How do I develop thicker skin and learn to take teasing gracefully?
March 8, 2011 6:40 PM   Subscribe

How do I develop thicker skin and learn to take teasing gracefully?

I'm an introverted person and have always had general anxiety in social situations. Over the years I have improved and can generally act like a well-rounded person but certain situations still trip me up.

When somebody teases me or makes some judgment about me, especially if it is unexpected, I have a strong physical reaction. I feel my heartbeat speeding up and my throat constricting. It's like one of those dreams where you realize you're not wearing any pants. My mind blanks out and I can't articulate any sort of response. I either end up looking upset and saying nothing or make a forced nervous laugh.

Rationally, I know they're only teasing or that their judgment doesn't matter. I probably give the impression that I'm overly serious or I can't take a joke - and the truth is, I physically can't.

I end up ruminating about the event, my own reaction, and how it must have been perceived for days on end. Retrospectively I can think of exactly how I should have responded - I know I need to be laid back, take it in stride, etc. But it never seems to help me the next time it happens.

I have the same involuntary reactions whenever I have to unexpectedly interact with somebody I dislike. I can be perfectly happy, joking around with friends, but the moment somebody I dislike walks up, I tense up and feel my face getting serious. Rationally I know this looks bad and will only make interactions with this person worse - but I can't physically control it. (Most of the time I have no real reason for disliking most of these people other than that they triggered a similar response in me before).

If I know in advance that I have to deal with someone I dislike or that I'll be teased for something, I can mentally prep myself for it and rehearse what to say or how to act. It's the unexpected events that get me - by their very nature I can't prep for them.

How can I grow "thicker skin" so to speak and condition myself to be less sensitive about these things? How can I train myself to respond gracefully? Is it just something that comes with age? (I'm in my early twenties).
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I've found that in situations like this, the easiest way to diffuse this reaction is to laugh. It takes the tension away and lets you refocus for that critical 5 seconds that you need to put the remark or the unexpected person in context. Once you've done that, you can look at the situation rationally and recognize that whatever it is, it should just roll off your back.
posted by Leezie at 7:01 PM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I recommend the book Mindsight by Dan Siegel. He talks about how to understand your emotions and emotional reactions so that you can experience your emotions as separate from you, rather than as overwhelming the way you describe. I have found it super useful for this sort of thing.
posted by rosa at 7:32 PM on March 8, 2011

Being able to make fun of myself has helped a lot. Sometimes I do stupid or ridiculous things for no reason. Sometimes I look like a bumbling idiot despite my best efforts not to. It doesn't make me a bad person. It's just part of being human.

If something catches me off guard and I feel myself going into crazy thought mode like "Oh my god, why did Bob make fun of my shoes? What's wrong with my shoes, these are perfectly fine shoes. I can't believe the audacity..." I stop myself and just focus on putting my feet on the floor (literally grounding myself). I focus on the sensation of that for a split second. It brings me back from that intense physical/emotional reaction pretty consistently.
posted by joeyjoejoejr at 7:34 PM on March 8, 2011

If someone teases you, just look them in the eyes and say in a clear voice: "Please don't tease me."
posted by ovvl at 7:39 PM on March 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Obviously it depends on the severity of the teasing, but often light teasing is just the other guy's effort at making lighthearted conversation. He or she isn't really making any comment about you at all, but rather just trying to get a laugh or ease into a discussion. So in some case at least, it's really not a big deal.
posted by gabrielsamoza at 8:06 PM on March 8, 2011

If you're aware that this is your involuntary physical reaction to this kind of circumstance, you can use that awareness to your advantage.

So here's what's happening now.

Someone teases you -> you tense up -> you feel yourself tensing up -> you say, "I'm upset!"

Note that the tensing up is, as you've described it, an involuntary and immediate response to the teasing. The part where you can't figure out how to respond and laugh nervously, that all comes afterward, when you've already experienced your physical sensation and interpreted it as extreme distress. This last part is the key - most of your distress is coming from the way you're interpreting your physical reaction. Now, how about this instead:

Someone teases you -> you tense up -> you feel yourself tensing up -> you say, "oh, my body seems to be tensing up the way it sometimes does in this situation. Isn't that interesting."

