Big boys don’t cry. Or at least that was what most males of a certain age were told as children. Welling up just wasn’t manly, so we learnt not to, and old habits die hard.
Today, though, there has been a shift. My student son’s generation, shaped by metrosexual role models like David Beckham, is much more relaxed about shedding a tear in public. Yet such positive developments still haven’t prevented widespread talk of late about a crisis in masculinity, and how, in the wake of MeToo, it has become ‘toxic’.
Statistics released today reveal that male suicides rose in 2018 more sharply than any other since records began, with 4,093 men taking their lives, according to the Office for National Statistics, which added that the figure – up 521 from the year prior – might partly be explained by changes in the threshold of proof for suicide verdicts.
‘When I was working in London for four years from 2011, I heard that expression about a crisis in masculinity a great deal,’ recalls Tom Falkenstein, a Berlin-based cognitive behavioural psychotherapist. ‘To be honest, I never took it that seriously, but then I started to notice that, among the young men I was working with, many would talk about how sensitive they felt, and had felt often since childhood, and how much they were suffering because the men around them – their peers, their teachers, their fathers, even their mothers – were telling them that ‘real’ men are not sensitive.’
‘High sensitivity,’ the 39-year-old stresses, is not just a temperamental trait but a precise psychological term – also known as Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) – rather than an everyday catch-all for men who are in touch with their emotions.
There have been, as he outlines in his new book, The Highly Sensitive Man, published recently, clear definitions as far back as 1913 of ‘excessive sensitivity’; Carl Jung, the eminent Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, believed about a quarter of all people – men and women – were born with a particularly sensitive disposition, which then influenced their perceptions and behaviour.
What is new in Falkenstein’s work, based on a professional career that has included two spells studying and practising both in his native Germany and the UK, is his focus on how men in particular handle being ‘highly sensitive’ (a term first coined by Elaine Aron, the American psychologist, in 1991). Or, rather, how they don’t, in what remains a society wedded to macho stereotypes.
‘There is, I know, a lot of discussion of metrosexuals, non-binary roles for men and women, and the availability of paternity leave for men so they can play a bigger nurturing role with their children,’ he says, observing that the reality, however, is rather different.
‘In Germany, 60 per cent of men don’t take up the offer of paternity leave. I am not sure things are really changing for men as much as we like to think they are. And if they are, it is happening very slowly.’
He argues that, among the 20 to 30 per cent of people who recent studies have shown to be highly sensitive, men cope less well than women. In the public arena, he points out, it has been females who have self-identified as highly sensitive, including Nicole Kidman – who has spoken in interviews about how it positively enhances her creativity – and the singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette. The latter has provided a jacket endorsement for Falkenstein’s book, describing it as ‘a breath of fresh air in the midst of a cultural determination to reduce toxic masculinity’.
That, he confirms, is one of his chief aims. Among the men he works with, both in private practice and at the European Centre for High Sensitivity in Berlin, Falkenstein feels that their struggle often boils down to a failure to enact masculine values – stoicism, burying emotions, never asking for help – that they have internalised since childhood. It can, he reports, lead to depression and, in some cases, suicidal thoughts.
‘In men, it has reached such a pitch that it has clear and grave psychological and physical consequences, when it even leads to them dying earlier because they seek out medical help too late or are unaware that they’re even ill, when they won’t ask for help or confide in anyone else.’
In this context, he feels that being highly sensitive in a modern culture already experiencing many pressures of masculinity may be one of the factors why there is a disproportionate number of men, compared with women, who end their own lives.
A major aspect of the growing research into the subject has been to clearly define a set of indicators to identify it – ones that avoid high sensitivity being conflated with what were, until recently, referred to as characteristics of ‘new men’. Falkenstein is emphatic in insisting that sensitivity should never be seen as a ‘psychiatric disorder’, but instead something that ‘runs through life’ as part of an individual’s make-up.
For the same reasons, he corrects me when I start talking about how to ‘diagnose’ high sensitivity. Instead he speaks of noticing indicators in individuals, using the DOES formula. D is for depth of processing, or a propensity to think and reflect deeply about the big questions. O is for overstimulation by the environment or one’s thoughts (for example, when somewhere is noisy or busy, or something is complicated). E is for “emotional reactivity”, pertaining to a profound intuitive capacity for empathy, while S is for (acute) sensitivity to “subtle stimuli”.
Falkenstein says this final indicator manifests in what might seem like trivial ways, but can have a major impact on the individual’s ability to function in everyday situations. ‘A client of mine never wore socks or any kind of clothing that contained nylon or polyester because he immediately felt ‘too hot and unwell’. He also sometimes had trouble sleeping in his apartment because of the noise coming from the street, although his girlfriend at the time hadn’t even noticed the noise.
‘Another client used to cut the labels out of his clothes because he found it ‘unpleasant’ to have them next to his skin.’
All small things and easily overlooked or dismissed, but, he insists, they are also potentially signs of a trait that can shape lives for better or for worse – and too often the latter when it comes to men. Falkenstein wrote the book to raise awareness: for him, the best outcome is that those who currently suffer in silence, ‘thinking there is something wrong with them’, can be directed to taking a series of simple steps to improve their lives. Adjustments, including a greater emphasis on relaxation, learning to tolerate and regulate intense emotion and practising mindfulness, can also help allay high sensitivity.
Rather than men thinking of the trait as something that diminishes their masculinity, Falkenstein suggests that a tendency towards being temperamental is better seen as akin to having fair skin. ‘There are adjustments we make to live with that. The same can be just as true of high sensitivity.’
The Daily Telegraph