In Praise of a Thin Skin (And How To Keep It From Derailing You)

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When I first launched my career as a writer, I heard the phrase “thick skin” a lot.

“You have to develop a thick skin to handle rejection.”

“Criticism comes with the territory; if you’re thin-skinned, you won’t make it in this business.”

This worried me, because I’ve always been “thin-skinned.” I’d just learned how to hide it.

My mother was a crier: anything from a sad song to an offhand comment could set her off. She was also emotionally erratic and depressed, so for years, I equated displays of emotion with weakness and instability.

My dad, on the other hand, was a model of reserve, and I found myself emulating his cool exterior and stoicism…even when I was crumbling on the inside.

So while I spent my elementary-school years crying over everything from scraped knees to mean teachers, by junior high I’d developed a talent for making my face go blank when embarrassed or sad.

As I got older, high school and beyond, I often coped with difficulty by making a joke out of upsetting situations.

The truth was that I was afraid of strong emotion, and actually practiced detaching from it.

And eventually, it worked. As a young adult, I’d experience a sort of delayed reaction to sadness or anger: when something bad happened, at first I’d just feel numb.

Later – sometimes much later – in the privacy of the shower or during a vulnerable late-night moment, I’d start to grow angry or sad or afraid, but by that point it was sometimes difficult to identify exactly where those feelings were coming from, or link them to a particular event.

Not surprisingly, this led to a lot of fights with my husband that weren’t really about the thing I thought we were fighting about at all.

That’s all changed over the last decade, though. In fact, I seem to be losing my ability to suppress my feelings…or maybe just the desire to try.

At some point, I think I realized that the same part of me that allows me to really embrace happiness and enthusiasm is the same part of me that cries at commercials, and that I can’t truly experience one without allowing the other.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m naturally pretty laid-back. I still tend to react slowly to news, I still don’t like to argue or confront people, and I still use humor to get me through hard times.

But the more difficult feelings I avoided in my teens and early twenties seem to have risen closer to the surface, and have become harder to tamp down or cover up.

I cry easily now: watching commercials, listening to songs, talking about the people I love, when I feel misunderstood or regretful or embarrassed. When I get angry, I can’t help but speak out. I’ve become impulsive with physical affection around the people I like and admire, and in some situations, have even become the same kind of “hugger” that used to make the younger me uncomfortable.

Yup, I've become...A Hugger.
Yup, I’ve become…A Hugger.

It’s as though at some point a switch flipped in my brain. I feel all the feels, not just the ones that don’t make other people uncomfortable.

I’m not exactly stumbling around in public sobbing with mascara dripping down my face, but I feel like at any moment, under the right circumstances, I could become that person and everyone else would just have to deal.

Of course, old habits die hard, and there is still a big part of me that’s embarrassed by the fact that I get choked up with emotion on the Small World ride at Disney World, or while talking about something that matters to me, and of course, at every single conference.

Overwhelmed by an inspiring person’s presentation, I frequently find myself unable to stop the tears from rolling down my face (this is also the moment I always ask myself why I chose to sit at the front of the room, where I can’t even semi-privately sob into my scarf or slink out the back door.)

So what does this have to do with being thin-skinned in business? Well, the part of me that feels embarrassed when I cry in public is the same part of me that worries when criticism of my work hits me hard.

It feels like weakness to allow a stranger’s opinions or slow book sales hurt my feelings. After all, I’ve been in this business more than ten years; surely by now I should have developed the kind of “thick skin” that would allow me to just let disapproval or failure roll right off of my back, right?

But that hasn’t happened. And while individual rejections don’t bother me as much anymore now that I understand the business better, that doesn’t mean it ever gets easy to deal with the thought that my work hasn’t made the cut or my ideas aren’t wanted.

Throw a critical comment or failed negotiation into the mix, and it’s easy to feel thin-skinned indeed.

Here’s what I’ve learned, though, during my recent metamorphosis from stoic to sensitive: being thin-skinned isn’t a bad thing.  In fact, I’ve learned to embrace it.

The way I see it, a thin skin keeps you close to your work. It means you care. It allows you to connect: with people, with ideas, with the collective consciousness.

Being open is scary, but it allows you to connect, too.
Being open is scary, but it allows you to connect, too.

