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The Case Against Telling People to Have 'Thick Skin'

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As a writer who has worked in Hollywood, I often hear people offering this advice: “You need a thick skin in order to make it in this business.”

A “thick skin” is supposed to ward off the bad feelings that go along with rejection, which is a job hazard I live with on a daily basis. Anyone who stretches beyond a comfort zone is prone to hear it in their line of work. Some people say it to absolve themselves of responsibility for saying things that hurt people. Some people say it because they heard someone else say it, and never really thought about what it means. There are plenty of scenarios that are tough to deal with, but I reject “thick skin” as a solution, along with the notion that I need to be anything different than who I authentically am.

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I have the opposite of thick skin, literally and figuratively. Every lady-scented body wash stings. Every clothing tag prickles. Sounds are often too loud. Lights are often too bright. Emotions are overwhelming. I am, by definition, and in every way, a highly-sensitive person.

Some days are more challenging than others, but I embrace my sensitivities, because they are valuable assets. Being highly sensitive means I am always tuned in. I pick up on nuances of speech and facial expressions that others miss. I’ve been a quiet observer of people my whole life, and I’ve gained insights which help me write about topics which are difficult to express. I am intuitive and often anticipate the needs of others. My relationships are intimate.

I write for highly sensitive reasons. I believe in the power of stories to heal culture, and I believe we live in a culture that desperately needs healing. We need people with insight who feel things deeply to help point the way toward a sense of interconnectedness and spiritual wholeness. My sensitive nature is an invitation to others to share their vulnerabilities, too. When we are collectively vulnerable, we are collectively seen, heard and understood. A thick skin can’t do any of that. All a thick skin can do is repel. There’s nothing brave about thick skin. You know what’s brave? Feeling heartbroken and choosing to try again.

There are few people who are actually good at having thick skin. The rest of us are faking it. People who are narcissistic and abusive struggle with empathy, and they wreak havoc on everyone else in their wake. It’s true that their lack of feeling helps them to persevere in the face of rejection, which is often why they succeed in competitive settings. People who are narcissistic often make sensitive people the target of their aggressions, because sensitive people possess the human connections they lack. The question I pose here is this: why are we pointing to “thick skin” as a solution to what ails us when the only ones who benefit from it are those who abuse us?

Instead of trying to be more tough, I propose we all try being more authentic. Feel your feelings, even the hard ones. When something hurts, acknowledge it. Do what you can to nurture yourself. Have some compassion for your own humanity. Hold space for your own beating heart. Believe that the world has room for you, and refuse the notion that you can’t be accommodated as you are. High sensitivity and trauma histories are often linked. When we embrace our sensitivities, we are also reprogramming neural pathways which heal the parts of ourselves which have been insufficiently loved or nurtured.

Rejection is inevitable, but let’s stop catering to mindsets that reward narcissistic behaviors. As a culture, we need more empathy, not less. We need to feel the softness of human touch, not more hard plastic surfaces. Especially in a time where quality human connection is reduced, highly sensitive people carry solutions that might just save us all. Let’s make some sensory-friendly room to receive them.

Getty image via Ponomariova_Maria

Originally published: July 8, 2020
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