I have thick skin. It is a blessing. I don’t know whether it is genetic or developed, nature or nurture. Likely it’s some of both. And my three older brothers deserve some thanks for their contributions to thickening it up too. Having thick skin means that I can write and publish without fearing the inevitable criticism. I can speak, converse, hold a point of view and not worry about the flak I will take for my opinions. It means I don’t take too much personally, so when slights or criticism come I don’t immediately turn on or draw away from the critic. Thick skin is a real benefit as a writer, an employee, and as a family man. And just as a human in a hurtful world.
It dawned on me recently, though, that skin which feels less and hurts less might not be thick; it might be dead. Thick skin protects us – our psyches, emotions, and souls – from injury. Dead skin protects against nothing and feels nothing. Wounds might happen with no signal and no warning. Or maybe the dead skin encases a dead soul with no feeling throughout.
Thick skin hasn’t lost its nerve endings. It feels. It just keeps the barbs from drawing blood or hitting vital organs so healing happens more quickly. Wounds that would otherwise cause great harm are but scratches when they happen to thick skin. Dead skin feels nothing. The same barbs come. Some are small and relatively harmless. Others puncture all the way to the insides. And then the pain is excruciating, a surprise, no protection and no warning.
Is my skin thick or dead? It matters because thick skin knows pain and recognizes where it is coming from. Yes, it keeps those injuries superficial but it enables me to make adjustments either to protect or better myself. It can discern between malicious hurts to be ignored and kind criticism to be acknowledged. Thick skin is not callous to the critics or impervious to wisdom. Thick skin is very much alive; callouses are dead.
Dead skin discerns nothing. It can’t recognize wise criticism or uplifting corrections. The pain it allows is injurious, not beneficial.
Do I feel nothing? Do I ignore all feedback and criticism? Have I fooled myself into thinking my skin is thick when in fact it is dead? Or do I feel all those barbs and shots and discern whether they are helpful or harmful? Am I able to consider the source or do I not even acknowledge it?
The answer to such questions can be answered with one simple test: Is criticism making me better? Thick skin doesn’t prevent improvement; dead skin does. If your default is to ignore all critics yours might be dead. I am learning to be wary of this. Feeling nothing may seem beneficial but in the end the hurts will be greater both to you and those you pass your pain on to.