The trick is to view this kind of involuntary, bodily reaction as something like an allergy, or a reflex. It may be unpleasant, but it doesn't have to mean that things are terrible. With practice, you might be able to observe yourself having this reaction calmly, without panicking.
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:16 PM on March 8, 2011 [6 favorites]

Here is what most of us learned from our older brothers - Steer into the skid. If you're getting ribbed about something there is probably a little kernel of truth but not a whole pound. If it was a whole pound, the kind of people you probably hang out with wouldn't tease about it.

Steer into it, accept that it is happening and try to realize that it is them trying to build a bridge with you. My friends tease me for being too detail oriented and mock me without mercy, but I know that what they're really doing is accepting my quirks with my best traits. Nobody is perfect, and your friends are showing you that they see your flaws and they love you despite them.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 8:28 PM on March 8, 2011 [6 favorites]

If you find yourself having a really unusually strong response to these kind of scenarios, another way to get around the problem could be to try something like a beta blocker for a short time to do an end-run around that physiologic response. Once you don't have the instant physical stress reaction, you might find it easier to become more accustomed to these situations like some of the other commenters are suggesting. I was a skeptic going in, but they help my stupidly irrational, heart-racing phone interview phobia more than any other method I've tried (besides delirious levels of sleep deprivation, which isn't particularly professional).
posted by deludingmyself at 8:33 PM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Laugh. Ignore it. I find teasing annoying unless I know the person really, really well. It can be misinterpreted pretty easily unless you have a good rapport already. E.g. I had known someone for 6 months and during this time thought they hated me because they would rarely speak to me and then when they did they were brusque. I thought, fair enough, and kept to myself. Then suddenly they started teasing me and I wasn't sure whether they were being serious or not - I mean, I thought they hated me. Turns out, this person was trying to build rapport with me. Suffice to say, it took me a long, long time to actually realize they didn't hate me. Sometimes even now there's a lingering feeling that they do really dislike me, even though I can see evidence that they don't. So, unless you do actually have a really, really good relationship with someone, I'm not a big fan of teasing.

The second thing, in my experience, is usually indicative of something more unconscious. You might need to do some psychoanalysis on yourself.

Generally, though, nobody is perfect, you should not feel you have to be perfect in all social situations, and social situations can be and are often uncomfortable. You don't actually have to like someone teasing you simply because you feel you should and you don't actually have to like everyone - hell, you can even voice your displeasure at someone and their actions. It's okay.
posted by mleigh at 9:59 PM on March 8, 2011

"Oh yeah? Well I had sex with your spouse!"

I think there's a couple things happening here: the heartbreak of staircase wit, and maybe not having a catch-all response when things like this happen (and they will). Feel free to keep archaic stuff like "Well I never!" and "What'd you call me?" in your back pocket, stuff like that is always good for a chuckle. Release the tension before it takes over by uncorking an easy-to-remember chestnut. There are so many repetitive aspects of dealing with strangers, coworkers, and others that it's natural to just build up a repertoire of pat responses, for positive and negative.
posted by rhizome at 3:14 AM on March 9, 2011

I had the same problem when I was your age. It does get easier with time. There are two points worth mentioning. You must be very careful not to tease people yourself, which is sometimes a natural reaction to being teased. If you do it, then you are giving permission to other people. The other point is that your sensitivity comes from insecurity, well at least mine did. What is helpful is to own your insecurity, which means to be able to tell people that you are insecure. This works best when done privately, not in a public group situation.
posted by conrad53 at 5:25 AM on March 9, 2011

In my family, they say "If we aren't picking on you (southern for teasing) we don't love you."

