Vulnerability and The Fallacy of Growing Thicker Skin

“You need to grow a thicker skin.”

Oh, how many times I’ve been told this in my life — most often during my formative years. Perhaps you, too, have been told that you need a thicker shell, or need to learn to roll with the punches, get a stiff upper lip, suck it up buttercup…you know the expressions, the ones that minimize your experience and emotions. The ones that gaslight you back into the limited array of “acceptable” behavior.

With this thicker skin, apparently, we steel ourselves against pain and trauma. We ignore rising emotions. We belittle our own feelings. Because in this mindset, feeling and accepting emotions is weak. Denying pain is how you prove you are strong.

If being strong means becoming impermeable, then perhaps thicker skin can do the trick. Certainly, those who believe themselves to have a thick skin become unreachable, in the sense that there’s so little humanity left within them. They have so fortified themselves against life that to connect with them in any intimate way is nearly impossible. You cannot get to know these “strong” people, because they do not know themselves. They are identified instead with their image of someone who doesn’t need anyone else, someone who is not vulnerable, who is not weak, who never gives in.

But it’s not as if there’s nothing beneath their imaginary coat of arms. Their imperviousness is merely a mask, a game of pretend. Under it all, wounds accumulate and fester. How many times do we hear the stories about the unflappable neighbor who goes on a rant, or the PTA mother, always in control, who loses her cool in a public setting? Their thick skin, their stiff upper lip…none of it was real. They just hardened and hardened until they cracked.

I’ve always been really, really aware of my insecurities — really, really aware. I never developed that thick skin that keeps you from letting things get to you.

Taylor Swift

Photo by Marianna Smiley on Unsplash

It is a detrimental mark of our culture that so many of us aspire to be the kind of person who never lets on that we’re feeling anything. This kind of persona has become synonymous with the high-powered executive, living their lives behind dark sunglasses and tinted mirrors, as an avatar, not a human being.

Photo by Ben Rosett on Unsplash

The first definition for strength online is: “The quality or state of being physically strong.” The second one is “the capacity of an object or substance to withstand great force or pressure.” These are great qualities for a concrete beam supporting a bridge or building. But for a human being? Why? Is this what we’re trying to become when we’re “growing thicker skin”? Are we seeking to withstand the forces of life? Is that what we’re made for? Is that what you’re made for? There’s so little to be learned in this approach to life, so little to be discovered.

Strength, in our culture, has become defined as something external. It’s about appearance, and outward actions. It’s about muscled bodies and muscle cars, about pride and boasting and chest-beating. But this kind of strength is also associated with stoicism and silence, with fighting our battles alone, with never asking for help.

Collectively, it is this kind of strength, or force, that is often behind the bullying and name-calling. It’s responsible for the dehumanization of refugees, immigrants, Black people, the LGBTQ+ community, and women. This strength is about power over others. It is about coercion and arm-twisting and getting others to fall to their knees for mercy. It uses the tools of fear, threats, insults and mockery. It doesn’t discuss; it demands. It doesn’t share, it hoards. This strength is simultaneously empty and insatiable. It will never feel “full” or “satisfied”, no matter what it gets, how many people bow before it, or how much more power they get. Force cannot tolerate dissent, it demands obedience and acquiescence. There is no community, no connection, no collaboration. Force is pompous, arrogant, and prideful. The portrayal of strength is often in what one does to another.

This kind of strength is not strong at all. It’s fear, hiding behind a facade.

Fear of being seen, fear of authenticity, fear of vulnerability. Beneath the force, you can almost see the inner child, fearful of being wrong, called out, laughed at.

But while this kind of strength limits and denies our full humanity, it is a boon to the status quo. For as long as people continue to adapt to circumstances, rather than seeking solutions, the status quo remains unchecked. In this kind of culture, where thick skins are praised, it remains our responsibility if we don’t feel good, if we aren’t happy and smiling. Meanwhile, the gears that create the discontents and inequalities, the ones we’ve become armored against feeling and acknowledging, grind on, and the beneficiaries of the status quo continue to reap the benefits of our silent internalization.

In a world that applauds the facade of invulnerability, let us redefine what strength truly means:

To be strong is to embrace our vulnerabilities and feel deeply.
To be strong is to acknowledge our emotions through the entire spectrum of human experience.
To be strong is to reach out for connection, support, and understanding.
To be strong is about building tools to live alongside our emotions.
To be strong is to be fully human, whole, and vulnerable.

Let’s not let the culture and status quo shame us out of the right to our full humanity. It is who we are, and we’re not meant to live with any more layers than we already have.

“I’ve never gotten thick skin. If you close yourself off and you get this protective armor, there is a price you pay with that — of not feeling. And feeling is important when you are a songwriter.”

Taylor Swift

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