Thin Skin

Jan 31

349841785_e6fbbbdafa_bI reach into the manila envelope, tall and thick and freckled with spots of rain. The paper on the top of the pile, crisp white and razor sharp, catches the pad of my index finger and slices it cleanly. A rush of heat, a trickle of blood. A paper cut.

***

I see the stack of paper in his left hand, the black ink of his pen having peppered the sheets with comments.

“It’s a good start,” he says. “I like where you’re going with it.”

“Where I’m going?” I ask. “But not where I am?”

“You’re not there yet, I don’t think. But keep going,” he smiles, handing the papers to me, the staple scratching my thumb. “You’re on your way.”

But not there yet.

***

You guys spoil me. You really do. No matter what I write – the deep, the silly, the provocative – you greet my words with kindness and respect. You challenge me when I need it, but gently. You make me feel safe here in my space to speak honestly, even if what I have to say is not pretty or popular.

Last week I had a run-in with a nasty commenter. Her words were mean. They were illogical and rude. After licking my wounds, I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt, figuring she could have misread what I’d written. I worried out a reply that acknowledged her position and then explained how she had misrepresented my own. I felt better after I posted my reply, congratulating myself on meeting her assumptions and contempt with measured tones.

And then she responded to my reply. And then to another commenter who had come to my defense. And she showed me that she wasn’t interested in having a discussion. She had an axe to grind (into my back?) and was looking for a fight.

I gave up and decided to ignore her. I knew I wasn’t going to convince her of anything. It was time to move on, but her words – as sharp as that staple, as painful as that paper cut – left me wounded.

“You shouldn’t have even dignified her comment with a response,” advised a friend, but too late. “You’ve just got to ignore the trolls or else they can really get under your skin.”

Yup, that’s just where she was. Crawled right through and lodged herself underneath.

***

I look into the mirror, the bags under my eyes as blue as bruises. The years of nighttime feedings and teething and anxiety show through the crepey skin. I pick up a tube of eye cream and start patting, then rubbing it under my eyes. It promises to get rid of the dark circles, to thicken the skin.

Thicker skin?

That’s just what I need.

Do you have thick skin or thin? How well do you handle criticism? And tips on staying tough in the online world?

Image: garlic clove2 by liz west via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat January 31, 2013 at 7:52 am

Oh, my dear, I’m so sorry about the ugly commenter. For the first many years of Velveteen Rabbi, I tried so hard to engage such people, to gently and lovingly show them that they had misunderstood me and that we could find common ground after all. But in recent months, my sense of what’s appropriate has changed. Maybe my boundaries are better. Maybe I’ve finally figured out that not everyone in the world is going to love what I have to say (especially when I’m talking about religion, faith, Israel — touchy subjects sometimes.) And I’ve adapted my comments policy (http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/vr-comments-policy.html) to show that if someone is there to pick fights with me or others, I reserve the right to ban them and to block their email address so that their further vitriol doesn’t reach my inbox. Life is too short. I don’t need to waste energy arguing with hateful people. I have a congregation to care for and a son to raise, you know?

Whew! Sorry — apparently that hit a nerve. :-)

I love the beginning of this post, btw. Beautiful turns of phrase. Reminded me instantly of being a Bennington MFA student and — during the six months between residencies — having my packets of poems returned to me each month by mail. Opening them with my stomach all a-flutter to find out what my advisor had said about that month’s work…

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Kristen January 31, 2013 at 2:39 pm

Thanks so much for directing me to your comments policy, Rachel. I love the way that you clearly, methodically spell out exactly what your comments section is all about. And I agree with you absolutely: life is too short to engage with someone who isn’t interested in a conversation, but rather a fight. (I hate conflict and have no interest in pursuing fruitless ones.)

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Andrea January 31, 2013 at 8:27 am

Oh, my, that stinks. I don’t know why people think the anonymity of the internet makes it an okay place to say things they wouldn’t say to one’s face. Just keep being who you are–open, honest and awesome and if someone doesn’t want to play nice, f*ck ‘em.

As for writing criticism, ugh. I hear you. I had a mentor last semester whose idea of a positive statement was, “This is the first transition that makes sense,” (seventeen pages in). This was after a first semester mentor who was basically my number one cheerleader. I got to the point where I could only put words on the page if a steady mantra of “F*ck you, [insert mentor's name]!” ran in my head. (You’re really going to think I have a mouth like a sailor after this comment. And, ahem, I’m afraid I do). It really shattered my confidence–I did not realize how much until I heard positive comments from three workshop leaders whose opinions I really respect. I had really been thinking, “Maybe I don’t really have any ability or potential to write at all.” Which is not to say that I don’t want to hear any criticism, but as one of my teachers said, it has to be phrased in a way the writer can hear it. Maybe some day I’ll be able to go back and look at his comments and not want to crawl under the desk and cry, but not right now.

