Scott H Young

How to Develop a Thicker Skin


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I wrote for twelve years and collected 250 rejection slips before getting any fiction published, so I guess outside reinforcement isn’t all that important to me.”  – Lisa Alther

Talent is helpful in writing, but guts are absolutely essential.” – Jessamyn West

Oh, great reviews are the worst. They mislead you more than the bad ones, because they only fuel your ego. Then you only want another one, like potato chips or something, and the best thing you get is fat and bloated. I’d rather just refuse, thanks.” – Chazz Palminteri

I think it’s crucial in life to have a thick skin.  Doing just about anything important means you need to shovel through a lot of garbage, criticism and abuse.  You can’t disregard negative feedback and live in your own fairytale world, but at the same time, you can’t let the comments of other people derail you from your goals.

That’s the hard part about having a thick skin.  If it just meant ignoring negative comments, having a thick skin would just be a matter of training.  But it’s not.  You need the critics, because criticism can help you make improvements.

A thick skin is difficult because you need to manage both.  You need to be able to absorb and act on sometimes unfair criticism, while staying motivated.  The people with the thickest skins aren’t insensitive jerks.  These are the people who are able to take downright abusive comments, pick apart the pieces to make themselves better, and still be able to wake up with energy in the morning.

Why Have a Thick Skin?

I’ve heard a few comments on the forums defending over-sensitivity.  If you feel you’re oversensitive, that’s nothing to be ashamed of.  Many people are, and many people who handle criticism poorly have still done great things.  However, the thicker you can make your skin, the more you can persist when times are tough.

Occasionally, when I’ve started a goal, I’ve kept much of the progress to myself.  While some of this is for modesty, part of it is also to reduce criticism.  I’d rather avoid the attacks of other people that threaten my motivation.

This is a pretty common strategy for setting goals, and a fairly successful one.  Tim Ferriss mentioned to his assistants that he only wanted to hear the positive reviews of his book, The 4-Hour Workweek.  He didn’t have the time to spend worrying about the negative ones.

I think many people can relate to this process, but it has a hidden downside.  The more you try to shield yourself from negative information, the more distorted your reality becomes.  Ideally, if your skin’s thick enough, you should be like Palminteri, embracing the negative reviews because they keep you real.

Having a thicker skin means you can get the best picture of the world, even when the messenger of that truth conceals it in an insult, ad hominem attack or abuse.

How to Develop a Thicker Skin

I don’t have the world’s thickest skin, but I’ve gotten a lot better.  Although I love interacting with readers on this website, an open comment box and email form is practically an invitation for all sorts of anonymous abuse.  I’ve been lucky that the good comments greatly outweigh the bad.

I feel the best way to get a thicker skin is to learn to separate the feedback.  Filter it so you know how to handle it.  If you handle insults the same way you handle genuine criticism, it’s easy to get depressed.  However, if you disregard every piece of feedback that doesn’t come with a smile, you’re missing out on a lot of growth opportunities.

I’d say criticism tends to come in a few major forms:

  • Insults -  These are personal attacks based on emotions, not reasoning.  They tend to attack you or your character, not what you’re doing.  I tend to ignore these unless they run in a very specific theme, in which case it’s time to do some self-reflection to see if they have any basis.
  • Critiques - These are, sometimes harsh, suggestions for improvement.  The best way to handle these is to strip away all the abusive language and focus on the information it contains.  Pretend you’re a censor, stripping the expletives and leaving the content.
  • Anger – Sometimes the abuse is justified.  If you’re doing things to piss people off, don’t be surprised when they get angry.  Use this feedback to check your behavior, to see if there is anything you could change to stop it.
  • Not interested – These are the implied criticisms.  They are the “no” you get after asking for a favor, or the unreturned calls.  I think the best way to interpret these is to modify your approach and try again.  Not interested usually means “too busy” as opposed to an insult, so ignore it and try again.

