Can a hypersensitive person grow a thick skin?
September 18, 2011 6:36 AM   Subscribe

Is it possible to grow a thick (emotional) skin?

My biggest character flaw is my hypersensitivity, and I've often been told I need to get a 'thick skin'. My sensitivity is particularly a problem in professional settings.

My question: how do you 'get a thick skin'? Have you 'gotten a thick skin'? Is there some kind of procedure/lotion (j/k about the lotion)? Where do thick skins come from?

Just to drill into what I mean by 'hypersensitive': I'm a bit emotionally labile, very easily upset, readily stressed and overwhelmed, preoccupied by what people think of me, hypervigilant of other peoples' reactions, prone to ruminating on situations, convinced most (if not all) acquaintances hate me until proven otherwise etc. On very dark days I wonder if my personality or temperament is just broken. I know my sensitivity makes me very difficult to deal with, and ultimately I'd like to not be a chore to be around or work with.
posted by nerdfish to Human Relations (20 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Could you give a specific example or two? For instance, your co-worker said _____ and your reaction was _____?
posted by John Cohen at 7:04 AM on September 18, 2011

Remind yourself, constantly, that not everything is about you. Not everything that you take as a slight is personally anti-nerdfish. You don't necessarily know what's going on with the other person or why they are in a bad mood, but unless they make it really clear that they are mad at you specifically, odds are that's just how they are today. Really think as to whether or not someone is being deliberately offensive to you before you go off the handle.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:17 AM on September 18, 2011 [7 favorites]

My hypersensitivity is based around my own ideas of self-loathing and how I believe that I'm a terrible no-good person. It's as if my brain goes around sniffing for evidence that someone else believes I'm awful and at the slightest hint of it, it goes: "YES. See! You really ARE awful. Blahblah gave you a funny look when you said hi! This is proof that you're a terrible human being. It would be best to just stop interacting with that person completely because they so clearly hate your guts."

I know that these things aren't true. I know the funny look was them being tired, or probably preoccupied with something else. Yet it hurts just the same because of that one moment where their weird look reaffirms the negative thoughts I have about myself. It was really helpful for me to notice that THIS is what was actually going on. I could see myself reacting in this hypersensitive manner and I knew it was my brain doing some bullshit reasoning to keep me feeling bad about myself.
posted by joeyjoejoejr at 7:30 AM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

My thicker skin came from being more and more busy so having less time to ruminate on what others think. Also from promotions at work meaning I had to at least look fairly confident - the fake it until you make it thing. Also over the years realising most people are not terribly interested in people they don't know well, so even if a colleague briefly thought something negative about me they'd forget about it fairly soon. These are not quick fixes but do mean that you're likely to develop a thicker skin over time.
posted by paduasoy at 7:48 AM on September 18, 2011 [8 favorites]

If this is about work, then you need to start believing that the people you work with are professionals and are acting like professionals. Criticism or critique is not a slight against you as a person. Take criticism as a tool for growth. Also, I agree with jenfullmoon- not everything is always about you.
posted by TheBones at 7:58 AM on September 18, 2011

To me, growing a 'thicker skin' has two parts to it. The first part is being self-confident and comfortable/happy with yourself. Your post alludes to the fact that you do not like yourself, so you need to work on that. Self-acceptance is your best friend. The second part is realizing that everyone is human, makes mistakes, and that people have better things to do than sit around worrying about what you are doing. I think a lot of hypersensitivity happens when people are wrapped up in themselves, thinking that everything is about them (as others have said).

I have a very good friend who is extremely hypersensitive, and a co-worker who is hypersensitive as well. Both people are exhausting to deal with. The co-worker has come to my office crying 3 or 4 times, convinced that the world is against her and that it's just unbearable. My friend calls me, crying about this person saying this or that about them. I remind them both that the world doesn't care. Really. The world will continue on, regardless of flailing and gnashing of teeth and crying and such. I also remind them that these people 'involved' with the situation don't really care, and have other things like their own lives to worry about.

Remind yourself that you are a good person but the world does not revolve around you, and relax! Your description of yourself sounds exhausting! Focus on yourself while reminding yourself that you are a small part of a greater whole, and shift your focus away from obsessing about what others think.
posted by bolognius maximus at 8:15 AM on September 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

"Where do thick skins come from?"

