For many of us, our skin bruises easily. A snide remark might send us reeling. A negative email might ruin our week. A critical evaluation at work might make us rethink our entire career path.
For many of us it’s as though we’re walking around with a first-degree burn, and every comment and potentially negative situation just adds fuel to the fire.
When you have thin skin, life’s inevitable blows don’t just trip you up; they can feel like a bulldozer.
According to Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and professor in Pasadena, Calif., “If you’ve had skin ripped away — [because of] trauma — or never developed thicker skin [because you were] sheltered from adversity – you’ll experience every bump and sharp point with excruciating precision.”
Howes described thick skin as “the ability to adapt and roll with changes and challenges common to life, as well as the ability to bounce back from particularly difficult times.”
Fortunately, even if your skin is paper-thin, you can do several things to make it thicker. Howes shared the following valuable suggestions.
1. Nurture your relationships.
“Strong connections with a core group of friends and family give us the support and encouragement to withstand challenges,” Howes said. It reminds us that we’re not alone and all of us struggle. “Receiving as well as giving assistance helps us know we’re all in this together,” he said.
2. Find meaning in your life.
“Whether it’s relationships, a cause, a life goal, or a set of moral standards, [resilient] people have a ‘big picture’ perspective that keeps them from sweating the small stuff,” Howes said.
3. Prioritize your self-care.
“When you’re worn down emotionally or physically, even minor stressors feel like a major setback, so healthy self-care routines are protection against that,” Howes said. He also noted that making healthy lifestyle choices reminds you that you’re a priority.
Self-care can include: nourishing your body with nutrients; participating in physical activities; getting enough sleep; and practicing positive coping strategies, such as yoga, meditation and therapy, said Howes, who also pens the blog In Therapy: A User’s Guide to Psychotherapy.
4. Accept and rehearse the positive.
“When adversity inevitably comes your way, past victories and affirmations work as a great protective armor,” he said. Unfortunately, many of us are great at putting ourselves down. Criticism seems to come naturally, while compliments and victories are dismissed and forgotten, he said.
This is where rehearsing comes in. Keep photos or tokens of your accomplishments, Howes said. For instance, have your graduation photo clearly visible or pin a medal from your half-marathon or poetry contest in your office. Journal about your victories and positive feedback, he said.
If your inner critic is particularly harsh, create a daily affirmation based on your positive qualities or compliments you’ve received, he said. “Pick a time each day – [such as] while brushing your teeth or driving to work — when you’ll tell yourself all the positives.”
It also helps to look at a photo of you and your loved ones to remind you of your support, Howes added.
5. Determine the deeper wound.
Sometimes the reason someone’s comment hurts or a situation seems unbearable is because it reminds us of a deeper wound from our past.
“When you can identify that original injury, you can distinguish between then and now,” Howes said. “When you can see that it’s a different scene with different people, it doesn’t sting as much.”
(By the way, “The fact the old wound still hurts is good ground for you to cover in therapy,” he said.)
For instance, your iffy work evaluation might remind you of unfair criticism from your dad, he said. Or not getting invited to happy hour might remind you of not being picked for a game on the playground, he said.
According to Howes, “We really can’t avoid the rough times and jagged edges in life. If our emotional skin is thick enough to handle it, life is less painful.”
Thankfully, you can work at developing thicker skin every day. You still might lose your footing, but you’ll catch yourself or at least you won’t break a leg.