With all of these, having a thicker skin means comparing your self-reflection to your own goals.  If making a change would completely derail you, sometimes it’s best to ignore the feedback.  I run this website as a business, as it’s something I love and I want it to support me full-time.  This sometimes angers a few people who believe I should put in thousands of hours of work completely for free.  Their criticism may be valid, but because it runs counter to my own goals of financial independence, I have to ignore it.

Develop Some Scar Tissue

Once you sort through information, you need to handle it emotionally.  It’s not easy to be told “no”, insulted or ignored.  I’d be lying if I could say I’ve never had a bad day because of a few pieces of pricklier feedback.

The only way to develop thicker skin emotionally is to have some scar tissue.  The body has an amazing healing mechanism.  When you break a bone, the refusing of bone tissue makes the point of breakage stronger than it had been before.  The best way to absorb and handle criticism is to face a lot of it.

I’m involved in a class which competes on business plans internationally.  My professor suggested, as motivation, to watch the Alec Baldwin speech from the movie Glengarry Glen Ross.  If you’ve ever seen the movie, the speech is (to most people) just about the least motivating speech I’ve ever heard.  Baldwin uses just about every expletive and verbally abuses the salesmen he’s come to talk to.

Note: You can watch the clip here, no promises that it won’t be removed later.  Plus it has some colorful language, so it’s not work safe.

The reason the movie was suggested is that many of the judges for the competitions can be almost as harsh.  If you can get used to the nastier comments and abuse, you can see them for what they are.  An extremely vicious attack can be deflected so only the information remains.

Be Driven By Your Vision, Not Other People’s Criticism

Developing some scar tissue is only half the battle.  If you spend all day insulting someone, they don’t become tougher, they probably just become depressed.  That’s why I think it’s important to focus on your goals constantly and your vision of how you want your life to be.  If you can make the picture of what you want perfectly clear and desirable, then you can take a lot more abuse before you get there.

Whenever I face a lot of criticism, I go back to my goals and what I want (both personally, and in contribution to the world).  Criticism has the potential to derail you, to make you focus on pleasing everyone instead of staying committed to your vision.  This is why goal-setting is so important.  If you don’t have goals that are so clear and real in your mind, then they will be outspoken by the next jerk who doesn’t like your ideas.

One of the best books for reading about this (and facing criticism) is The Fountainhead.  The main character of the book has a very clear vision of what architecture is supposed to be, and the buildings he is going to design.  He understands this vision so clearly, he is willing to persist through all the people that want to destroy him.  If you don’t know what you want, then it’s very easy for people to seduce and threaten you off track.

The Hardest Criticism to Take Usually Has Some Truth

Completely baseless criticism doesn’t usually offend anyone.  Telling a tall guy he’s short, is usually a joke not an insult.  The criticism is baseless, so it’s not hard to ignore.

It’s the stuff that has a partial truth that we find hardest to take.  These are the parts of our life we have either rationalized away, or haven’t been able to accept.  In these cases, criticism can be helpful.  However painful, it strips away the defenses and gives us a chance to fix a problem.

If someone called you fat, and you were morbidly obese, that might hit a nerve.  But it also gives you an opportunity.  You could take the insult as a push to make personal change and lose weight.  Or you can take your reaction to the insult as a need to accept yourself and your weaknesses completely.

Which path you take depends on your ability to change, and also whether the weakness detracts from your goals.  Working a career you hate, just so your rich friends won’t criticize you is a lost cause.  I’d rather accept a lower financial status than sell out on my goals.

In the end, I think having a tough skin means you’re more independent.  When you don’t rely on the constant approval of other people, you’re free to pursue what you really want.  Being able to process criticism without feeling personally attacked can be difficult, but it means you aren’t restricted to the safe, simple goals which have no risk, never upset and inspire no one.


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43 Responses to “How to Develop a Thicker Skin”

  1. Chris says:

    I think one of the most important broad benefits I got out of running my own site was developing an ability to take criticism better.

    I found that most times implementing a piece of feedback, even if just partially, made my site better. At first I may feel a little defensive, or annoyed if the message is obnoxiously worded, but that wears off.

    You’re totally right about sometimes having to pull the deeper meaning out of a harshly worded email. Sometimes even if the person writing is totally nuts and their complaints are exaggerated, they may still have a point.

