Not taking things too personally – How to develop a thicker skin at work

Photo by Aliyah Jamous

“Nobody can hurt me without my permission”

Mahatma Gandhi

Do you cope with criticism at work? Or do you feel every less-than-positive word is like a personal injury? When your skin is too thin for comfort you’re emotionally vulnerable, on edge and much more likely to feel overwhelmed or low. And that can make working life very uncomfortable indeed.

When we take things too personally we give individuals more power over us than they should have. We trust other people’s opinions of ourselves more than we trust our own. We lose sight of the truth about ourselves, mired in outside influences. If it goes too far it can actually make you feel like a victim when you’re really not.

Here’s a look at thin skin, the signs, what it means, and how you can develop a thicker skin to protect and nurture you at work.

About thin skinned thinking

Do you tend to see criticism at every turn? Do you take things overly-personally at work? Thin skinned people are often extremely conscientious, very sensitive, and take criticism personally. They’re likely to blame themselves for situations that are actually far too complex to lay at the feet of just one individual.

The thin skinned spend a lot of time ruminating. They err towards perfectionism. They notice the tiniest changes and smallest details about someone’s tone of voice or manner. They can be a slave to over-thinking. They find themselves easily slipping into worry and they take their work responsibilities very seriously indeed.

This high level of dedication and sensitivity has a positive side, of course, when it’s appropriate for the circumstances and under the right level of control. But the very thin skinned give these tendencies far too much precedence. When you care too much you’re emotionally off-balance. It can be hard to switch off and turn the laser-beam of your attention onto something other than yourself.

What’s the thinking behind being thin skinned?

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Let’s look at the thinking involved in being very thin skinned. Have you ever found yourself worried about someone’s behaviour towards you? You might be thinking, Are they angry with me? What did I do wrong? Why did they say that, use that tone of voice, look at me that way? If you routinely take things personally that weren’t meant to offend you, life can soon become exhausting and upsetting for you and those around you.

How to get valuable perspective after the event

It’s often easier to get perspective afterwards., when you’ve calmed down. Here are some tips to help you overcome your feelings after the fact.

Because knowledge is power, your first step is to try and figure out why you take things so personally in the first place. It might be down to the fact that you’re so in tune with everything around you, and easily get overwhelmed. It might be that you’re particularly good at picking up tiny details, including those that other people might not want you to see.

Writing things down is often a really good way to come to an understanding, so pick a time when you felt very sensitive and try to get to the bottom of it. Write down the whole story. What was the situation? What happened? How did it make you feel? How did you react? And how would you prefer to react to the same situation in future? This level of self-awareness is incredibly useful, but if you can’t access your own motivations, feelings and emotions easily, it’s something we can help you with.

It also helps to distract yourself, changing tack to do something you can control in the present moment.

  • Refocus by getting on with something you find interesting
  • Find a number of others tasks you can manage and get on with them
  • If you find yourself feeling flooded with emotions, go for a break or take a quick walk – literally put a little distance between you and the issue

Away from work do something different. Break the state you have been in that day by getting yourself moving, going for a run or the gym. Or treat yourself by watching a film you have wanted to see for ages. Go outside and do some gardening or make progress by cleaning the house or have a coffee somewhere quiet and conducive. Do whatever it is that makes you feel good and grounded. When you change pace, your head space tends to naturally begin to shift too. There is less focus on the worry and more concentration on the present moment activity.

Talking is really powerful as well. It’s easy to let things fester, but that only makes the feelings worse. Rather than spiral into despair, break out and talk about the problem with someone close to you, someone you respect. A problem shared is often a problem halved, and doing so will give you some vital perspective to harness next time.

Sometimes taking things too seriously sits at the heart of a self-esteem issue. When you improve your self esteem things don’t get to you so easily. You’re naturally resilient, you feel safer and steadier within yourself. You don’t take things so personally, it’s easier to maintain perspective, keeping distress at a distance. Focusing outwards rather than inwards is helpful here. This means choosing to broaden your perspective towards others, shifting attention from yourself to how others are reacting and how you can help them. This can move you into a different relationship with those around you and to the situation itself.

Positive thinking is powerful, too. Remarkably so. If you go around thinking you’re too sensitive and take things too personally, it’ll probably get more acute. So talk positively to yourself about yourself: “I am doing my very best!”, “ I’m only a cog in a wider system, and there are other perspectives to examine as well as my own.” “I let criticism roll off my back like water.” “I understand criticism at work isn’t always personal”. And, “It isn’t me. I’m caught up in other people’s battles, stuck in the middle of a political storm.

All of these tips are great for soothing yourself afterwards, for calming down, and for making inroads into the reasons behind your feelings after the fact. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to let it go rather than letting it fester. But what about the way you react at the time, while it’s happening. Is there anything you can do ‘in the moment’ to relieve the feelings?

Getting perspective at the time it’s happening

Stress makes us stop breathing, hold our breath. Your first task is to notice, and breathe. Focus on your breathing, make every in-breath long and steady, through your mouth, and every out-breath even longer, through your nose. A couple of minutes of that and you’ll naturally calm down. You can do it discreetly too, so nobody will notice. While conscious breathing is a simple exercise it helps calm your mind and body down, create space between you and your feelings, helps prevent knee-jerk reactions and lashing out. And it should also help you respond to the situation in the way you’d like to, calmly and professionally.

Your second job is to get clarification. It’s much better than jumping to conclusions that can make you feel angry or sad. Ask questions to establish the details behind what a person meant by their actions or words. If you feel safe to, explain simply and clearly how they made you feel. You never know, they might not realise they sometimes come across as harsh. “When you raised your voice like that, it made me feel you were angry with me. Are you actually angry, or did I misunderstand?”

Thirdly, remember the world isn’t all about you. The person who just barked at you might not be thinking about you much at all. They might just be having a bad day, suffering from relationship problems, or just been in a difficult meeting with their boss. You might simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Distance is useful. If possible don’t react straight away. Make yourself slow down and leave space for your ruffled feelings to settle. While you can’t change the way other people react to you, you can change the way you react to them by giving yourself time to regroup in the moment.

It also helps to remind yourself nobody’s perfect. We all do our best on a daily basis to make great working decisions, get on with difficult people, persuade others to see things our way, get things done. We all react based on past experiences and our own unique perceptions. It’s more likely that something that feels like it’s directed at you actually isn’t. The person might be angry, but not with you. They may not even realise they’re coming across that way.

Ask yourself if there a hidden positive in what’s happening. A lot of the time our emotions have valuable messages for us, if only we listen. There might be nothing to learn, but at least you’ll have asked yourself. The very act of questioning yourself can empower you, helping you make improvements in the way you react and better understand yours and others’ feelings. And that in turn boosts your confidence. It makes sense since when you see a clear way through the feelings and are able to calmly question their hidden meaning, you’re back in control.

Want to boost your resilience at work?

If you’d like to improve your emotional resilience at work, we’ll be pleased to help you and explore how you can do this in a safe, professional space.