Guest blog, “Does this work for me?” written by Tom Falkenstein, psychotherapist and author reflects on the publication of his book “The Highly Sensitive Man”
On a rainy evening in London in Spring 2015, I decided to write a book about highly sensitive men. Although only a little over five years ago now, it feels to me like a completely different time – before Trump, before Brexit, before the rise of populism in politics across the USA and Europe, before Covid-19.
I had learned about the concept of high sensitivity and the research behind it in 2013 and felt that, although the topic of sensitivity came up regularly in my sessions with my male clients, it was not a topic that was reflected on bookshop shelves at all. I struggled to find a single book that focused on men and sensitivity.
Despite Elaine Aron showing that gender had no effect on the likelihood of being highly sensitive, almost all of the books I could find about high sensitivity were written by women and seemed to address first and foremost the female reader (the late Ted Zeff’s wonderful book The Strong Sensitive Boy being the much needed exception). So I decided it was high time that someone wrote the first psychological guide for highly sensitive men.
Although focused on men, it is a book that I hope female readers also find helpful and I am delighted when I get emails from women who have read the book. Inclusion has always been extremely important to me in every aspect of my life and it also applies to my writing and my therapeutic practice. I really struggle with the whole “us versus them” notion when it comes to gender. So although it is a book that focuses on masculinity, sensitivity, and tools for emotional regulation, it is of course also a book for you, no matter whether you identify as male, female or non-binary.
I was hugely lucky to quickly find a publisher here in Germany who was keen to publish the book, though a few other publishers did turn down my pitch on the basis that men won’t buy a book about high sensitivity. This assumption, I’m glad to report, turned out to be wrong.
What followed was just over two years of research, interviews and writing, while still working as a psychotherapist in London and Berlin, before the book was first published in Germany in 2017. Swedish, Dutch and English translations followed then and, while it’s been no Da Vinci Code, the sales figures have exceeded both my expectations and those of the publisher. I mention this not as a big pat on the back, but in the hope that more publishers in the future will take risks with books that might appear to go against gender stereotypes and normative thinking. We desperately need more books that focus on male identity and masculinity.
The Promotion Problem
What I didn’t think about when I chose to pitch The Highly Sensitive Man was that, once the book was finished, it would need promoting. And this is where things became more challenging for me. Being introverted and highly sensitive, I found the research and writing part of the whole process very enjoyable and relatively easy. I always loved writing, even as a child. I remember being so engrossed in writing The Highly Sensitive Man that at one point I suddenly realized I hadn’t left the flat for three days! But when the book was first published in Germany and my publisher suggested doing some readings and interviews with journalists, I couldn’t think of anything worse. Somehow I had naively thought that my work as an author was done when I handed over the final manuscript.
In my opinion, it is helpful in my job as a psychotherapist to be relatively private and it is something that comes easily to me as I am a private, but not secretive, person. The idea of public attention is not something that I find particularly appealing as I’m quite content with the level of attention I get from my loved ones. Having attended many book readings over the years and having spent considerable time in the company of other writers, I know that, for those who are introverted, highly sensitive in temperament and sometimes shy, this very public aspect of their job is often very hard for them and can even be disadvantageous in their careers. Why do we expect writers to also be performers these days? I suspect there is a reason why they chose a relatively solitary profession in the first place and I often find myself feeling frustrated on their behalf.
So how did I deal with the requests for promotion? Simple: I said no to everything. Readings, interviews, invitations to speak at events. I just didn’t do any of it. Although I knew I could do it (I had some experience in public speaking and had run therapeutic groups for several years) and felt flattered by the interest in the book, I also knew that I would find it overstimulating and exhausting.
This inner conflict felt like a dilemma to me. I also – again naively or idealistically, depending on your point of view – liked the idea of the book speaking for itself, it slowly finding its readership over the years without me plugging it relentlessly online or at events. At the same time, this could be the only book I ever write, so I also wanted to enjoy the process of being a published author and not turn it into something that felt like a chore. I’m usually someone who likes a challenge and a goal in life, but I also liked the idea of giving myself permission to deliberately stay in my comfort zone when it came to publishing my first book.
Taking My Own Advice about Self-Care
After about six months of saying no to everything, my thinking shifted. First of all, I started getting some feedback from male and female readers who had read the book and loved it. In addition, the book was well reviewed and foreign publishers started showing an interest in translation rights. Suddenly, I almost felt as if the book was becoming a person and I was the parent. I realized that if I didn’t cheer it on and support its way into the world, no one else would. Allowing myself to feel some pride about the achievement of having written and published a book and starting to get a sense of how important the book and its topic was to some people, also shifted my perspective. All of the sudden, I wanted to leave my comfort zone – at least intermittently.
In the book I write about the importance of self-care, not just for HSPs, but for everyone (again, trying carefully to avoid the “us versus them” paradigm), to set firm boundaries with others, to say no more often, to ask yourself the important questions: “What do I need?” and “Does this work for me?” Instead of just saying no to all the invitations I received, I started applying these questions to the whole promotional process.
What did this look like practically? Well, for example, I asked journalists to meet me in environments that I felt comfortable in and that weren’t too busy. Because I find Zoom/Facetime/Skype video calls quickly overstimulating, stressful and never feel great afterwards, I turned these into telephone conversations or written interviews via email. I did join social media reluctantly, but decided to use my Instagram profile mainly for recommending books and connecting with readers. When I was invited to go to Sweden for a promotional trip, I asked whether I could stay in a hotel of my choice, where I’d stayed before, had a peaceful atmosphere and great, HSP-friendly lighting. And I still allowed myself to say no to a lot of offers, unless I had the hunch it would give me some pleasure or would seem like a challenge, I felt ready to face.
These examples might not seem that significant to some, or pretty obvious to others, but to me they felt like important moments of personal growth and they gave me a sense of control over the whole process. Instead of turning away completely, I found a way that worked for me and my temperament.
Finding Your Own Balance
My point is that, if you’re highly sensitive and you also find yourself in a situation that doesn’t really suit your temperament, ask yourself what you need and whether the situation really works for you. If not, maybe there is a way to change certain aspects of it to make it more enjoyable and less overwhelming for you.
Also ask yourself whether there is perhaps a relatively small but significant part of you that enjoys the challenge, that enjoys leaving your comfort zone from time to time. If so, brilliant – we can find and honor this part in ourselves too. If not, though, don’t be afraid to say no. Give yourself permission to do so. No one else will do it for you. It sounds so obvious and yet it is so easily forgotten.
Tom Falkenstein is a psychotherapist and author based in Berlin. His book The Highly Sensitive Man is out now.