    Now I almost look forward to constructive criticism more than fan mail since it helps my site more in the long run.

  2. Juliet says:

    Hi
    Thank you for this article. Very much needed for an early blogger – and one whose almost frozen with fear everytime she posts ;)
    This really helps.
    Juliet

  3. Great article. As a designer, I have to remove myself from a project emotionally so I can really get to what a client wants.
    On another note, I simply LOVE this site and this video – it’ll make you laugh: http://www.despair.com/disconfirmation.html

  4. Magda says:

    Awesome blog with very true and real information. I think people really need to hear stuff like this every now and then. Having a thick skin is important in all aspects of life. Just look for the lesson in the comments and criticisms and disregard the rest!

  5. Mark says:

    Well said – I’m glad Guy Kawasaki and my business partner shared with me. I like your philosophy about this – and its practical application.

  6. CJ Guest says:

    Great post! These are all very good insights on what the characteristics and benefits of a thick skin are. In fact, just this morning, I received some criticism that, while constructive, could have served to derail me, if I weren’t able to re-translate it into a positive statement that I can grow on.

    Staying true to your vision, in my opinion, is the most important aspect to grow on. It’s sometimes easy to acquiesce to negative comments and internalize them.

    Love the fact that you referenced a movie and book that I fave! Thanks!

    Twitter: @cjguest

  7. What a crappy article.

    You need to lighten up, Francis.

    Just kidding. (Really.)

    This is something that about 99.99% of humanity needs to learn. It’s especially the case for anyone doing business online where people can blow off just because they are having a bad hair day.

    I have learned the hard way that if I find myself in a email argument, it’s critical, if I care about the relationship, to switch the discussion to the telephone immediately.

    Thanks again.

    Bookmarked!

  8. Mike Nichols says:

    Thank you for this insightful post.

    I still have not developed a very thick skin, and am derailed sometimes by harsh criticism. Though, with reflection, I can get back on track, I still have lingering moments of self-doubt. Fortunately, I have not received personal attacks (yet), and I need to arm myself for when I do.

    Your post will go a long way in helping me develop a thicker skin! Thanks again.

  9. As I was reading, I thought “good post,” but when I saw the Fountainhead reference (one of my favorite books of all time) I realized what you were getting at and the point was perfect.

    Roark never even really met with success, but his foundation was so solid that he didn’t need it, at least in the worldly sense. If you really want to be happy in the end and achieve what you feel you should, then you have to be willing to be your only friend at times. As uncomfortable as it can be, it is necessary to become your own person rather than copy of those that critique you.

  10. bejewell says:

    This post could not have come at a better time for me. Except maybe last week, when someone published an entire blog about how much my blog and a few others suck, complete with personal attacks and insults.

    I needed the reminder to detach a little, take it for what it’s worth, and move on.

    Thanks for that!

  11. What did Nietzsche say? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

  12. […] Scott H Young » How to Develop a Thicker Skin (tags: toread) […]

  13. Josefine says:

    “… When you don’t rely on the constant approval of other people, you’re free to pursue what you really want. …”

    Thanks for this reminder. After two days of doubting in any projects I am involved in, I am back on track now. Like for other people who left a comment, this was just the right time.

    Thanks Scott, excellent post.

  14. […] How to Develop a Thicker Skin [Scott H Young] […]

  15. […] How to Develop a Thicker Skin – “Doing just about anything important means you need to shovel through a lot of garbage, criticism and abuse. You can’t let the comments of other people derail you from your goals.” […]

  16. […] you do anything unique, people will attack you for it. Self-motivation depends on having a thick skin, persisting in spite of criticism. But equally important is the ability to not let praise consume […]

  17. […] Celebrity Openly Gay Scientologist rejoins the cult.. Scott H Young How to Develop a Thicker Skin Finding Evidence to Back Up Your […]

  18. Genny White says:

    Excellent article, truly encouraging. I will not lose sight of my goals despite all the nay sayers in the world. Thank you!

