I’ve always been thin skinned. I’ve been told I take things too personally and that I over-react. This week it struck me that this isn’t a character flaw, it’s a coping mechanism. I’m probably not alone in this.
If everything is going to be your fault, then being hypersensitive to criticism can help you catch problems before they escalate. If mistakes are punishable offences, you have to be hypervigilant around criticism. What looks like being over-sensitive about things is an early warning system trying to detect threats before they get out of control.
This could easily become an issue for anyone with an abuse legacy, or who has had to survive in a toxic work environment. That thin skin is because you can’t afford to ignore any kind of negative feedback for fear of the consequences.
It has been a bit of a shock releasing that a large amount of how I respond to negativity is not necessarily who I am, but what I’ve learned to do in order to try and stay safe. I feel immensely threatened by criticism – and most of the time there’s no need. Most of the people I deal with will not punish me for real mistakes, much less ones they have imaged. Who would I be if I could take other people’s negativity in my stride? Who would I be if I wasn’t terrified every time I make a mistake?
It goes with the other coping mechanisms of over explaining and having to justify myself. It goes with having to check everything I do and feel to try and work out if it is reasonable and rational or not – and thus whether it might be permitted. Who would I be if I felt entitled to my own emotional responses and not like I had to be able to defend them?
Often, people who are thin skinned and easily upset are accused of being melodramatic and making it all about them. I’ve seen that one happen to other people as well as to me. I wonder how many other people who are knocked about by criticism react that way because it is a danger sign, a red flag, an ominous portent of far worse things to come?
I’m increasingly convinced that if someone seems to over-react, the key thing might be to focus on trying to make sure they feel safe. If you’re safe, you don’t have to be perfect in very possible way, you don’t have to psychically know what you were supposed to do without being told. When you are safe, another person’s bad mood or shitty day is not a danger sign, it’s just what’s going on. If you are with people who will not use you as a punch bag – literally or emotionally – then you don’t have to be hypersensitive to possible danger signs.
I may be becoming more resilient around this issue, because I have been safe enough for long enough for that to be possible.