Updated: Jun 3
"You need to grow thicker skin." Oh, the amount of times I've heard that. It's just about the most insensitive, yet necessary, advice out there. I don't take issue with the message, at least not the way I've come to incorporate it in my life. It's vital to survival in this world. The delivery is usually done harshly and without validating what the other person is going through emotionally. Asking someone to deny or hide what they are experiencing can be harmful and demoralizing. The message has come in different packages throughout my life. When I was a kid playing in the neighborhood and got tackled by the boys during touch football, because I was a girl, I was told, "Stop crying. If you're going to play with the boys you're going to get hurt." I knew at the time that I was being singled out. I didn't understand why, I just knew that they weren't tacking each other, only me. I could have used some constructive advice on how to deal with the situation. That did not happen. When I tried out to be a cheerleader in eighth grade, and the then current cheerleaders were pointing at me and laughing during tryouts because I was missing my two front teeth, the woman in charge said that she knew those girls and there's no way they would have been doing that. She was not present when it happened. No adults were. I was asking for an opportunity to try out again for her, instead of the girls that were making fun of me. I received the message loud and clear. It was all in my head and I needed to get over it because she wasn't going to do anything about it. Slowly I learned what I needed to do to survive emotionally in specific situations as they arose. For instance, I stopped playing in the neighborhood and spent most of my time inside with my grandma. When my teeth became an issue, I blocked out the name calling. "Toothless," was the taunters favorite. I learned to stop my facial and body reactions when someone called it in the school hallways. Then, when I became a cheerleader in High School and our Varsity Football players would sit in front of me in the stands at away games and point and laugh, I would smile and cheer like they weren't making fun of me. These emotional band aids helped for those situations. I wasn't learning actual healthy coping skills that I could apply broadly, just small fixes for incredibly specific circumstances. Those fixes included hiding myself or denying my emotions to make sure others did not hurt me. As an adult I've encountered some incredibly unhealthy people. Even within my family. When I spoke to an elder in my family about sexual assault from another family member, I was told to forgive the person and that I should have no problems being around them myself, or allowing my children to be around them. Similar message from my childhood. Different delivery. As though setting boundaries to protect myself and my children was being too emotional about the situation. "Toughen up. That was a long time ago." Then, as I was recovering from Domestic Violence, I was told by many people to have, "thicker skin." "Stop letting that person get to you." Recovering from Domestic Violence (and Sexual Assault/Trauma of any kind) is a topic for another post. For now, I'll just say that it's not as easy as just "getting over it." It takes focused, concerted effort for long periods of time to truly recover from the booby traps and lies they embed in the psyche. As I tried to force myself not to react to continuing abuse, I started beating myself up for not being able to just let the actions and words, "roll off my back." It's those feelings of inadequacy and rawness that inspired this piece. I often wondered how I could have thicker skin when I barely felt like I had skin at all. I felt completely exposed. Mind, body, and soul. Like every nerve, muscle, organ, cell was right out there for anyone to contaminate and hurt. In order to fake having thicker skin I tried to be emotionless. That was a disaster. I ended up making myself physically ill. By trying to board up my deep emotional well I was denying my true emotional self. I am incredibly fortunate to have a therapist who has extensive knowledge and practice both with survivors and perpetrators. She helped me understand that it wasn't about not feeling. Emotions come and go. Emotions have their own path. My body, mind and soul are going to react. That reaction is not "bad." It is not anything other than a natural reaction. How I choose to move forward with that reaction is what I have control over. This was the key I needed to unlock long term healing and understanding. I'm not weak for having a PTSD episode from a trigger. That is not weakness, it is a built in safety mechanism from our early ancestors. I am not weak for crying when I'm hurt. It's how I choose to use that natural reaction in my life that will either harm me, or others, or help me heal. So, now when I hear, "Toughen up," or "Grow thicker skin," or "Just let it roll of your back," or, "You should be over this by now," or, "Why is this still affecting you," I change the meaning of those statements to something healthier for me. In fact, those statements only helped push me further into shame and anxiety. Now, I know that I will react. I will react in a major way sometimes. I don't have to act on that natural reaction or assign blame or harm to it. I can let it run its course and use my many coping skills to stay as healthy as possible while it's trying to protect me from further harm. It's a chemical reaction in my body. I'm not worried about it. Sometimes I will be raw. Sometimes I will have thick skin. I will always be me. How do you allow your emotions to work in your life for a healthier you?