  19. Flipper says:

    I have been struggling with oversensitivity for as long as I can remember. I have breakthrough moments, often fueled by inspiration and a fresh start, but things go sour quickly as soon as I am teased, mocked, criticized, etc. I’ve always tried to analyze, intellectualize, rationalize my fear of others with definitions, and basically, depicting the world as a harsh place to live. It’s only now that I realize that it’s all about developing a thick skin and a sense of humor. Pure and simple! Thank you for giving me the words to articulate this clearly for myself. Brilliant article :) (sorry, I have nothing bad to say…for now)

  20. None says:

    Having ‘goals’ and vision can easily blind you to everything in life that doesn’t serve your goals. Rand was oblivious to the ideas of human conectedness, intimacy and genuine feeling. I have wanted to have a thick skin my whole life, and it seems the general consensus as to what that means is ‘ don’t give a damn’. ‘Growing up’ seems to mean abandoning any sort of spontineity or empathy. The ability to endure browbeating and not ‘let it bother you’ deadens people more than they’d like to admit.

  21. Marz says:

    Good job! I like to read positive, inspiring words! Now to apply them.

  22. thos says:

    Thank you for this article. I’m a college student preparing to graduate into the wide world, and as a writer (preparing to finish my first novel) I’ve become abundantly aware of my distinct lack of a hide. I get very defensive in response to criticism, overwhelmed with a desire to explain myself. Thicker skin is something I would very much like to have and this post has, I believe, given me the first steps in the right direction. I will (as Marz above said) have to begin to apply your wise words in my everyday life.

    Again, thank you.

  23. Michael says:

    Thank you for this. I’m almost 50 years old and this is something that I have struggled with since I was probably a preteen. I remember coming home from school if anyone said anything negative and stayed in my room all night reading. I had hoped it would get better as I got older but it didn’t.

    At work, I fought against this and other failings to be somewhat successful in terms of income (middle class really, nothing fancy). But I dream of retirement so I can get away from the world and its “meanness”. If there is more information on really a step-by-step on how to develop thicker skin I would really appreciate it. Thank you.

  24. Johnnyazores says:

    Glad to see I am not alone and still young enough to change (39). Everytime I posted on my blog or still facebook, i always have a fear of a “bad” comment/response. Glad to see I am not the only one. Yet, it doesn’t make it right.

    I had an old friend that used to make fun of himself before others could. The last couple of days I have written down all of the “insults” that a person could say, think, direct toward me. 1. It brings it out into the open. 2. It diffuses the insults. 3. I can handle if anyone brought any of these up.

    I’m ready to get to prospecting and build a business. No more hiding. Thanks for writing this and thanks to those have shared.

  25. […] So, what better place to look for some tips and strategies on this process than the Internet? How to Develop a Thicker Skin Scott H Young Thoughts? Experiences? Ideas? Tips? […]

  26. […] Young wrote this amazing article on how to develop a thick skin and I encourage you to look into that especially if you are interested in how to deal with […]

  27. MIKEY says:

    thank you for this article. made me feel so much better after i heard some shit a few minutes ago. thank you so much. :)

  28. Jack says:

    I’m extremely shy and sensitive, and whilst it can be an advantage at times (it has certainly kept me out of trouble), it has also held me back on numerous occassions which I now regret. I get too wound up even over the smallest criticisms and most times I have ignored or brushed them aside without taking them into consideration. This is something I really want to change.

    Your article gave me some great advice.Thanks!

  29. Hannah says:

    Spot on! You’ve nailed it! :-)

  30. Eric says:

    There is nothing more and more to say than just thanks.

  31. […] Young wrote this amazing article on how to develop a thick skin and I encourage you to look into that especially if you are interested in how to deal with […]

  32. María Ángeles says:

    Hello,
    Good post, thank you!
    What happens when the criticism comes from someone who hasn’t got the whole picture? Someone intelligent, but, big mouth, opinionated and often wrong.
    Say you are a sucessful professional, you get positive comments from your management and your customers most of the time, if not always and suddenly someone “irrelevant” makes a negative comment. How do you stop it from affecting you?
    Thank you!

