How do you grow thicker skin? As an emotionally sensitive person, I’m often told to grow thicker skin. Which confuses me because my doctor has never once suggested my skin is too thin. Yet non medical people keep judging my skin as too thin… is there a supplement I can take for that? An herbal remedy perhaps? How does one go about growing thicker skin? And what makes people think I need to in the first place?
It’s because I’m highly empathic and emotionally sensitive. To the people who think I need ‘thicker skin’, it means I tend to over react to things that bother me. It means I cry too easily and take things too personally.
For the highly empathic person (aka empath), it means that we regularly experience emotional shifts as a result of external influences, at an amplified level. Contrary to popular belief, these emotional reactions have little to do with how we are ‘thinking’ in the moment, and everything to do with how we experience whatever has just shifted outside of us. That external influence might be someone or something that has just entered our immediate environment, it might be the weather or something someone has said to us. When people speak to us, it isn't just the words we hear; we also feel their tone and the emotion of the person speaking, as well as the emotion of anything they are not saying.
When someone speaks to me as they are feeling joy, peace, calmness or excitement, that can be as contagious as a yawn for me. I’ll immediately feel that energy inside me so intensely that if I’m not already in a similar state myself, I immediately experience a shift in my mood that matches their energy, which I usually welcome and allow.
When someone speaks to me as they are feeling angry, frustrated, enraged or disappointed, while I hear their words, inside I experience the energy force of the emotion that person is exuding as they speak. As I experience this sensation inside me, it can feel intense or overwhelming. Since the feeling is usually uncomfortable, it isn’t welcomed and my response to it may be resistance, to move away, or to react verbally depending on the situation. It has an automatic effect on my own inner state, and requires a very conscious effort to combat.
I often hear other coaches and self help experts argue that; “it’s not what they say that you are reacting to, but what you are ‘thinking’ about what they say”.
While I fully agree that our thoughts effect our emotions, in respect to the experience I am describing, that is not what is going on. I’ve been self reflecting on how I experience my emotional nature for over 40 years, and I can say with certainty, that in many cases, my reaction is not connected to anything I am thinking at the time. It is linked to how I experience the impact of the outside energy, as it connects to, and enters me. I feel it internally, and once inside, the sensation is usually so strong that it causes an in-kind reaction - often tears.
Here are a few personal examples that have helped me to better understand my own emotional nature, that really nailed it for me:
A few years ago there was a fellow who appeared on Britain’s Got Talent, Paul Potts. A video of him singing a song in another language, that I do not understand (may have been Italian), was circulating the web. Curious, I clicked on the link to watch and listened to it. About half way through I feel this energy stir inside me and I start crying. I felt so moved, literally inside, that the tears just flowed. I couldn’t have been affected by the words, because I had no idea what was being said. I was affected by the emotion coming through his voice, as I saw many people in the audience were. The only thought I had before the tears was “wow”, which as I write, is not evoking any tears. Then I was pretty much thoughtless until the end when again all I could think was, “wow, that was beautiful!”
Second example is when my Honey and I visited the Grand Canyon for the first time. As we approached the lookout, I was glancing around. As we arrived at the point, I looked out and suddenly felt this wave of emotion inside me, and I started to weep. In that moment I was thoughtless and speechless; I was in awe. I can’t even say what I was in awe of, I mean the Grand Canyon is beautiful and phenomenal but I can’t in all honesty say for sure what hit me. However, something did, and if I can’t identify what it is, then I really couldn’t have been thinking much to be causing such tears.
My next example is similar to the Grand Canyon. This time we are approaching Stonehenge in England. It’s raining and I'm wearing a hooded rain coat. I’m walking toward the magnificent stones and it starts… this wave like sensation inside, that seems to get ignited in my upper solar plexus, moves up through my heart area and that is when the tears start streaming. Again… no words, no thoughts, just awe.
A more general example is the numerous times with clients, and it can happen whether we are in person or while coaching over the phone, I will suddenly experience a wave like sensation inside and tears swell up in my eyes. This usually happens in response to an emotion that has been building up, but not yet released, in them.
These are some of the more welcoming experiences that come with being empathically sensitive; however there are lots of not so welcomed ones too. When someone is angry with me, the same thing will happen; I get hit with the energy of the anger coming through them, not so much the words, and all thinking stops. Growing up, all my dad ever needed to do was say my name in that certain ‘tone’ and the tears would start. As it hits me, I experience an intense sensation inside of me. It’s not so easy to ‘not take other people personally’, when you feel their offending emotion inside your own physical body as if they were your own. If someone is frustrated with me, I feel it deep. Or if someone is just plain frustrated while speaking to me about their day… the only way I can explain it is like this; the energy of their frustration pierces through me and I experience it in a more intense way than other people listening to the same person would. So when I say to them “I get your frustration”, I really do ‘get’ their frustration.
So I do understand the tendency is to suggest I grow thicker skin; somehow the energy is getting through my skin and into by body, in a way that the people suggesting this aren’t experiencing themselves. And while it isn't my 'thinking' that is causing my emotions in such situations, I need to use my ability to steer my thoughts to manage my reaction to how I experience emotions, my own and especially those of others. The first step was to realize that I wasn't wrong, weak or somehow broken because I cry so easily. It is such a relief to 'get' that, and it took a lot of years for that idea to really sink in. When you really get that it is just how you personally experience your emotional nature, then you can also know there is something you can do WITH it, so that the effects are... more of what you want and less of what you don't.