All my life I’ve been told I need to grow a thicker skin. Whether it was being excluded from the neighborhood game of tag, or the bully who yelled and spit on me in middle school. The solution was always to “grow a thicker skin.”
Let me tell you from experience. A thicker skin was not what I needed.
By the time I got to college, my highly sensitive self was tired of feeling tossed in a sea of other people’s emotional baggage, so I tried on a “thicker skin.” I moved throughout my days with my defenses up, able to deflect anything that was lobbed my way.
I didn’t just let negative interactions bead up like sweat and roll off my skin, I tossed them aside. I threw them away. I squashed and stomped on them. I demonized individuals (and institutions) and I walked around with a massive chip on my shoulder.
My thicker skin may have “protected” me from feeling pain, but it also made me numb and unapproachable.
Obviously I took this advice to an extreme. But even today, nearly two decades later, I would argue that maintaining a thicker skin is actually a detrimental move — for ourselves and our society.
Instead, I think we need to find a way to better humanize one another. We need to find a way to walk the tightrope between empathy and personal boundaries.
Because here’s the thing: even when someone acts horribly towards us, more often than not, it has way more to do with their unresolved baggage than any offense we’ve made against them.
This is not to say we should allow people to treat us poorly, or that we shouldn’t reflect and apologize when we’ve hurt someone.
We have to find a way of taking care of ourselves while also recognizing that everyone is dealing with their own internal demons.
We come to our relationships pre-loaded with narratives we’ve been sold — be it for self preservation, or less noble reasons. Regardless, it’s our job — our obligation — to sift through those stories and clean up our side of the fence so that we can come to relationships self-aware enough to be, both together and separate, in a way that allows everyone the space to be who they are.
I realize it’s one thing to write about this sort of thing. It’s an entirely different thing to put such an idea into practice. And that’s where things get interesting… and messy. As the old adage goes, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.”
Growing a thicker skin keeps us from feeling the pains that are inevitable in life, but it also prevents us from building deep and intimate connections with others.
Suffering is a part of life, but we can wade through these discomforts a bit more aware (and hopefully a little less painfully) if we can tease apart the fibers we use to spin stories of judgment, self-depreciation, or even arrogance.
Taking an honest look at our messes can be intimidating. It can be lonely and overwhelming. But if tackled little by little, with the ever-present knowledge that we will come out the other side better than when we started, it is possible to thrive in this broken world without a thick skin.
At the end of the day, thick skin or not, we’re all just trying to figure this life thing out. Maybe if we focused less on trying to grow a thick skin, and more on cleaning up our side of the fence, we can come together, eyes wide open to the compassion and kindness that dwells just below the surface and start again.
Be good to one another, and to yourself. After so much turmoil and suffering this past 12 months, there’s not a soul on this planet that doesn’t need some extra TLC.