that it just has been a huge part of my life professionally, but also personally. I think it made me think a lot about self care, I mean, self care as a Highly Sensitive Person. And by identifying with this concept, then thinking about, “okay, what does it very practically actually mean, for me?” Are there things that I need to change about my lifestyle, or, suddenly realizing, “Oh, actually, no wonder I always preferred certain situations or certain environments to others”. So I think it didn’t have quite the AHA effect that a lot of people describe, I think a lot of Highly Sensitive People who I’ve met, since they often… which I think is so powerful, but I often hear “Oh, I really felt the first time I was understood, and for the first time I felt there were a group of other people who really understood me”. And I didn’t quite have it that strongly, because I think (I don’t want to speak for others) but I think looking back at it, I think that was always very drawn to other Highly Sensitive People without knowing it. So I would say most of the people I surround myself with are, I would say, at least very sensitive, if not highly sensitive. I’m in a profession where there’s a lot of focus on thoughts and feelings and all of that. So it wasn’t quite as extreme for me as I think it is for some, but it definitely also changed things in my private life, for sure.

Tahlee Rouillon 12:32
We know that patriarchal systems hurt all of us through the constricting and limited definition of what it means to be a man. But in this context what challenges in particular, do Highly Sensitive men face do you think?

Tom Falkenstein 12:49
When I started the research for the book, I really read a lot about mental health issues and men in particular, and I was sort of aware of some of the issues, but I have to say diving more into it and reading more about it, I really noticed that this is actually a huge issue. And patriarchy, in some ways also doesn’t serve men, it does in some ways, but in other ways, it really doesn’t. And when I then I interviewed, I think it was, 25 people for the book, 25 highly sensitive men for the book, I ended up incorporating nine interviews. And what they often described in the interviews, the men, was the sense that by not living up to the masculine ideal of the Western world, by not living up to the boy code, even when they were young, they felt very early on in their lives, that there were certain issues around self worth, and certain issues around masculine identity for them, so they felt too soft or too emotional, or not manly enough, too feminine, too sensitive. And I think if that starts already in childhood, not for all of them, I’m always very keen on not generalize too much, which is something I try not to do, but a lot of them describe that to me. And there’s very, very interesting guidelines by the American Psychological Association that were published only two years ago for the work with boys and men. And I urge any of your listeners to look them up online. First of all, I think it’s interesting that they only published two years ago, the first ever guidelines for therapists or social workers working with men and boys, and there are many very interesting figures and studies that they mentioned. And one of them that I remember from reading it a while ago is that those boys who don’t follow the typical male behavior, even as a as a, as a young as young adult or as a boy are more likely to get bullied physically or emotionally by the boys. So there’s a huge… it’s a very restrictive definition of masculinity, I think it is a huge problem. And I think it starts often in childhood. I think the socialization of men is really problematic. If you look at the suicide rates, we look at problematic behavior in terms of crime, if you look at the who’s in prison… so yeah I think that is a huge, huge topic. And I just felt I can’t write a book about men and Highly Sensitive men without at least mentioning those issues a little bit. And, and to come back to question, I just felt that Highly Sensitive men, because they, in some ways, they might have been always quite emotional or maybe they’re also introverted and not so much extroverted as a Highly Sensitive Person or they might avoid certain situations that require certain competition or aggressive presentation. I think it can mean that they often felt a little bit like an outsider or it could cause some issues in terms of their self worth as a man.

Tahlee Rouillon 17:14
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Tahlee Rouillon 18:35
So I’d like to bring it back to you now personally. I’d love to know how you thrive as a Highly Sensitive man. Do you have any rituals or any non negotiables that help you cope with life?

Tom Falkenstein 18:51
I think obviously, it changes a little bit depending on what is going on in my life, in which phase I am. So for example, I remember there was a time when I was doing my postgraduate training and I was working quite a lot. It’s something I did already although I didn’t know then that I was Highly Sensitive but, for example, I often came home and I just needed 10 minutes, 15 minutes to myself before I engage with anyone. And that then already was quite important to me. But I think what I do differently knowing my temperament better now is first of all, I work less. So I see less patients, for example, than I used to. I really like being in nature. I really like being outside a lot but knowing now why that is, I really try to make a rule out of it. I mean, I also don’t want life to be too dogmatic and too rigid, but I just know I need that. I need depth. I think that is obviously one part in my being Highly Sensitive, the depth of processing. And I really, really need conversations where I feel, we quickly cut to with my friends and family, if possible we quickly cut to what is important, or what is going on for us emotionally.

