Blog Short #40: How to Develop a Thick Skin
Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday, I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you. My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!
Growing up, I was overly sensitive to criticism of any kind. If people didn’t like me or said negative things about me, I was easily embarrassed, humiliated, or hurt. As a result, I did my best not to attract negative feedback to avoid those feelings. Eventually, I had to come to terms with this problem and develop what’s known as a “thick skin.”
Having thick skin is usually defined as being able to handle criticism, negative feedback, and even insults or personal attacks without getting overly emotional or reactive. It means taking rejection in stride without going off the deep end, and not letting it stop you from pursuing your goals.
The Costs of Being Thin-Skinned
Being sensitive has its benefits, but when it comes to dealing with criticism, it has some real costs. These three stand out.
#1 Losing your individuality
Thin-skinned people tend to focus on “being liked,” which in truth is more about avoiding being hurt. You feel accepted, loved, and worthy when people like you. You get some protection from the emotional fallout that comes with criticism and rejection.
But, to keep that “liked” status, you have to manage how you present yourself to fit what you think others want.
The problem is that it’s impossible to be liked by everyone, and hanging your self-esteem on how people respond to you keeps you perpetually vigilant and anxious to please.
There’s a big cost: You can lose your individuality. Instead of being your authentic self, you present some version of you that doesn’t reflect who you really are.
#2 Retreating from growth, creativity, and self-improvement
Growth happens when you stumble, fall, and get back up again. If you want to evolve, you must endure failure and setbacks. They’re necessary! You can’t get around that.
Part of doing that is being open to constructive feedback, which helps pave the way toward the growth you seek.
The issue is that feedback, especially critical feedback, can be painful. And it seems to come more readily when you pursue something creative, especially when your work is up for public consumption.
You might create a power-point presentation for a meeting, a written blog (like this one), a graphic design, or a new method of organizing the flow of work at a company. In all these cases, you’ll likely get some sort of critique, sometimes positive and sometimes negative.
Anytime you put something out there, you’re exposing yourself to criticism. If you aren’t thick-skinned, you can find yourself paralyzed and your creativity stunted.
#3 Increasing opportunities to be exploited
Needing to be “liked” or “approved of” sets you up to be taken advantage of more often. You go above and beyond to be helpful, receive praise, be indispensable, and be accepted. People quickly learn this about you and exploit it. You become a magnet for those who are needy and manipulative.
How to Develop Thicker Skin
Even if you are super sensitive, you can develop thicker skin. Try these six things:
#1 Know the difference between criticism and feedback.
Feedback is meant to help. It’s constructive and objective. The focus is on content and behaviors rather than personal characteristics. The goal is to challenge you to rethink and make improvements. Everyone wins!
Criticism is personal and tears you down. It can be malicious, competitive, shallow, rejecting, and highly subjective. One of you wins. One of you loses.
When someone dives in to give you their two cents, ask yourself if what you’re hearing is feedback or criticism. Your answer will help you decide whether to consider it and use it or ignore it and let it go.
#2 Identify your triggers.
Not all criticism feels the same. Have you ever been in a situation where someone gives you a pretty good verbal shot, yet you’re unfazed? It just rolls off your back and doesn’t go in?
Other times, even a hint of disapproval or reproach electrifies and shames you. You replay it over and over in your mind, and no matter how hard you try to dismiss it, it keeps coming up.
When you react highly to criticism, identify the trigger. By seeing it and understanding where it’s coming from, you can tone it down and put it into perspective.
#3 Don’t personalize everything.
Criticism is often more about the person launching it than the one receiving it. Genuine feedback is worth hearing because there’s no motivation other than to help.
Criticism is personally driven. Very often it’s a projection, or a displacement of someone’s negative emotions, or envy, or a cover for insecurity. It’s a defense mechanism that feels like a put-down or a one-up to the receiver.
Keep some emotional distance between you and what you hear, even in the case of feedback. Allow yourself to let it settle and decide what’s worthy and of use to you and what’s not. A good way to do that is to not respond right away. Tuck it away and rethink it later.
#4 Dismiss trolls.
Trolls have one objective: to spew negativity and instigate conflict. When the deliverer of criticism is nasty, hostile, malicious, condescending, and provocative, dismiss both the darts and the dart-thrower.
#5 Use feedback to energize your efforts.
Extract the helpful information from feedback and put it to use. Even with criticism, it’s good to pull out any kernels of truth you can use minus the personal hits. Thick-skinned people are good at this. You can get good at it too. Just practice keeping your cool while listening for those little gems that will help you improve.
#6 Use your expectations as the measure of your progress.
Feedback is essential, but ultimately the measure of where you are and where you need to go should come from you. Seek outside feedback to help you clarify what’s going well and what needs changing, and then use it to plan your next steps.
Never use feedback as a commentary on who you are or how well you perform. Feedback is an aid to move you along, not a measure of your success or worth.
That’s my list! If you have any tidbits of wisdom to add to the conversation, please comment below so that others can learn from your experience.
Happy Monday, and have a great week!
All my best,
PS – If you want to read more about being sensitive, check out The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron.