science of us

How to Get a Thicker Skin

Photo: Loomis Dean/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty

I’ve been thinking a lot about thick skin lately, both as something I want for myself and something I want for others. Recently a number of celebrities have made statements or songs that critique their critics simply for being critical, and one of the main targets has been bloggers, which hurts my feelings. I am just a person trying to do my job, and I am not making nearly as much money as Taylor Swift while doing so. I also sympathize with Taylor and Ariana and Miley and Lizzo and maybe even Olivia Munn. Receiving criticism is unpleasant, and it’s almost humanly impossible not to respond with anger when we do, which is something I learned from this amazing book I read recently, which I am not nearly done raving about.

In this book — Why Won’t You Apologize? — the author, psychologist Harriet Lerner, approaches conflict from all angles, and one of those is from the side receiving criticism. This is something almost nobody is good at, Lerner writes, which I find reassuring. It’s also an unavoidable part of life. “The only way to avoid criticism is to sit mute in a corner and take no risks,” says Lerner. “If you live courageously, you’ll experience a lot of criticism.” This is not to say that every action that garners criticism is “brave” — if you live stupidly, you will also experience a lot of criticism for that. But it does mean, I think, that to express any honesty, and to visibly work through one’s ideas, is to elicit criticism. So now you know it’s coming no matter what; all you can control is how you respond.

The normal, human response to criticism is defensiveness, and while defensiveness always serves to add fuel to the firestorm, I find it comforting to know it’s everyone’s first instinct. There may be degrees of thin-skinnedness, yes, but none of us is tough by default. In recognizing defensiveness as our impulse, says Lerner, we can (ideally) stop it in its tracks, which is necessary to move the conversation in a positive (or even neutral) direction. “Defensiveness blocks us from seeing ourselves objectively,” she says. “So it’s normal, and universal, but it’s the arch-enemy in success in family, friendship, and work.”

When we listen defensively, we basically zero in on only those points we don’t agree with — the least fair, least accurate parts of the criticism, which we can then highlight as proof of the critic’s wrongness. Lerner says the way to get around this is to listen to criticism with the primary intent of understanding only. “This means no interrupting, defending your position, or correcting facts,” she explains. If you must, treat it as a personal challenge to find something in the criticism you recognize, and give that part precedence, whether you respond or not. Many critiques, if not most, says Lerner, will be shrouded in exaggerations and inaccuracies, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing there.

Some criticism we receive will have a kernel (or two) of truth to it, and some won’t have even that. It’s that latter group that I hoped to become inured to — this group I have in mind when I say I want to grow a thicker skin. It’s okay (and good) if fair criticism hurts me, although I don’t enjoy it; it’s the totally unfair kind I want to be able to let go. But Lerner says she sees a lot of clients (mostly women) who similarly label themselves thin-skinned, and she challenges them/us to rethink what “thick-skinned” means.

“There’s a really strong cultural myth that if you have good self-esteem and a solid sense of self-worth, then you won’t care what other people think,” says Lerner. “That’s simply not true.” Lerner refers to the aspirational tough guy we have in mind here as a “James Bond type,” and she insists he isn’t worth emulating. If you’re not affected by what other people think, she says, that means you’re disconnected from both those people and yourself. To be an authentic, openhearted person, she says, you have to care at least a little. In fact, being “thick-skinned” could be interpreted as just another form of defensiveness.

Okay, so: If growing protective scales is not a healthy option, what are we supposed to do if we don’t want to be kept awake at night by one mean thing a stranger once said about us? Lerner suggests working on our self-worth (heh), employing a metaphor I’ve come to find exceedingly helpful. “I picture every person as standing on a platform of self-worth,” she says. “If it’s a big, strong platform, then we will handle criticism very well, because we can look out and view our mistakes and our worst behaviors as part of a much larger picture of who we are as human beings.”

If, by contrast, our self-worth platforms are narrow or rickety, every piece of criticism flung our way threatens to topple us because we view it as too definitive of who we are. Building this platform isn’t easy — in fact, Lerner says, it’s a lifelong task — but it’s been helpful to me to visualize it, to imagine laying bricks, where each brick is, like, a good thing I’ve done, or a meaningful compliment from someone who matters to me. Maybe this could be the new aphorism: Instead of imploring ourselves to grow a thicker skin, it’s reminding ourselves to build a bigger platform.

How to Get a Thicker Skin