As to thick skin, I love what Sage Cohen writes in the book Writing the Life Poetic (and I’m paraphrasing here), that the reason poets are poets (and I’d say it goes for all writers, except maybe hard-boiled journalists) is that we have thin skin–we’re sensitive–and to thicken our own skin would be to damage our greatest asset. I’m not sure how to stay sensitive and not be devastated by negative feedback at the same time, but it’s worth thinking about.

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Kristen January 31, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Your comment made me think back to the years I spent as a teacher. Man, I hope I was good at giving criticism in a gentle way, so that, as you say, “the writer can hear it.” I think I was pretty good at teaching writing, but I wonder if I was always as sensitive as I should have been – especially now that I realize how fragile some of us writerly creatures can be.

I love that Sage Cohen quote. Stay sensitive, my friend. And I likely will too. xo

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facie January 31, 2013 at 8:53 am

My skin is mostly thick. At recess at school last week, I was dancing to the music we were playing in the cafeteria, unafraid to shake my groove. My kid told me later that I had embarrassed her. I told her I was trying to show the kids it was okay to let loose, and I could not care less if half the kids thought I was nuts. Sure some were laughing, but a few who normally are reserved were actually moving a bit, so victory! But if everyone had given me strange looks, that would have bothered me.

I write my blog mostly for myself, both as an outlet and a back-up brain (my memory is lousy). I don’t get a lot of comments, but when I get the occasional negative one, I try (but don’t always succeed) to remind myself that I caused that person to think about/react to what I said. I have decided that is (usually!) better than no one saying anything, as it allows me to examine what I said, something I don’t always do since I mostly just write what comes to mind. But of course some people just don’t get it or refuse to see another point of view. Not much you can do about that.

You are a wonderful, thoughtful writer. Embrace that you are not there yet, because isn’t it really about the journey?

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Kristen January 31, 2013 at 2:46 pm

I LOVE the image of you dancing in the cafeteria. I’m going to channel that picture the next time I’m worrying too much about what someone else thinks because you’re absolutely right: it’s all about the journey. So I might as well dance my way through it. :)

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Lindsey January 31, 2013 at 9:37 am

Oh, UGH. I’ve been there. My skin is so thin I’ve often called myself skin-less. I have spent 38 years wishing I could take things less personally, be less reactive, realize it is ALMOST NEVER ABOUT ME. So far, very little progress. Sigh. xox

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Kristen January 31, 2013 at 2:47 pm

It is almost never about me.

It is almost never about me.

It is almost never about me.

(I’m just going to keep saying that until it sinks in a little…) xo

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Margot January 31, 2013 at 10:18 am

I’m thin skinned, but I have armor. I need, even thrive off, criticism. Especially perspectives I’ve never thought of before. However, words can really hurt so I spend a good amount of effort fending off those with dubious intent. The internet is scary that way. You can never really know what is coming or where that person is coming from. Nuture conversations with the commenters who respect you and take technical measure to protect against those who show they aren’t interested in participating in that capacity.

Also, I love that your posts vary. I never know what to expect when I see a new post and I just love that. Best of luck!

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Kristen January 31, 2013 at 2:48 pm

Thank you, Margot! I’m glad you appreciate the wanderings of my peripatetic mind! :)

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Shannon January 31, 2013 at 11:13 am

I think my skin tends toward the thinner variety. I may not react outwardly (much) to criticism, or even meanness that is directed at me. I may act tough. But it gets me on the inside.
I don’t want to change who I am, though. And I hope you won’t either. Perhaps if we both let the good things that people say penetrate our thin skin as much as the criticism, we will be okay.

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Kristen January 31, 2013 at 2:49 pm

Oh, wouldn’t that be nice? Why is it that I fixate on the one nasty thing rather than the 100 lovely ones? (I suspect I’m not alone in this, huh?) :)

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Melissa January 31, 2013 at 12:18 pm

I cannot believe you got trolled. When I started reading you years ago, what drew me to your writing was the kindness and thoughtfulness of your posts, and the fact that you were never inflammatory. The behavior was reflected in the comments, which were also polite, respectful, thoughtful. I am so sorry. Please don’t take it personally. You know that saying that everyone is fighting their own battle? That’s what I like to think of when I start taking things personally. I think my skin has gotten thicker in the last few years, but I have my moments of paranoia too.

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Kristen January 31, 2013 at 2:53 pm

It was actually a comment on a guest post I did at another site – it’s not like that writer has tons of controversial posts either, although her comments section can sometimes get a little heated. As you said, I think this woman was just in the middle of her own battle. So little of what she said had anything to do with what I’d written, it was clear that she was just looking to vent. (And that’s why, despite having written a post about it, I’ve actually moved on a lot more quickly than I would have if her attacks were more personal or were based on something I’d actually said.)