Tahlee Rouillon 20:49
No small talk.

Tom Falkenstein 20:51
No small talk. I really don’t enjoy it, I mean, I don’t know whether anyone does, but I just dislike it. I need depth. I need space in terms of being in nature or not working too much. So, these are some things that I do that I need to feel better or feel good.

Tahlee Rouillon 21:17
And I love that you say that you need depth, because as you know, in the definition of high sensitivity or processing sensitivity, depth of processing is the very first characteristic of being highly sensitive. And often we, I suppose, consider depth of processing as a negative thing, because it quickly overwhelms our system and we need a lot of recovery time, but actually depth is really nourishing for Highly Sensitive People.

Tom Falkenstein 21:57
Yes, exactly, exactly. I completely agree. I agree. I find it hugely nourishing, and I find I really need it. And I notice when I don’t have it or when I find myself in situations where there is a short supply, then I don’t feel particularly well.

Tahlee Rouillon 22:18
So I know that your book is full of practical tips and strategies to help highly sensitive men, but just for anybody listening could you give us one tip so that a Highly Sensitive man who’s listening could start to thrive and become a little bit more resilient.

Tom Falkenstein 22:40
Yeah, I mean, I think life is obviously very different for different people. And I, for example, I give quite a lot of ideas how to change, work life balance (I’m not so keen on that word) but about how to change certain aspects in your job or in your everyday life. Like, for example, taking breaks, like leaving on time. And we know all these things. But I think maybe it’s just good to hear them again, or seeing them written in a book. And as a reminder, yes, and this is particularly important for those of us who are more sensitive to our environment. And then I offer quite a lot of exercises, that are based in mindfulness and acceptance. It could just be walking down the street and paying attention to your five senses. Or if you’re feeling overstimulated already because you walked down the street and there’s so much going on, then it could be helpful to, for example, to focus on how it feels to walk down the street. So pay attention to the soles of your feet. But what I personally really enjoy apart from mindfulness is acceptance of feelings. So really practicing more the acceptance of feelings. So for example, first of all, really practicing to notice our feelings, to name them, to acknowledge them throughout the day and to notice how they change. And finally, I think what I also find very important, and I’ve been practicing it myself through my work as a therapist, and I incorporated some of it in the book is the whole idea of self compassion and to try to work on a voice that is a bit more compassionate and warm and friendly towards our experience. I think that makes a huge difference.

Tahlee Rouillon 24:53
Yes, I really love that you’ve mentioned self compassion and self acceptance. Because I definitely… reflecting back on reading your book, I definitely saw that, throughout the book, as being a really big part of the resilience of the the Highly Sensitive men who were thriving now. And I think we all have our inner critics, and we can often be very, very hard on ourselves, but I think for Highly Sensitive People, it’s almost that one-two punche, isn’t it? That you become critical of yourself, but you’re also beating yourself up because you see that you’re not coping with life in the way that you think other people are. And in a way, you’re kind of not because you are processing life a lot more deeply and more richly than people who perhaps aren’t as sensitive. So yeah, I think developing self compassion is hugely helpful.

Tom Falkenstein 25:58
And it really doesn’t have to be sort of all wishy washy, super soft. Sometimes self compassion, it can be also encouraging, but basically coming back to this idea that we deserve compassion, everyone, every human being deserves compassion.

Tahlee Rouillon 26:29
I personally am Highly Sensitive, I have a lot of friends who are Highly Sensitive. And I also have family members who are very Highly Sensitive as well. So I’m wondering how can we, as friends or parents or partners, how can we support the Highly Sensitive men in our life?

Tom Falkenstein 26:50
It is really important, for example, if we’re dealing with children, or we have children ourselves or boys, to be, first of all, a good role model to them that it’s okay to be emotional. It’s okay for boys to be emotional. When they feel emotional, can we start talking about it, obviously, everything age appropriate. But I just think that is, first of all really important, so not to shame boys for being emotional or for showing emotions. I’ve got a son myself, he’s quite young, but I do think it’s important to really pay attention to what kind of child I have in front of me. And not to… and I think the same goes for girls but in different ways, obviously… but not to push the boy in a certain direction that maybe doesn’t come particularly natural to him. Not to force them into doing things just because the boy code requires it.