  33. Michelle says:

    I think the best way to handle critique is to act like your paying attention then go do what you want to do an way
    michelle

  34. […] you do anything unique, people will attack you for it. Self-motivation depends on having a thick skin, persisting in spite of criticism. But equally important is the ability to not let praise consume […]

  35. Sweet August says:

    This is a great article.

    “Completely baseless criticism doesn’t usually offend anyone.” I had a job interview yesterday in which the interviewer accused me of lying on my resume. This was upsetting, but I offered her my former boss’s contact information and the work in question. She declined. Her accusation was baseless but offensive to me.

    I suppose this means that I’m extremely sensitive. When I use my head and think rationally I know she’s wrong and my former boss knows she’s wrong, so it shouldn’t matter, but in fact it still hurts.

    I will check out the Young article and work on my skin :)

  36. Godchosen1 says:

    I live in one of the most negative households and I am around a bunch of negative people night & day. As sensitive as I am I also know how strong I am. It’s one of many things I remind myself daily about, also I keep in mind people have no clue about what is going on inside of me are even what it takes for me to get through my days. What I can for sure comment on is when you chose to be different, better, and even unique you have to know being attacked is going to happen. No it isn’t right are fair but.. Take a deeper look in your bible from Genesis to Revelations. I’ve been through it all. Left behind from my mom at birth from only knowing that the way I was conceived was my mother begin raped as she struggled to fight begin homeless. Yes, I feel my mothers pain because I too been through the coldest days and nights. My point is yes… It is apart of every ones life and you can take advice from people around you all day but, you first have to take your own advice. Know one walks any mile in your shoes to know anything about what is physically going on inside of you and neither do people emotionally get it just by what you say to make them understand and spiritually you have to learn how to put God first to know how to deal with anything in life. I can also agree that sometimes it is better to be your own friend a lot of times in life but with that begin said it’s true not many can deal with begin alone but…. you should know your never really alone. By knowing that do the smallest thing like open up a window in just feel the amazing breeze God gives you. I hope this is very helpful to someone. Take note it’s better to please yourself first then trying to please others.

  37. Yvonne says:

    I don’t get many negative feedback and when I do, it bugs the hell out of me. Today someone insulted me. This incident propelled me to find answers on how I can stay laser focused on my goals because there will always be people like that. The comment made me realize just how sensitive I was and how that overlooked part of me needs to be continually muscled into something that drives me forward. “Fountainhead” always comes to mind as my favorite book so thank for the reminder!

    I should probably thank that person who insulted me as well because I would never have found your blog. :) In the long run, people like that only serve to aid in self-empowerment towards self-improvement.

    Out of the 5 articles I read on this topic, yours had the most impact. You truly transformed my life and the lives of the many people I help.

  38. John says:

    Great post.

    The only thing I would suggest adding is a good dose of humour to the way you receive criticism. Learning to laugh at yourself (and others) can take the sting out of even the most vicious comments.

  39. Belinda says:

    I have been searching for answers: how to overcome my sensitivity to negative comments or the need to get validation for things that I do that are good. I happpened upon this commentary and ingested the words “know yourself, your goals, your own value and self wortth, take what I need and leave the rest”. I thought about how thick Jesus’ skin must have been to endure all that abuse for me so that I can live free. Now it is up to me to be free and live, love, be happy because I have the keys to unlock those things which once hindered me. Thank you for sharing.

    I

  40. Dionne says:

    Brilliant post. I had a very abusive phone call today from the parent of someone I met last night. She clearly had personal issues and became nicer to me towards the end but I havent been able to get it out of my head all day. Thank you for this as it really has helped.

  41. Dionne says:

    The person who I met was a young student by the way, I am a tutor.

  42. Angie says:

    Amazing Article. So many Good points, helped me think straight. I am going to read this article few days later again more my motivation. Thank you

  43. Roger says:

    In a profession unrelated to blogging, I had a presentation today to upper management and overall it was very well received, but later I kept lingering on the negative feedback from one individual. This post was just what I needed to keep it in perspective. Well done and thanks. I really needed it.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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