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Peitra January 31, 2013 at 2:16 pm

What a jerk! I think it’s smart that you ultimately ignored her. Something that has helped me become more thick skinned over the years is realizing that I don’t HAVE to respond to everything a person says. That itself is sometimes the strongest response.

In my (ahem) youth- I was told many times by several Persians that I have the skin of an onion- they have a saying “You’re so sweet, you’ve got the skin of an onion” (which sounds much more melodic in Persian, by the way). And on each occasion, I was upset crying. You’re sweet, you’ve got the skin of an onion, my friend!

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Kristen January 31, 2013 at 2:54 pm

Well, I guess that’s better than the breath of an onion! :)

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pamela January 31, 2013 at 2:21 pm

I have SUCH thin skin. Literally, I have that fair, thin, Irish freckled (now age-spotted) skin. And YES, comments are so hard for me. I can’t not take them personally:(

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Kristen January 31, 2013 at 2:55 pm

Fair? Check. Thin? Check. Irish? Check. Freckled/age-spotted? Check.

I feel your pain. :)

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Christie January 31, 2013 at 2:48 pm

Kristin, I so feel you. My skin is garlicky thin. Ugh. I never even heard of trolls til last week myself. It’s such a shock because like you my blog commenters are supportive, honest, funny and always kind. Always. Ugh. I know it’s part of the process but yikes. It hurts.

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Kristen January 31, 2013 at 2:57 pm

When I think of trolls, I usually think of those odd little plastic dolls with the big bellies and fuzzy hair. Maybe I will have to picture one of those guys the next time I come across an Internet troll. Not that I think they’re cute, but they’re certainly not as scary as the Internet ones can be.

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Cathy January 31, 2013 at 4:46 pm

I have pretty thick skin – except when my “fairness” button is pushed. Then I seem to lose all logical reason and immediately plunge into “what’s wrong with me”. Be gone with the trolls. There is a new favorite song I have because of one special line: “Don’t pay no mind to the demons. They fill you with fear.” (Phillip Phillips song Home in case you’re wondering.) I love that. We all have them and I think of them as my insecurities.

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lisa January 31, 2013 at 5:02 pm

I’ve spent too many years in the advertising industry to have thin skin! I used to keep a “jack-ass” file in my email so I could file away troll comments and replies. I’ve only received one troll comment on my blog in 3 years so I consider myself fortunate. Let the caustic comments rolls off your back. Life is too short and you really have to pity those people who think they need to attack to make their point. You have a beautiful blog, full of wonderful thoughts.

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Thekitchwitch January 31, 2013 at 6:52 pm

How on Earth did you attract a troll? I mean, I understand when I get one (because I’m obnoxious) but you? You are so lovely.

But. You got your first troll! You’ve truly arrived! People notice you enough to hiss at you. Backhanded compliment, but that’s the way I see it.

ps: Onion skin. But I fake it well.

I love you.

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Cecilia January 31, 2013 at 7:08 pm

Oh, Kristen…I am so sorry. You and I are very much alike, I think, so I can imagine what you are going through right now. My skin is Japanese rice paper thin. I’ve lived my whole life feeling I need to make everyone happy, and I take things very personally when I fail to do that. I even hate getting honked at on the road!

I got my first nasty comments late last fall, when I ventured beyond my blog to have a couple of posts syndicated on other websites. You hear about it happening to others all the time, and then it happens to you. It was really hard, Kristen, so I understand how you’re feeling. I actually have an interesting story that came out of one of the incidents – I emailed the commenter directly – and have a post in my draft folder about it. I will try and post it next week. Our exchange revealed that it wasn’t me, and the commenter admitted to reacting to her own issues when she read my post.

The words sting, but just know that a normal, healthy, happy person would NOT cut you down. Their need to fight and to make you feel bad says everything about them and nothing at all about you. You can write about how the sun came out today and if someone has an axe to grind, she will find a way to do it.

Hugs, Kristin. You’re definitely not alone, and the trolls are trolls.

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Perfecting Motherhood January 31, 2013 at 8:44 pm

The only really nasty commenters on my blog have been my in-laws, specifically on the post I wrote about my decision to end the relationship with their son/brother/etc. Until then I had no idea they even read my blog. I didn’t reply to the nasty comments. I didn’t even allowed them to be published. I figure this is my blog, mine and only mine, and I have the right to censor anyone or anything I see as inappropriate or hurtful, whether it’s directed at me or another commenter.