Tom Falkenstein 28:17
And the same for for grown up men. Allowing men to be emotional to talk about it, if anger’s being expressed, to dig a little bit, if possible. And if it is wanted from the men, obviously, to dig a bit deeper, and to find out, because there’s usually another feeling underneath the anger that is much more vulnerable, that needs to be expressed or needs to be talked about. But often I notice that men go into anger and then the more vulnerable feeling underneath is not is not expressed. What else? I wonder whether it is also important for some maybe not to label straightaway, I think, particularly for children, not to label them as highly sensitive. And maybe to describe it more, rather than instantly putting the label on someone. Maybe you’re particularly sensitive to these things, or maybe that is an environment that doesn’t quite suit you or your temperament or your nature or whatever you want to call it. And also to, when they process things deeply instead of saying “Ah, you think too much”, which I think a lot of us have heard from a parent or an aunt or an uncle or maybe it was a grandfather, grandmother… I believe we can also give young boys or girls or teenagers the sense that it’s okay to think a lot. And maybe, as we discussed earlier, maybe there’s some aspects that make it difficult because it’s exhausting, but on the other hand is also a really lovely way to interact with the world and to think about what’s going on for you. So maybe by honoring that a little bit, and by not seeing it just as something negative.

Tahlee Rouillon 30:33
Yes, yes, I think it’s great to really ground that concept in not that it is just a label or something interesting that some people might have or might not have. But yeah, it is very much grounded in the research. And I think you’re right, it is important to be discerning about the information that we investigate, or receive. Yeah, but as you say that there is so much research and a lot to really back up these things.

Tom Falkenstein 31:11
Yeah, absolutely.

Tahlee Rouillon 31:14
Ah, Tom, thank you so much for sharing all of this wisdom with me. Before we end, I would love to know, what are you diving deeper into at the moment, either in business or in life?

Tom Falkenstein 31:28
Parenthood. Diving in at the moment, my son is not even two yet. So the last two years have been quite intense, very obviously amazing, and life changing in other ways, but also very exhausting as it is raising a young child. What I’m diving into professionally… I mean, COVID, made a bit of a change, for all of us changed things quite drastically this year. So I started doing workshops for Highly Sensitive People. Because I felt I wanted to explore that format a bit more, and having workshops on weekends. And I did one in the Netherlands at the beginning of the year, which I really, really enjoyed. And it was sold out. And it was really something that I thought “oh, I really would like to do this again”. I think now with my son getting a little bit older, I’m starting to explore other options of how to take the topic further. So there are some ideas like possibly another book or a research project. Or a podcast, I was asked whether I would consider podcasts, I’m slightly unsure about these things. So I’m slightly sort of processing it… I haven’t made a final decision yet. But these are all options. And what I really dived in this year, thanks to COVID and thanks to my son sleeping through, is reading again. I always loved reading. But this year in particular, I really had the energy and the time again to read a lot. So I’m reading an awful lot this year, a lot of novels, a lot of autobiographies. And that is something I really enjoy at the moment. I’ve not much time at the moment, but I try to make time for it. And I really enjoy that.

Tahlee Rouillon 33:57
Thank you again, Tom. It’s been such a pleasure talking to you.

Tom Falkenstein 34:01
Thank you so much for having me. Should I mention my website or Instagram, just in case your listeners want to read more about it or want to know (if COVID allows it) I will do workshops. I’m not sure whether in Australia anytime soon, although my best friend lives in Sydney, so maybe one day, but the website is HSP minus eu dot com. And Instagram is Tom dot Falkenstein.

Tahlee Rouillon 34:33
Fantastic. And I will put all of those links in the show notes. Thank you for listening to the Seekers’ Sanctuary podcast. I’ve been your host Tahlee. If you’ve enjoyed the music on this show, then you’re going to love becoming a Seekers’ Sanctuary member. You can access hours of calming meditones music on any device with our premium streaming service. Head to seeksanctuary.com for your free trial today. Special thanks to our editor Justin Rouillon for helping bring these episodes to life. Until next time, big love.

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