How to shed your thin skin and improve personal and professional relationships
I grappled with the idea of writing and publishing this for quite a while. It’s not a feel-good post. It’s a bit in your face, depending on the kind of person you are, and it’s about as direct as anything you’ll read today. But it’s not without purpose.
That’s it for the disclaimer and the brace-yourself introduction. Let’s get to it.
You’ve got thin skin. Or you know thin-skinned people. You or they can’t deal with the slightest criticism, and the moment you hear it, the gloves come off. You’re reading this, because it’s possible that you’re concerned enough that the title of this post is true and you want to face the problem and figure out how to change.
If this is accurate, keep reading. There’s some hacky advice here, based on my own experience as a reformed thin-skinned person.
That’s right, I used to come unglued the second I thought someone was denigrating me or my work or even suggesting that I might be wrong about something. I was one of the most thin-skinned SOBs you’d ever meet.
When I was a classroom teacher, my short temper and defensive nature impacted my teaching and, unfortunately, my students and colleagues. I was sometimes even brusque with parents who had the audacity to question my methods. Once, in an email to a parent, I wrote, “How much experience as a classroom teacher do you have? I’ve got over a decade’s worth!” Ouch!
Why was I like this? What purpose did my anger and sarcasm serve? Sadly, it took a long time for me to ask these questions, and questioning your own personal makeup is the first step to realizing you have a problem with thin skin — at least that’s how it was for me.
Answering the second question was easier than answering the first. Why a person is defensive, angry, and willingly abrasive is an issue with deep roots.
My own are too far-reaching to cover here.
When you finally explore the benefits of thin skin, you quickly realize there are none.
For me, lashing out at a student who questioned me only eroded our relationship, and in most cases the individual would shut down. When a colleague argued that homework was necessary, I shouted that the research was on my side. Upon reflection, I realized that this didn’t lead to change in pedagogy; it only damaged an important collegial relationship. Being rude to a parent in an email led to a complaint to my principal, which brought other repercussions.
So what are the benefits of being thin-skinned? None. Unless you consider damaging relationships beneficial.
It took me the better part of a summer to come to grips with why I was like this and even longer to truly change. There are several attitudes, I’ve found, that make up the psyche of thin-skinned people. Consider if you have any or all of these attitudes.
You feel betrayed
We have preconceived ideas about how friends, or even close acquaintances, should treat us. And the moment they do something we question, we feel betrayed.
I have a huge following on Twitter, and I share my friends’ content liberally. Sometimes, though, I may disagree with or question something they share. I’m never rude about it; I usually just question their ideas or propose an alternative of my own. I’ve had some good-natured arguments on social channels, and most of the time, they end cordially, and we live to argue another day.
Once I contended in a tweet that a longtime friend had missed a key point in an article he wrote for a well-known education blog. The tweet was pretty benign, praising his overall work while suggesting that X is an overlooked strategy. Unfortunately, when publishing the tweet, I failed to consider what I call the “thin-skin-factor.” The blogger was so incensed by my tweet that he reneged on a promise, saying he no longer wanted to be associated with me. We’d collaborated on numerous small projects and chatted often about best practices in education. Still, one tweet was enough for him to abandon our friendship. This is one of many dangers of being comfortable in your thin skin.
You’re too political
My wife always says that religion and politics are off limits at family parties. She is wise beyond her years. Thin-skinned people can’t stand to have their political beliefs challenged. Admittedly, I share my opinions openly on my personal Facebook page. Usually, I post a slanted article and add a one-sentence personal annotation. I never vilify others for their opinions. These posts are just conversation starters. Still, I have been berated for them many times, both publicly and privately, on social media. A few times, longtime friendships have ended over a social share on Facebook.
You have to be right
One thing I had to overcome in order to shed my thin skin was my own confirmation bias. My friend Angela Stockman explains the dangers of this phenomenon here.
Confirmation bias is a phenomenon wherein decision makers have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight…www.brilliant-insane.com
If we believe in a concept strongly but have little evidence to support the validity of the idea, we risk lashing out for no reason. I used to argue that poorly-behaved children would change if they were severely punished. I believed this to be true, because it was something I’d heard from many educators and parents. I ignored the fact, however, that there is sparse evidence that a carrot-and-stick approach to discipline is even marginally successful at changing behavior. My confirmation bias, though, cultivated my thin-skin attitude for far too long.
We live in a fast-food world — both literally and figuratively speaking. We want everything right now. As parents and educators, we want kids to do what we say immediately. I used to be the worst at this, and it’s still a struggle. If I instructed a student to move to another seat, and she hesitated for a millisecond, my blood boiled and I’d begin shouting. I once asked an administrator to unblock a website I wanted to use in my classroom. When I was told she’d have to confer with other administrators, I fumed. That day, I zipped off a harshly-worded email to colleagues about how our administrators were negatively impacting education with their archaic, traditional philosophies. The website was unblocked six months later, after a change in central office. My thin skin inspired the email that only served to delay things and, as it turned out, it was I who was hurting my students.
3 hacks for your thin skin
The good news is you can toughen up. If I did it, anyone can. Start with these three simple hacks, and save your professional life and your relationships.
1 — Pause and Plan
This is similar to the old advice to take a deep breath and count to 10. What distinguishes the Pause-and-Plan hack, though, is the plan phase. Sure, you can count to 10 in your pause moment, but then you have to ask, “What should I do next?” or “How should I react?” If I could go back in time, when the school leader told me I needed to wait for a committee meeting to approve my website, I would have paused and planned. My answer to “How should I react?” would have been: Take a step back; find an alternative instructional tool, and just wait!
2 — Abandon social media, at least for a while
If you’re too political or you have to be right, steer clear of social media, especially during election time or when key new legislation arrives. If homework, grades, or abortion are hot-button issues for you, avoid these discussions on Twitter and Facebook. Just walk away from your computer or put your mobile device in your pocket the second you see a post or comment about your hot-button issue. If you feel you must say something, apply the Pause-and-Plan strategy before you contribute to the social media discussion.
3 — Meditate
Back in my thin-skin days, I thought mediation was for only monks or people in cults. When I read a book about meditation and mindfulness, I decided to give it a try; after all, the research on meditation’s impact on emotional states is impressive. It didn’t take long for me to become hooked on meditation. Best of all, when I feel a thin-skin moment coming (yes, it still happens), I sometimes move to a quiet place, clear my head, and focus on simple breathing. After just a few minutes of this, my anger is gone. Meditation and mindfulness can thicken even the thinnest skin.
Shed your thin skin today
As noted at the beginning of this post, it’s not inspirational, and it is a bit in your face. As is the case with all things Hack Learning, though, the three hacks for your thin skin are designed to toughen up your emotional state and to thicken your skin.
So after reading this post, did your skin get thicker or thinner? Let your comments reveal the answer.
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Featured image credit: JP Korpi-Vartiainen, Flickr Creative Commons