1) Get older.

2) Stop thinking so much about myself and thing about other people/things. (Which is also the basis of etiquette -- not what would be most comfortable for you, but what would be most comfortable for others. Which turns out to be a really good way to go through life.)

3) At work, have a "work persona." That way conflicts at work aren't about ME, they're about Work Me, who I live inside, but who is like a costume or a shell. That way things sting when they hit my shell, but they don't penetrate to my soft and gooey insides and I don't sob (very often) at work. Work Me is calmer, less reactive, thinks more before speaking, etc. Work Me is much better at stepping outside a situation and being detached and thinking like an outside observer. At my first couple higher-pressure jobs, I would literally remind myself I was acting (like an actor) and that today I'd be acting in the role of someone mature and competent who doesn't burst into tears about things. It helped. Now it's second nature.

4) It's okay to cry sometimes. It's not okay to cry all the time, but if on a rare occasion you end up crying from stress or anger, or you get violently shaky from nervousness, or your voice cracks with emotion, it is not the end of the world. Most people are pretty sympathetic. So don't feel like you have to be PERFECT at keeping control.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:14 AM on September 18, 2011 [23 favorites]

Try looking at yourself as a third party. Is that person a bad guy? Is that person blowing minor criticisms out of proportion? Are they taking things too personally? Are other people being too harsh on that person?

Don't beat yourself up over things you wouldn't beat someone else up over.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:35 AM on September 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

It's not you, it's your monkey brain. Your monkey brain is afraid of being kicked out of the tribe, so it dissects every real and potential social interaction so that you will either make sure you know exactly what you did wrong, so you don't do it again, or for an interaction in the future, you go over every possibility as closely as possible to make sure you are 'ready' for it.

I know from experience that neither of those things are ultimately satisfying, and if you think about it you would probably agree.

The important thing to keep in mind is that your hypersensitivity is not You. It is a very common disease you have (evaluation anxiety), and your disease disrupts your ability to act like you know you would act if you didn't have these overwhelming feelings all of the time.

We who have this problem are unlucky, but by learning as much as we can about it and monitoring it closely, it can be destroyed.

When you have these feelings, you aren't failing. When you have them, say to yourself "This is my anxiety speaking." Fail to be tricked by it, that's what you should fail at.
posted by TheRedArmy at 10:01 AM on September 18, 2011 [6 favorites]

Sometimes I amuse myself by pretending that all the elements of my personality are characters in, say, a spaceship.

Hypersensitivity is a little monster with pigtails (I have an elaborate drawing of her, in my head), who at every passing of an asteroid throws a tantrum, screaming "we're all gonna DIE!!!!"

The other elements of my personality roll their eyes at her. And a more mature aspect of myself shoulders her out of the way and takes the helm.

However, my therapist suggested that I treat my frightened inner child with patience and gentleness - she represents part of myself that needed reassurance and kindness, as a child, and did not receive it. So I've been trying that lately.

I'm not sure which works best yet :)
posted by bunderful at 10:48 AM on September 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

Art school critiques turned me from a fragile-egoed shrinking violet into a walking, talking callous. Here's what I learned the hard way:

1a. Valid criticism is never a personal attack.
1b. Personal attacks are not criticism, and can be safely disregarded as the inane bleatings of a total jerkwad.

2. Valid criticism MAKES YOU BETTER!

3. Valid criticism points out something you'd neglected to consider, and makes a suggestion that, if applied, might result in an improvement.

4a. If, after sober reflection, you feel such a suggestion would not result in an improvement for some reason, state that reason to the person who suggested it. This may result in more 3, in which case, lather, rinse, repeat as desired.
4b. If, after sober reflection, you feel such a suggestion would result in an improvement, apply it!

5. BETTER! (Or, if it's worse, your psyche gets to blame someone else, resulting in less I-can't-do-anything-rightness. Invaluable!)
posted by Sys Rq at 11:25 AM on September 18, 2011 [6 favorites]

+1 for bolognius maximus' post, I can relate very well to bm's first paragraph.

