The Impenetrable Nature of a Thick Skin

Multiple times during my scientific and professional development, I’ve been told about the necessity of a “thick skin”. The intent of which is to not let negative feedback or constructive criticism upset you. The expectation is that you will not let things effect you emotionally, but you will fix the problems outlined or follow the recommendations laid out.

Unfortunately, in my experience, a “thick skin” leads to bottling up your emotions because feelings of upset or sadness are weak, and you can’t let colleagues see you weak. I hope everyone knows by now that it is not healthy to bottle up your emotions.

The alternate pathway, resulting in no feelings of upset, is to let it “bounce off”, essentially ignoring the feedback.

An effective thick skin negates an emotional response, but an emotional attachment to your work is necessary to like your job. You are naturally going to feel bad when receiving criticism about something you cared about or worked for. Absence of this response likely means that you didn’t care about the work.

I am not suggesting that it’s good to openly weep in front colleagues in response to all constructive criticism. I am suggesting that it is not productive or healthy to suppress yours or a colleague’s emotions.

It is okay to be upset. While someone is upset, don’t tell them to “calm down” or “grow a thicker skin”. Let them ask questions to clarify areas needing improvement. At the end of the exchange, leave them along to absorb the feedback and give them time to recognize its merits. The amount of time required to address the criticisms or fix any problems will vary, but it won’t be immediate.

Growth of a thick skin may protect you from emotions that you’d rather not experience, but it doesn’t necessarily help your professional development. You will end up stronger and more capable if you let yourself be upset, absorb other’s constructive criticism, and address the areas which need improvement, than if you let a thick skin keep you from feeling anything negative.

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