You’re strong. You’re thick-skinned. You don’t take it personally when someone vents emotional distress on you.
These are admirable, useful qualities. Having thick skin makes it easier for people to be themselves with you, and for you to be with other people. It allows you to hear the message beneath the emotion, protecting you from the outburst. If you didn’t have thick skin, you could be emotionally overwhelmed or your ego could be crushed by the anger or criticism of others.
But everything has two sides. The potential negative side of being thick-skinned is being too permissive and accepting verbal abuse. The worst-case scenario is your thick skin keeps you in relationships that devolve into physical abuse. It’s important to consider when a strength has become a weakness.
Here are some questions worth asking when you feel your thick skin being tested:
- Is the person displacing anger on you? An example of displacement is when a person is angry at a coworker but yells at the dog. It usually occurs when people can’t express anger at the person or entity they’re actually angry at: a boss, a parent, an unjust society. It happens sometimes, but if it happens often, you may have become the dumping ground for another person’s anger.
- Is the person’s expression of anger or criticism an attempt to repair a problem? Anger can alert us to the fact we’re unhappy about something. An expression of these feelings can be an attempt to improve your relationship. When a person’s expression of anger or criticism is controlled and respectful and the goal is improvement, a thick skin is valuable in helping you remain open to hearing what the other person is trying to communicate.
- Is the person’s anger or criticism an attempt to hurt you? Instead of trying to improve the relationship, sometimes the goal is to hurt you. It’s never OK for someone to try to hurt you. Your thick skin could be detrimental if it allows you to ignore hurtful behavior.
- Is the anger mild or high intensity? The intensity of anger runs on a spectrum from calm, respectful communication to red-faced shouting that is disrespectful and threatening. Your strength is a weakness if it’s allowing you to tolerate dangerous and disrespectful outbursts.
- Is this anger coming at me typical behavior for this relationship or is it a rare outburst? If hostility toward you is typical and frequent for your relationship, your tolerance is too high. Even if you think you can take it, the anger and criticism can take a toll on your health and mental well-being. A high-intensity incident, even if rare, is cause for concern and shouldn’t be ignored.
- Is the experience of tolerating other people’s anger isolated to one relationship or do you experience it in multiple relationships? If multiple people are getting upset with you about the same thing, then that could be an indication you have a problematic behavior you should confront. On the other hand, if multiple people—your boss, your neighbor, your friends—are all displacing their anger on you, then your thick skin may have unconsciously made you into a safe target for other people’s aggression.
The bottom line is other people shouldn’t hurt you. You might be able to take it, but maybe you shouldn’t.
© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Rena Pollak, LMFT, CGP, therapist in Encino, California
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