We’ve all heard it—the phrase repeated to us whenever we experience a setback or something hurtful.
“You need thick skin.”
Apparently, having thick skin is how we overcome our pain. Thick skin is how we show we’re better than the things that hurt us. Thick skin causes bullets to ricochet off our spirit without leaving much of a mark. Thick skin is what I’ve aspired to have most of my life.
But after all these years I’ve realized that I’ve never actually developed thick skin. People, words, and actions still hurt me.
Yet here’s the funny thing: when something upsetting tries to knock me off balance in my life, I pretend as if I do have thick skin.
When I get hurtful comments for my articles, I laugh them off or justify my point of view. When I receive a rejection, I say that I always expected it so it doesn’t hurt that bad. Whenever someone sends me racist hate mail, I say people are mean and ignorant and pretend to be un-phased.
But these hurts leave tiny grooves in my being that you wouldn’t really notice unless you live with me everyday. I might pretend that I have thick skin, but if I’m honest, my spirit is more malleable than I let off.
I think I’m not alone in this. I think many of us simply pretend as if setbacks, failures, and hurts bounce off of us because we have “thick skin.”
That’s how highly we uphold the ideal of “thick skin”—we pretend to have it when we actually don’t.
Now I’m thinking there is a better way to approach our hurts and setbacks. Maybe, thick skin isn’t much of a cure at all.
I learned this after meeting with my pastor at a nearby Chipotle. Over sloppy burrito bowls, I told him how I struggle being brave with my entrepreneurial pursuits. I told him how I fear writing for people and trying to add value to their life. I also told him about the many people who’ve tried thwarting my endeavors with hateful comments.
And he told me something I hadn’t heard till then. He said, “Don’t have thick skin.”
He said that we usually tell people to have thick skin when they face hurts, but the truth is, we’re not made to be so insensitive to setbacks. He said to remain sensitive and feel the pain enough to grow from it. After all, we weren’t created to ignore the reality of pain; we were created to grow from our pain. Not pretending we have thick skin helps with that.
At that moment, I took a deep, relieving breath. He spoke the very words I needed to hear. Those words gave me permission to stop pretending. They gave me permission to feel the hurts that have left marks on me. They gave me the assurance that if I let go of the thick skin I pretend to have, then people will see the true me—and that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe it’s what’s necessary to get over my pain faster.
So I don’t tell people to have thick skin anymore. We’re not superhuman; we’re human. Pretending to be something we’re not isn’t how we’re designed. We’re designed to be ourselves—unique, wonderful, and messy.
I forget that from time to time. I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking our place in the world is to compete in a massive one-upmanship tournament—where everyone is trying to be better than everyone else. I sometimes think I’m suppose to prove myself better than others, when in reality, God created us to relate with others, not compete with them.
Thick skin is a trick we use to try and topple others on our way to the top.
But reality is, we’re all at the bottom. We’re all in dirt—shattered and stuck—and we’re all meant to relate on this level plane. We’re all meant to turn to each other and say, “Doesn’t this suck?” instead of, “This doesn’t suck. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Having thick skin is a lie.
And pretending to have thick skin is a defense mechanism.
So why are we telling people to put on a band-aid instead of undergo the surgery of learning from our hurts? Why aren’t we giving people the space and freedom to really feel their pain, and grow from it? Why do we tell people to not feel their pain, forcing them to remain stuck in it?
I will never know the answer to why we do the things we do. All I know is that, you can’t write off suffering. No human is impervious to pain. In this regard, thick skin is an impossible reality.
Now, I’m trying to be honest with people. When I hurt, I tell them I’m hurting. When they’re hurting, I tell them not to have thick skin about it. Don’t ignore it. Grow from it. Allow loved ones to come alongside in your hurts.
This is one of the most important JesusHacks I’ve learned. Even Jesus allowed pain to rattle His spirit. He shows us it’s okay to feel. In fact, it’s necessary. Being honest about our pain might hurt even more in the moment, but what I’ve learned is, we don’t rise until we admit we’ve fallen. Having blinders to our hurts stifles us from actually overcoming them.
Having thick skin isn’t victory over our pain. It’s negligence of our pain.
So Jesus didn’t try to write off His suffering in His last moments. He embraced them, modeling for us that the true victory is finding the courage to face our pain and turn it into something redemptive.
It is with that, I’m letting my bruises show. I’m hoping you’ll join me in the effort.
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