Do You Need Thicker Skin?


Recently I received a critical comment on some work I had done. Actually, the comment wasn’t even about my work. It was about me.

I also got plenty of positive comments about my work. But no matter how much encouraging and helpful feedback I received, it’s the one mean comment that played over and over in my mind.

When I think about it logically, I know that I don’t need to dwell on that one negative comment. One person, who doesn’t even know me, saying unkind things about me doesn’t define who I am.

I know this is a criticism I don’t need to take to heart. It does not come from someone who cares about me and wants the best for me. It does not offer me any constructive insights on how I can improve. It doesn’t even come from someone for whom my work was intended.

I know there is no reason to take those words personally. There is no reason to let them bother me or impact the work I am doing.

And yet, they still sting.

I tried for a while to remind myself that I shouldn’t care what that person thinks of me. I told myself I should be able to hear criticism without being hurt. All the while, the focus on trying to not care just made the critical words echo all the more loudly in my mind.

Finally, I realized that I was trying to force myself to have a certain emotional experience. It was time to change my approach. Instead of telling myself how I should or shouldn’t feel, I acknowledged how I did feel. I was feeling hurt, discouraged, and indignant…and that was ok.

I switched from self-criticism to showing myself compassion. Once I felt seen and comforted I was much more ready to take what lessons I could from the experience and move forward with my work. That doesn’t mean I’m completely over the negative comment, but I can feel the hurt and not let it stop me.

There are people who seem to have an easier time taking the information from criticism without dwelling on the personal sting, but I don’t think anyone is completely unaffected by harsh words.

I’m quick to see my sensitivity as a weakness, but I’m learning that it’s actually just a different way of being and perceiving. I’m learning that instead of trying to force myself to be someone I’m not, I can find ways to work more effectively with who I am.

Part of who I am is being easily impacted by words. As an INFJ , I tend to be a little more sensitive to criticism, especially if I think my values are being called into question. My primary love language is words of affirmation, particularly the encouraging words dialect. I mean it when I say that a comment or email from you makes my day.

It only follows that if words can do so much to build me up, they also carry a lot of power to tear me down. I can’t have one without the other.

Honestly, it’s not just the unkind words that hurt me. I’ve had wonderful bosses and teachers who care about me and value my work tell me all the ways I’m doing well. Then, when they gently mention an area for improvement, I feel that familiar sting.

No matter how much I genuinely want the honest feedback that will help me improve and grow, it still hurts to hear a way someone has noticed I’m less than perfect.

And you know what? That is totally ok.

I can feel the hurt and survive. I can feel the hurt and not let it stop me in my tracks. I can hear unkind criticism and feel hurt while remembering that another’s words don’t define me. I can hear the gentle nudges toward improvement and appreciate that someone cares enough to help me see my blind spots, while still acknowledging that it stings.

I’ve thought that I need thicker skin, but what I really need is to develop resilience so I can feel the pain without letting it keep me from what matters. I don’t need to learn how to numb my feelings. I do need to offer myself compassion when I’m feeling hurt.

I don’t have to pretend I don’t feel hurt. I also don’t need to wallow in self-pity or get caught up in devising ways to prove the other person wrong. I can see my pain and acknowledge that this experience is hard. I can comfort myself like I would a good friend. (Kristin Neff’s work is a wonderful resource for learning more about self-compassion ).

When you feel hurt by critical words, no matter how well-intentioned, try giving yourself compassion. Remind yourself that it’s ok to feel hurt. Everyone does sometimes. You can comfort yourself through the pain and still choose your next steps. The point isn’t to become immune to pain but to avoid staying trapped in the hurt.

I’d love to know…how do you experience feedback? Do you ever criticize yourself for feeling more hurt than you think you should? What happens if you choose self-compassion instead? I’ve often believed I’m the only one who feels so sensitive.