Sometimes things are better left off. As in “off” your blog. I hope it wasn’t me, by the way! ;-)

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Kristen February 1, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Ha! No, definitely not you. :)

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Aidan Donnelley Rowley January 31, 2013 at 9:13 pm

Oh I so relate to this. I have dealt with some meanies over the years and it just never gets that much easier for me. I find myself avoiding writing in places that have larger/less predictable audiences than my blog because I just don’t want to deal with the meanness I know is likely to come. My skin remains pretty thin and part of me wants to keep it that way. Is that weird? Impractical? Maybe.

Thanks for this. xox

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Denise January 31, 2013 at 9:16 pm

Like Pamela and you, my emotional sensitivity is matched by physical sensitivity of my Irish/freckled/thin/age-spotted skin/THIN skin. I don’t remember who said it first (maybe Kelly Corrigan?), but the word porous describes the lot of us perfectly. And, as one of your commenters so eloquently stated above, we wouldn’t be artists if we didn’t absorb the world.

Your opening line is exquisite.
Adore you.
xoxo

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Nina January 31, 2013 at 10:56 pm

I’m somewhere in between, although who knows how I’d feel if I were blatantly attacked for something ridiculous. I have a comment policy of “My blog is like a virtual home, and if you wouldn’t say your comment—as an invited guest—to my face, then it’ll get deleted.” That and if it’s just preachy, condescending and makes me go, “Umm…” lol.

Most of the ones I’ve deleted are just preachy; I don’t think I’ve ever had someone straight up attack me personally. If they did, I would probably just delete or ignore because it’s just not worth the energy. I suppose I have somewhat thick skin for the very reason that I put myself out there on a blog. It sort of comes with the territory. I absolutely however would not tolerate people who attack my commenters and readers, and I have deleted those with no hesitation.

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Mary @ A Teachable Mom January 31, 2013 at 11:41 pm

I adore your writing and could read you forever … I can’t imagine anyone having an issue with your topics/positions yet I get it that people who want to argue, spew vitriol or stir up passion will find a way to do that.

I am as thin skinned as they come and would bathe in that eye cream if it would do as promised. I imagine the only way to survive as our writing gets more exposure is to learn to detach from other people’s opinions (especially of those who don’t know me). A daunting task! A wonderful topic and post!

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Heather Caliri February 1, 2013 at 12:25 pm

I wrote an article a while back that people had negative feedback on. Their critiques, at first, were valid and made me think (even if I didn’t like being criticized). Then they went on to attack me personally, and it took a while to recover.
I am thin-skinned too, but am trying to grow out of that desire for everyone to like me. I want to put my words out there with boldness, and hell with the consequences. Love the Velveteen Rabbi’s comment policies.

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BigLittleWolf February 1, 2013 at 1:54 pm

Thick skin is a challenge – more so when it comes to what we care about most deeply. Writing, if we are writers. Children, if we are parents. Our integrity. Our intentions. Our desire to do good, as well as no harm, met at times with spite and daggers and we don’t understand why.

Having written for Huff Post for a few years now, in one of the more contentious verticals (divorce), I’ve had to develop a thicker skin. I haven’t accomplished “thick,” only an improvement over thin. People can be cruel; the seeming anonymity of the Internet has made it worse.

But for the sting of the spitefulness, there is compassion to offset it. That’s where I try to focus, knowing the next barb may be right around the virtual corner.

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ayala February 1, 2013 at 7:51 pm

My dear Kristen…so sad that she went out of her way to be mean to you :( You are wonderful and I love your words. xo

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Corinne February 1, 2013 at 11:05 pm

I’m so sorry that happened… I think I read somewhere that you know you’ve “arrived” in the internet world when you have trolls… but still, it stinks.
Another thin skinned one over here, so I really get it. Those things drive me crazy. But like others have said, it’s rarely about you, and mostly about them.

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Tiffany February 4, 2013 at 1:57 pm

What on earth did they find here to be nasty about?? Go away trolls!!!! We love Motherese and we will take you down!

I am thin skinned pretending to be thick. ;)

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Alecia @ Hoobing Family Adventures February 4, 2013 at 6:04 pm

I can’t figure out what the nasty commenter could have possibly taken offense to. It’s not like you write about topics that are controversial.

It is unnerving to get feedback like that. The Achiever in me doesn’t like to hear negative feedback even if I don’t agree with it or respect the person who is dishing it out.

I guess you will have to get used to it because when your book is published and you are a world famous author, you’ll open yourself up to all sorts of feedback. :)

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Kristen February 5, 2013 at 2:15 pm

Now you’re talking! xo

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Lady Jennie February 6, 2013 at 12:23 pm

I do NOT have thick skin. I would have done the same thing. And ooooh hugs against those stupid trolls.

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Jack February 6, 2013 at 8:53 pm

I run into the trolls more often than I like, but some of that is because of subject matter. Most of the time I don’t care what they say because they don’t know me and are just acting like a jerky because it is easy to do so online.

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