Calling Bullshit on the Myth that Every Writer Needs to Grow a Thick Skin

Cave WarriorFor a long time in my life I did not admit I was a writer. It was something I was privately proud of, but I also felt it was unsafe to tell this to other people. Probably because I knew that immediate questions would follow. Oh really? What have you written? Can I read it?

It wasn’t that I was ashamed of what I had written, or that I was suffering from self-doubt (although there was some of that, too). It was that I knew it was common procedure for a writer to give her work to others and get their “valuable feedback” on it. It was widely understood that I should be seeking this valuable feedback wherever I could and using it to improve my writing. It had been drilled into me that I should read and listen to the most fierce criticism without flinching. That this would make me stronger. That all “real” writers did this and were better for it.

And that was how I knew something must be wrong with me.

I couldn’t seem to grow the thick skin that all writers were supposed to have. I just couldn’t. Every single time I received the “valuable feedback” of someone who I felt hadn’t understood my story, or what I was trying to say, someone who had no eye for seeing the potential in a budding artist and little natural empathy to encourage that budding, I felt physically ill. My stomach dropped, my face flushed, prickly waves of resistance raced across my skin. Sometimes my hands would go numb. And just as quickly as the adrenaline rush hit me, it was gone, only to be replaced by nausea and a dull thudding headache.

Then I wanted to cry. Long and hard. This is when I went into full retreat mode. My all-important goal was to get away, as fast as I could, without anyone else possibly noticing that something was wrong with me. Back to the safety of my room—or a closet or bathroom in a pinch—or even my car. Just somewhere where no one else was and no one else could see me so that I could sit and be shaky and weird and numb and cry a little if I had to.

This was my secret. I was incapable of growing the thick skin. In fact, it appeared that I was actually freakishly over-sensitive  to the point where I dissolved into a pile of big bawling baby whenever someone came down hard on my work.

How was I ever going to make it as a writer if I couldn’t deal with the type of slash-and-burn commentary the editor’s red pen was famous for? If I couldn’t ever learn to take the cold (and sometimes cutting) comments of my creative writing professors?

I couldn’t even get my body  under control when I felt anything near discouragement circling around my writing. There was no way I was going to magically be able to turn off my super intense emotions.

If you are an empath, an INFJ, an INFP, a healer, an Idealist personality type, a Highly Sensitive Person, or emotionally intuitive in any way, I know that you have probably experienced the very same symptoms I did when faced with harsh criticism on your writing. The racing heart. The dry mouth. The trembly feeling in all your limbs. The clenching, burning knots in the stomach. Not only are these symptoms uncomfortable, they’re really embarrassing. When you have this type of emotional reaction to getting feedback on your work, it tends to make you feel like you’re about three years old and just wet your pants in front of everyone at school.

What took me so long to figure out was that I could not help my intense emotional reaction to harsh criticism of my work. And “harsh” has many meanings. Sometimes it’s easily categorized as feedback that isn’t constructive at all, and instead is blatantly unfair. But many times feedback can come across as “harsh” to a Sensitive Intuitive if we feel that the reader doesn’t understand our story, doesn’t empathize with our characters, or doesn’t “get” us  as people.

The sad thing is that most Sensitive Intuitives will blame themselves and continue to bash their head against the wall trying to grow this absurd thick skin that they think will solve everything. But because of the way Sensitive Intuitive writers are biologically wired, if they are successful in growing any semblance of a thick skin, they will effectively shut down their own power source. Because what they’ve really only succeeded in doing is blocking their heart center, their very own light.

If we don’t have full and unrestricted access to our heart center at all times, we will be unable to write, period.

If you’re interested in learning more about why the thick skin doesn’t work for Sensitive Intuitive writers and what they can do to move forward without it, you might be interested in checking out my book: The INFJ Writer. It’s not only for INFJs, but also for any writer who is an intuitive personality type (INFP, ENFJ, ENFP), an empath, or HSP.

Once you start finding out more about who you are and how you tick, finding the strength to do good creative work is going to get so much easier. And you’ll also discover that one can be a warrior, and still be sensitive.

