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On Developing a Thicker Skin

“You need to develop a thick skin” is the remark that came, after I told of having been thrown in a writer’s block because of a nasty personal remark at a writers’ workshop, one that had nothing to do with my writing. I understand the metaphor, but for some of us the solution may just be to avoid contact with the infection.

Let me open up a new metaphor for it. I have had the unpleasant experience of a few skin infections, triggered in different ways under various circumstances, but the one thing a doctor doesn’t tell you is that you should thicken your skin. Some doctors are nice and caring enough to give you advice on prevention, and yes, you will freak out when a bee comes flying straight into your bike helmet and sting you, because the thick skin can be pierced anyway, but the other elements of an infection aren’t there anyway. The simpler prevention of keeping bacteria away, and keeping it from dwelling and developing on you, actually works. You learn about where it may be dwelling, the many ways it may land there, and you don’t freak out, you don’t have to compulsively use disinfectant all the time. You manage it, and if a threat of an infection occurs, you know you may be able to catch it before you need drastic doses of antibiotics (in my story, they also discovered I was allergic to a specific antibiotic, which goes to tell you that even the good stuff isn’t always so good). There is no need for a thicker skin to prevent future episodes of infection. One needs to develop preventive strategies.

The thick skin argument suggests that there is something fundamentally wrong with us, and it isn’t much better than blaming the victim. It is like saying you were attacked because you are too attractive, and you should make yourself less so. It is like saying that we should accept working for bullies, as if the work could be just as good if we didn’t mind them. I suspect they don’t teach that in business school, because I hear a lot of war terminology in those circles. Their latest term is “disrupt” as when boys like to demolish the other kids’ construction. Following the “thick skin” argument, the other kids should just suck it up and expect more demolition in their bright future.

I would even surmise that the thick skin argument is the tip of this iceberg: that we accept racism, sexism, colonialism, and other isms that suggest the repressed should just suck it up. Some will go as far as saying you should accept it as previous generations have. But now I just opened a can of worms that could eat up my whole essay. Not that I claim this to be a full-fledged essay…

Now for my solution, which I think could be applied to a whole lot of other fields, based on what I learned about infections from the doctors who were willing to bring a constructive approach instead of blaming me for having exposed myself to bacteria.

1- learn about the critics. You’re a writer, and you’re interested in different points of view. Like the bad bacteria, they tend to gather in certain circles that you want to avoid. Unless of course you want to join them…

2- that thing called social media? It exposes you to bacterial soup. Make sure you can delete comments, refrain from reading them twice. Those people don’t know you, you don’t know them, and you certainly don’t deserve to be their friends even if that’s just “facebook friend.”

3- don’t sign up for workshops, unless there are clear rules of non-aggression and collaboration. If it’s an ongoing group, consider checking them out before they see your work. There’s really no point being in a group where people don’t like each other. In the thick skin metaphor, this is like avoiding the vicinity of a wasp nest.

4- don’t think that you can make your own vaccine by exposing yourself to a small quantity of bacteria. I think in the case of a small attack of criticism, you should identify the attack and say it is not welcome. Don’t try to explain or counter-attack, that will only get you a deeper infection.

5- your work is for yourself, and your friends. You will get much greater satisfaction sharing it with your friends than with frustrated competitive writers. Reduce exposure.

In the workshop that resulted in the “you need to develop a thick skin” comment, the one bad bacteria of a writer opened his line of comment with “it’s obvious English isn’t your first language.” That presumptuous line should have been called out of order, in my ideal world. It was true, and it was only obvious because of my accent, because what he pointed out in my text had actually been words from an older man’s mind who wouldn’t know the hipster’s term for a fixed-gear bicycle. In retrospect, he was the bad writer for not figuring this out, and the bad workshop participant for not really having read the text. And now I was blamed for not having a thick skin.

So yes, there may be a whole majority of “thick skin” people out there, but I would bet they too would be relieved if we worked on reducing the bacterial infection of negative comments. Sometimes I feel I am unable to give positive appreciation, and I excuse myself from giving it. It is likely that I have been bad bacteria before! So what’s going on?

Some of us, or should I presume many, have grown among adults who wanted us to conform to their ideal instead of growing to be ourselves. One gets used to be unappreciated, even unwanted, and replicates it with others. At the same time, one puts a lot of work in trying to receive a trickle of praise from parents. As adults we become very sensitive to negative comments, and almost indifferent to appreciation. It can be a life-long struggle to keep going and to find positive environments in which we can finally strive.

This essay constitutes a big breakthrough for me this year. I will fear you less from now on. Is that a thick skin? Only metaphorically. It needs to be kept alive.

And, ha ha! I’m going to post this on my blog and let it go!


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