Some people can take criticism like a champ and they use criticism as a learning tool to improve themselves at home or on the job. They have an easy time laughing at themselves when the joke is at their expense and it is rare to see them get upset about anything negative that seems to come their way. They know themselves and love themselves enough to know that the jokes and the criticisms aren’t personal and they don’t allow it get to them.
I am not one of those people.
I have been told that I am “thin-skinned” for a majority of my adult life. A joke made at my expense can bring me to tears, I detest criticism, and when I receive it, it will eat at me for days.
I’ll never forget the first performance evaluation I received when I worked in corporate America. You would have thought by the tears streaming down my face when I left my supervisor’s office that I had just been fired; when in reality, all I was told was that I needed to watch how I coded invoices because they had caught me on a few mistakes. But to me, that little bit of criticism was the end of the world.
“You need to grow a thicker skin!” I have been told by co-workers, bosses, college classmates, friends, and my fiancé. “I can’t believe after what you have been through in your life that you are that sensitive. You’d think you would have a tougher skin.”
You’d think – but you’d be far from correct in assuming that.
When I was young, I had a lot of jokes made at my expense, a lot of criticism directed my way, and my self-esteem was knocked down to the dirt on a daily basis.
During my childhood, my mother made sure that a day didn’t go by where I wasn’t humiliated or put down by her. She enjoyed giving me lists and lists of chores to do for the day and picking apart every single thing I did wrong after I thought I had her chores completed. She looked for mistakes, looked for errors, and when she found one, she exploited it and made sure the world knew what an idiot I was.
Jokes were a cruel way for Mom to make fun of me in front of strangers or family members, and when people would laugh at the things Mom would say, I wanted to crawl into a deep hole and never come out.
And I know, that was my childhood; I should know by now the reasons Mom lashed out and me and picked on me so much. I should know that criticism is meant to help someone and that a little bit of criticism doesn’t mean that I am a complete failure. I should know that jokes are harmless and a little ribbing never really hurt anyone.
I should know, but my automatic reaction to this day is to ball up and get upset anytime a joke or a little piece of criticism comes my way.
My brain is screaming all of the common sense things I have learned about my childhood and Mom over the years, but my body won’t listen. My body tenses up, my fists ball up, and my head immediately hangs down. I would almost venture to say that I can’t control it; I can’t control how my body acts when my feelings are hurt and I revert back to the way I acted when Mom hurt my feelings when I was a child.
Not only is this frustrating to me, but it’s frustrating to those around me. It frustrates people who feel as though they have to walk on eggshells around me because they are afraid to hurt my feelings. It frustrates people to have to be careful not to joke around with me too much because I may take it the wrong way and go off to another room to cry. It frustrates them because they don’t understand how or why my feelings got hurt by something they said in jest.
I have begun talking out my feelings when I get hurt instead of balling up and staying quiet. I have begun to tell my loved ones when my feelings get hurt and why what they said hurt me so much.
The more I talk, the more I begin to realize that my skin is “thin” because I am so afraid of rejection. I am afraid that if I don’t live up to others’ expectations, that they will throw me away as easily as my mother did. If I mess up at work; they will get rid of me. If my fiancée teases me or makes a light-hearted joke at my expense; he is tired of me and will dump me soon. If my friends criticize me for something I did; they must not want to be my friend anymore.
I am terrified of rejection and being thrown away like yesterday’s garbage because of something that I did wrong.
But you know what?
The people in my life now aren’t my mother. The people in my life now aren’t going to throw me away and emotionally abuse me when I make a mistake. The people in my life now love me through thick and thin and a little joke or a little dig here and there isn’t the end of the world. They still love me, they aren’t going to throw me away, and the last thing they ever want to do is to hurt me and make me cry.
The people in my life now are not my mother, not my abusers, and not my bullies from childhood. Every single time I get upset about something as insignificant as a bit of criticism, I need to remember that before I burst into tears. My life now is not my past; and the last thing I want to do is push those people who love me so much away because I can’t let my past hurts go.
Love yourself, and the rest will follow.