I’ve come to realize that it’s not a thin skin that’s the problem: it’s allowing yourself to be derailed by your feelings rather than working through – and with – them.

So here are the strategies I’ve developed for facing fear head-on, dealing with rejection and criticism, and kicking butt at business and life…even if you aren’t thick-skinned:

1. Come Up With Workarounds.

When I first started freelancing, I was sending dozens of query letters (that’s how a writer pitches an idea to an editor) a week, which meant I’d often receive several rejections in a single day. Since I knew that the first read-through of the rejection would often hurt the most, I developed a system: I’d slowwwwly scroll through the first few lines of the email to get a feel for its contents. As soon as I read the words “I’m sorry,” or “Unfortunately,” I’d immediately shut the email and give myself 24 hours before reading the whole thing. By that time some of the initial sting would have worn off, and reading the editor’s reasons for rejecting my idea would feel a lot less torturous.

If there’s an activity you have to do regularly that triggers all your emotional buttons, try coming up with a workaround that lets you deal with the task in a way that’s gentler to your psyche.

2. Stay Active.

A mean comment or lackluster product launch will feel like the whole world if you don’t have other things going on to distract you. So keep a lot of irons in the fire. If a potential client falls through, it’ll feel a lot less earth-shattering if you’re in conversations with several others. If your product isn’t selling as well as you like, roll that nervous energy into coming up with a new marketing plan. If one reader hates you, connect via email with three of your biggest fans. Doing something productive is the best way to counteract the anxiety that comes with experiencing failures.

3. Give Yourself Breathing Room.

Thin-skinned people have a habit of obsessing over failure. We keep returning to that exchange we had and wondering what we could have done differently, we obsess over disappointing sales numbers or stats, we wonder if that mean commenter was right, after all. It’s natural to fixate a bit, but do yourself a favor and limit the amount of time you’ll spend worrying about those critics or analytics or whatever is upsetting you right now. Allow yourself to wallow for 30 minutes – set a timer, if you have to – and then return to tip #2 and do something productive. 

I truly believe that a thin skin can be an asset, rather than a liability, in our lives and work. If you’re thin-skinned, what are some ways it helps you be a better person or do better at your work?

Lead image: MarLeahJoy at Flickr, under a Creative Commons license. 

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  • Kathy Weir

    You’ve taught me something here. I was very thin-skinned. I can remember being yelled at for crying at my grandfather’s funeral. I couldn’t help it. Why didn’t other people cry? My grandmother cried and her crying made me cry.

    I never got to the point of being able to control this consciously as you did and as my kids did at a young age. I am still getting into trouble. Just wish I had the hugging part of it but that Aspergy thing stops me.

    Something I discovered. If you don’t process your emotions, your memories actually become foggy. I remember everything but my kids can’t. They stuff it so deeply that they can’t recall much or very clearly. Glad you kept enough memory to be aware of what happened to you so you are able to describe how it is done.

    Maybe I can stop crying on chemo day.

    Sorry that you had to learn that skill.

  • Anderson

    Thank you!

  • I love it when I read something that makes me realize, “hey, this is me!” and finally have a way to articulate some aspect of my personality. Number 3, especially, is great advice for me. Thanks!

  • I can so identify with this! After struggling with PPD, I’m just starting to understand my subconscious habit of stuffing emotions deep down inside instead of allowing myself to feel them. You’re exactly right–you have a hard time feeling the good stuff if you don’t allow yourself to feel the “inappropriate” or embarrassing emotions, too. Isn’t it funny how this can originate from family members who are demonstrative? My older sister very much was and now my husband is. So I’m learning how to allow myself to feel right along with them instead of assuming the role of the rational, level-headed comforter and problem-solver. Thanks for providing tips for dealing with a thinner skin and the encouragement to embrace it.

  • Have you heard of mirror nuerons? That’s probably why you cry at commercials, you must have a lot of them! That’s why most babies cry when they hear other babies cry, even though they don’t really understand the pain of others (or so the theory goes, I believe). Mirror nuerons create that empathy response, and it’s a good thing! We wouldn’t be such a communal species otherwise.

  • Aw geez! We’re both a couple of boo hooers! We’re in BIG trouble!