Would it help to know that in general people tease folks they like?
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:48 AM on March 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Is the teasing more flirting, friendly joshing, or bullying? Because you could practice with friend you're comfortable with, picking it up and returning it (or letting it pass, in the case of bullying teasing). If you sometimes tease friends (in a friendly or flirty way, I'm assuming), then you already have the skills, and you might just need to practice
  • breathing (to let the body reaction pass)
  • grinning (changes your body reaction, and signals the other person that you're about to return the serve in kind, and buys you a couple more seconds to decide how you're going to do that), and
  • dropping a funny or unexpected line, maybe one that twists the tease in an unexpected direction.
That will break the tension, and once you're used to doing it, it gets to be fun, and a (personal) challenge to come up with quick quips - funny ones, unexpected ones, or risque ones, according to the situation and your own inclination to be conservative or outrageous. Have fun with it!
posted by TruncatedTiller at 6:44 AM on March 9, 2011

Part of this is cultural, I find. I react the same way as you do to teasing, anon, but then, I was raised in a family that didn't use teasing as a way of relating to one another. Teasing was something bullies did to me on the playground, not something family members did. When someone teases me now, it sparks the fight or flight response. I have to remind myself consciously that I'm not being attacked.

Could something like that be at the root of your reaction?

The only thing that helps me is being around people I trust who do tease me, gently. Because I trust them, I'm slowly breaking the mental link between teasing and bad experiences in my past.

My suggestion to you is to inoculate yourself. Find someone you trust, who will tease you ever so gently. Get you used to the idea, so that you can work on your reactions to it.
posted by LN at 6:57 AM on March 9, 2011

As a person who is exactly like this myself, my best piece of advice is do everything in your power to not let on that you're particularly bothered by teasing, and especially do not ask people to stop; they will latch on to your weakness and you will be an easy and frequent target, forever.
posted by tehloki at 7:38 AM on March 9, 2011

There are two traditional upbeat responses to teasing:

A: Wow, your mishap is hilarious!
B: Yes! I have such funny mishaps!


A: Wow, your mishap is hilarious!
B: Not as funny as yours! Your mishaps are twice as hilarious!

For example...

A: Ha ha, your hair looks like you got stuck in a bush.
B. I know! Every time I go out in the wind I get this clown hair, it's ridiculous! I don't know why I bother brushing it at all.


A: Hey, you'll never get a date if you go around wearing stuff like that the whole time.
B: Ah, I can change my clothes whenever I like, but it's a shame you can't stop looking like a horse's ass! Ha ha ha!

If in doubt, and if the accusation is true and not too scandalous, just laugh and agree.

If you are standing and staring for no good reason, pretend you didn't hear, and ask them what it was they said again?
posted by emilyw at 8:25 AM on March 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Ragged Richard had a good idea about turning the emotion into something to think about - analyzing the tensing/physical reaction. Another thing to try to think about is not how you feel, but what the person teasing you is feeling/thinking. Why do you think they picking on you, where are they coming from? Are they trying to get a rise out of you for some personal gain, or amusement of others around them? Or are they trying to connect on some sort of inside joke? If you can distinguish between friendly teasing vs. bullying, you can try to learn how to appreciate the jokes from the friends and just feel sorry for the bullies.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 9:30 AM on March 9, 2011

Why should you always be expected to take whatever people feel like dishing out to you? Where does teasing end and disrespectful bullying start? It's a slippery slope. When someone teases you, there's often a kernel of hostility or insecurity on their part; a desire to ease some sort of tension by putting you on the defensive and "cutting you down to size". Getting others to laugh at some third person can also a strategy for gaining dominance.

In other words, don't resign yourself to always being the grinning-chimp doormat everybody picks on. If you show them you won't stand for it, people eventually get the idea and stop.

I don't think there's anything wrong with treating others with respect and expecting that they'll do the same. If you don't respect me, fuck off and leave me alone.
posted by aquafortis at 1:56 PM on March 9, 2011 [6 favorites]

For the record, my friend and I tease one another constantly. Actually, I only tease people I like. I think emilyw gives two great templates for reacting. You could always do what my friend Howie does when he gets too high to think of something clever. He just purses his lips and shrugs his shoulders in a "these things happen" sort of way. I hope your teasing is not the bullying teasing. I think learning to tell the difference between the two is half of your battle.
posted by Foam Pants at 1:05 AM on March 10, 2011

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