On Having Thin Skin

I’ve heard it a lot throughout my life; that I can’t let things get to me so much. There are all different ways this idea has been expressed to me…

“You have to grow a thick skin.”

“Who cares what other people think?”

“You need to care less.”

“You can’t let that stuff get to you.”

“Don’t think about it.”

“You need to have a healthy disconnect.”

As I move into motherhood, this notion of caring less is going to be spouted at me more and more. While my husband will likely receive praise for doing the most menial of parenting tasks, I will likely experience more judgment than I ever have before. People tell me, “You’re going to be judged no matter what you do or don’t do” so… “You can’t let it get to you.”

But there are a few factors that make this much easier said than done. When people tell me not to care, or not to worry (the other frequently heard refrain in my life), they might as well be saying, “Just speak Korean.” It’s a totally foreign concept to me. I care. A lot. About other people, how they are doing, the terrible things people do to one another, the suffering of others and yes, what other people think of me. This is a trait that pumps in me as much as my own heart does. So it’s not going to change over night.

And it depends too on what the judgment at hand is. Some things I can let go. I don’t know if my husband and I will have more than one child and I’ve read that this is apparently a choice to be judged. For me, that is the kind of decision about which judgment matters less. I can let go others’ criticism with a shrug of “it’s not any of your damn business.” That laissez-faire attitude is very unusual for me. And it’s one that more easily exists when people throw metaphorical stones at choices that require me to challenge fewer of my own insecurities. As I mentioned in a previous post if I care for myself or focus on myself and am called selfish for it, that is an insult/judgment which can leave me gutted. Logically, I know that I must take care of myself. But my own personal history as well as societal gender norms have left me feeling that everyone else (literally- no, not figuratively, literally – the whole world) must be attended to before I can attend to myself. And when you think about that, really think about it, is it any wonder that I care so much about what other people think about me? What am I here for, if not to please others? Of course, I recognize that this belief is not helpful for me (or anyone) nor is it possible. I know I can’t please everyone. I know that if you try to make everyone happy, you make no one happy. But just like speaking Korean, letting go of this is not a skill I will develop overnight. It will be developed and honed all my life.

The other thing is how much of this do I want to let go? There I said it. Yes I want to let go of my perfectionism, my insecurities and my people-pleasing ways. And believe it or not, I have already shed many layers. But sensitivity and caring about others? Especially the latter. I mean, in this world, do we really need less care for others?

I understand that there is a balance. When people tell me to find “a healthy disconnect,” they don’t mean stop caring altogether. They just want me to not be so consumed by empathy that I’m left severely traumatized. Which is, well, a logical and healthy hope for someone else. But I’m just not that way. The more social work I do, the more I hear, and sometimes see, I never waver in my intensity of emotions for others. While awful things seldom surprise me, they continue to shock me. The way I think and feel about so much injustice in the world may lead some to think that I am naive or inexperienced with such matters. But nothing could be further from the truth. Violence is not normal and all its forms and impacts continue to shake me to my core.

And that’s not a bad thing, you know? I don’t want that to change. And… isn’t it possible for me to both decrease how traumatized I am without sacrificing how much I care?

I think so. I can change the way I cope with all that I’m exposed to, whether its the trauma of violence and/or disaster or harsh criticism. And how I personally (and successfully) cope is not going to involve a decrease in care or a healthy disconnect. It will involve validation and self-compassion. Reminding myself that I am exposed to a lot and it’s okay to be deeply bothered by it. That the terrible things that happen to other people are not okay but how I react to such things is okay, provided I’m not hurting myself or others. That I can respond and not react and that I have the right to my feelings.

I have already begun to change how I cope and these sentiments are what help ground me amidst stress and trauma. They help me heal and grow. There is still a long way for me to go. But trusting myself is key and I trust myself to know what is right for me. That last part is evidence in and of itself of how I have grown and am continuing to grow. And I trust that this way of coping will help me through parenthood. It’s okay to be bothered by people thinking you’re not a good mom. It’s awful to be insulted in such a way. I mean, how many women are actually bad moms? Not very many. So it is unfair that so many women are made to feel this way. And we have the right to feel however we need to about this grave mistreatment. And we have the right to demand better societal treatment.

I’m going to end with a disclaimer: I wish I could say I never judge others. But that would be a lie. I have made a commitment to being less judgmental and that has had some real, positive results. In my pre-motherhood days, I have been a good mom-ally. I tend to be more curious and open towards other people’s choices that differ from my own. But sometimes I judge people. This especially comes out towards people who are highly judgmental themselves. I have very little tolerance for this. But at the end of the day, this isn’t helpful. Yes people need to be accountable for the ways they mistreat or disrespect others but being judgmental seldom serves as an accountability tool. So I try to attend to myself when I’m set off by the judgment others. I validate myself so I can cope and so that I can respond in a way that feels helpful and healing.


Arundhati Roy, author of one of my favorite quotes.  (Image is Creative Commons Attribution – Share Alike 2.0 Generic License, author jeanbaptisteparis)

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