By Elayne Savage, PhD
How does it feel to be encased in thin skin? Hurt feelings? Overly-sensitive? Taking things personally? Easily triggered? Overreacting to perceived slights?
Does it mean retreating and nursing the hurt? Or becoming sullen? Or vindictive? Or blaming? Or lashing out?
The medical term “thin skin” describes skin that becomes thinner as we age —it loses its protective layer of cushioning and becomes fragile.
And yes, thin skin bruises easily . . . just like feelings. It only takes certain actions, words, a look or a tone of voice. Perceived slights just don’t roll off our back easily.
I’m hearing from colleagues, friends and clients about how recent White House behaviors and attitudes are bringing up painful family and school memories of criticism, insults, accusations, taunts, teasing, blaming, baiting or manipulating.
“Hearing about the discord in the White House, I’m realizing how chaotic and divisive my family life was. Mother would pit my sister and me against each other — driving a wedge between us and keeping us from being a united front against her. Each of us would compete with each other, trying to win her favor. ”
And another reaction:
“My mother would complain about one child to the other turning one against the other. I think her need was to get one of us to side with her and bolster her narcissism. She seemed to have a need to instill guilt in us. Over the years we learned to protect ourselves: One of us stopped speaking to her, and the other went to therapy to drop guilt from our repertoire.”
I know all about thin skin – I’ve lived in it most of my life.
When I was little, if someone looked at me funny I’d cry. I took about everything personally.
If I thought someone was upset with me I’d replay the last few days in my head. I’d pull out my ‘checklist’ of possible “offenses” and go over them in my mind, one at a time. And then once again.
When we were little we were probably hurt by words, looks, or tones of voice – whether they were intended or not. And we carry these cringe-worthy sensitive feelings into our adult years.
Finally in my late 30’s I realized how much my over-sensitivity was causing problems at home and at work. I knew I needed to make some changes in how I dealt with the people in my world:
- I decided I wanted to stop these knee-jerk responses when my feelings got hurt.
- I wanted to not revert to childish behavior when I got upset.- I wanted to have my embarrassments just be embarrassments instead of turning into shame.
- I wanted to stop acting like a petulant child, lashing out when I felt unsupported or betrayed.
- I wanted to acknowledge my part in something and not be so quick to blame others.
- I wanted to stop brooding/fixating/dwelling/stewing/ruminating/agonizing about so many perceived slights. I’d be obsessing about what someone did or said –– or what they neglected to do or say. And go automatically into my painful mental checklist mode. This incessant dwelling and fuming sapped my energy and my productivity and left me depleted.
I especially wanted to better understand my thin-skinned challenges and begin to choose to do things differently.
The opportunity presented itself when I started psychology graduate school in my late 30’s. They encouraged being in therapy as part of the program.
I couldn’t find a therapist who understood my rejection challenges. “Poor Cinderella,” my first therapist would say to me.
There were no ‘self-help’ books out there on rejection or taking things personally. Not one! I realized how badly I needed this book, so I began to write Don’t Take It Personally!
I learned a lot writing this book. My therapy and consultation clients, workshop and book tour audiences have been amazing teachers.
“Nah Nah Nah Nahhh Nah”
Let’s talk about ways we protect ourselves from the hurt of rejection.
Some of us puff ourselves up which looks like bullying behavior. To not feel so inadequate, we inflate ourselves by diminishing others.
Sometimes we try to make someone ‘bad and wrong’ Or we give messages of, “If you are not for me, you are against me.”
Sometimes these perceived slights morph into perceived enemies, even becoming suspicious of others' intentions.
Sometimes we become vindictive or vengeful. Sometimes we rant or throw a tantrum or lash out.
Sometimes we flail out in a desperate attempt to protect ourselves.
Sometimes we accuse others of the same behaviors we have done ourselves. (More about projection in a future blog.)
It’s as if we are putting our thumbs in our ears wiggling our fingers, sticking out our tongue and taunting “nah nah nah nahhh nah."
Two Great Tips
• It helps to put things in perspective by repeating:
"This is not about me.
This is most likely about the other person.
They are probably talking about themselves.
What might they be saying?“
• Too often a situation in the present reminds us of an experience from the past.
Can you create some distance by reminding yourself to separate the ‘then’ from the ‘now’ so you don't find yourself taking things so personally?
More on what it feels like to have thin skin, how we try to protect ourselves and lots more tips on what to do about it in an upcoming e-letter/blog.
Do you have something to add or a story to tell?
© Elayne Savage, PhD
Elayne Savage is the author of ground-breaking relationship books published in 9 languages.
You can order books and CDs directly from my website:
I welcome your feedback as well as suggestions for topics you'd like to see addressed in this e-letter.