(was trying to write my experiences here but it came out a bit confused sounding so...)

I grew my "thick" skin after accepting who I am; someone who just does not fit in with the pack. A lone wolf. And you know what, just being who I am and accepting all my foibles, embracing them even. This brought me contentment, peace, a thick skin, and sometimes, happiness :) I've noticed that when my mindset of myself changed, so did my world and my worldview.

Explore yourself, change what needs to be changed for the better not because of wanting to fit in, but because it will be a better you.
posted by TrinsicWS at 11:29 AM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I second the increase of activity and directing your energy outwards to minimize these tendencies.

Also, I find it helpful when I realize I'm ruminating to say- well, for some reason I am playing this recording in my head, ie repeatedly telling myself something negative, it's on a loop and I can choose to stop this pattern of thinking. The more i do this the better I am at just nipping these cycles of negative thought processes in the bud.

It takes time to get out of a loop of feeling sorry for yourself, but the more you push against it the more you come to effortlessly see that negative take on reality is quite skewed.
posted by abirdinthehand at 12:09 PM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm an only child (and was also something of a late bloomer), and so I think in a lot of ways, it took me much longer to develop a "thick skin" than a lot of other folks. I'm 25, and I think it's only in the last year or two that I can handle things that otherwise would have really crushed me not too long ago (even then, I can still be very easily hurt by things, I just handle it better in public).

One thing that's helped has been realizing that when someone snipes at me, it's really about them, and probably has absolutely nothing to do with me. They're probably going through some dumb ass personal drama and just taking it out on me. Then, depending on how I feel about that person, I either privately pity them or think up fun ways that I'd insult them if there was no such thing as a social contract.

Also, if you ever get to spend time being around someone who's more sensitive than you... it'll put a lot of your own behaviors in perspective, and possibly give you an impetus to make some changes. I have the really common problem of crying when I get frustrated or angry. I still do this at home very often, but I've managed to significantly reduce how much it happens at work. Partly it's because I have a coworker who has this problem 10,000 times worse than I do. And I hate so much feeling like I have to step on eggshells around her lest she otherwise burst into dramatic tears, that it's motivated me to make sure I never make someone else feel like that way around me. So now if I feel the tears coming on at work, I excuse myself to the ladies room until I can calm down and resume things on an even keel.
posted by mostly vowels at 12:34 PM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I grew a thicker skin by shutting down emotionally from about 10 years old to 35 years old. I do not advise this since eventually there will be a reckoning. There are plenty of good ideas up-thread.
posted by deborah at 2:47 PM on September 18, 2011

I grew a thicker skin by developing my sense of humor, especially the self-deprecating wit that protects me when I'm in a situation I don't have control over. I've become very good at going for the joke about myself, which disarms people and puts them at ease and kind of on my side.
posted by thinkpiece at 3:22 PM on September 18, 2011

See this question I asked a while ago. The advice has worked, for me! I haven't cried in the office (or out of my home) EVER SINCE.
posted by Marduk at 8:54 PM on September 18, 2011

Sorry, my husband didn't log out (gr). I posted the question. He's a metal krieg man and never cries in the office, or at home!
posted by Tarumba at 8:59 PM on September 18, 2011

It also is sometimes less about thickness and more about environment and personal boundaries. That is, there are some contexts in which emotional sensitivity and vulnerability are important and healthy, and some where they're not.

Let's say you're in customer service and some stupid customer is tearing you down because they don't like being told they can't have what they want. They are treating you like a tool, not a human being. In those contexts, it helps to keep your emotions at a distance. Basically, shut them off. Put on a plastic smile, if you must, and basically pretend that they aren't making their comments about you because really, they aren't. They're making them about your work avatar which just happens to float right exactly at your surface.

When you get home, go ahead and take off that avatar and hang it on a hook, to be put on the next time you go to work. At home, and here I'm assuming you either live alone or with a supportive friend or partner, feel free to be your "thin skinned" self again.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:30 AM on September 19, 2011

Holy crap. Exactly what Eyebrows McGee said, sorry for not reading the thread. :)
posted by Deathalicious at 6:31 AM on September 19, 2011

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