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17 Comments

  • Reply Christy Esmahan 14 June, 2016 at 10:32 am

    I loved this post and can’t wait to read your book! It’s on my kindle, waiting for me!!

  • Reply Catherine North 14 June, 2016 at 11:15 am

    I love this post too! It’s a new model of thinking that’s hugely liberating for writers who struggle with criticism.

    I’ve also learned from you that it’s possible to be kind and still provide valuable feedback. It’s a question of tone and language, and an empathy for what the writer is trying to achieve.

    The most painful thing I find is people hating my characters, because they’re so real to me and also similar.

  • Reply Jeri 14 June, 2016 at 12:34 pm

    I’m realizing more and more what made me tick nearly two decades ago when I was in love with the idea of being a writer doesn’t have much in common with what makes me tick today. It’s quite the task figuring out how much my creative process has changed over the years, but little by little, I’m figuring it out. Your book sounds very interesting.

  • Reply Martin Andrew 14 June, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    These feelings are understandable, when writing something you are baring your soul in to those words. You are opening yourself up, contributing your inner self regardless of whether it is fiction, non fiction, poetry. Those words you are spilling on to the page are a part of you that is inevitably going to be open to criticism. How you choose to present your grammar, formulate your sentences is all apart of you subtly explaining the type of person you are. Writing for me is a very personal thing and is a description of who that person is.

  • Reply Brigid Amos 14 June, 2016 at 6:23 pm

    Great post Lauren! This is why, when we formed Angels Playwriting Collective, we developed a set of critique rules. We forget them sometimes, but whenever anyone gets carried away, we can bring them back to the rules. Ideally, a level of trust builds up within a writing group, and in the case of ours, people are eager and grateful for the feedback because they know they will have a better play. But that takes structure, leadership, and practice. I would definitely warn any novice writer to be very careful about handing their work over to just anyone. Some people really don’t want to help you improve your writing, they just want to tear you down. The other bit of advice is to listen for the feedback that resonates with you. Out of a bunch of things people say, it may be only one thing, but you will know it when you hear it. The rest you can just throw into your mental trash bin, because it is of no use to you.

  • Reply Charity 14 June, 2016 at 7:02 pm

    Interesting post.

    I (ENFP) actually don’t have a huge problem with constructive criticism, because I often am far ahead in imagining the worst, so by the time I get a criticism, it’s often way less terrible than all the different potential criticisms I anticipated from that person.

    But there again, I generally don’t invite constructive criticism from strangers. I pick people I trust, who respect my feelings, who know how to tell me when something is wrong in sensitive language, and can help offer suggestions as to how to “fix” it. A lot of criticism can be generalizations, which is ultimately unhelpful. Unless a person can articulate what’s wrong, and how I can fix it, I tend to take their criticisms with a pinch of salt.

    So, I take criticism fairly well. I cannot seem to give it, however; I worry too much about hurting feelings. 😛

  • Reply Clarissa 15 June, 2016 at 10:55 am

    Thanks for this post, Lauren! I’ve already mentioned how freeing it was to read your wonderful book, but I’ll say it again. I can also relate to what Catherine said about people hating her characters. I remember the first time a critique partner called my characters “unattractive” (he didn’t mean physically). I went home and cried in a dark room for an hour, feeling ridiculous.

    I also feel guilty for buying into the “thick skin” model to the point that I’ve tried to teach it to my students. I feel torn about the issue, though, because academia is not an easy place to be for Sensitive Intuitives. As valuable as our insights and academic work are, we can also be easily crushed by the aggressive, competitive environment. All the encouragement in the world won’t help my sensitive students when reality hits them. I can’t protect them, so the only way of coping that I can see is to tell them to grow that thick skin, even though it won’t work. I feel stuck in this dilemma.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 15 June, 2016 at 12:57 pm

      Wow that’s tough Clarissa! And that’s probably the reason I never did very well in academia. There were parts of my college years I liked, but overall I was so relieved when it was all over. I majored in Literature and I had many moments when I thought to myself that getting a degree in Lit seemed to be killing my love for it.

      I completely understand why you would feel stuck in that situation!

  • Reply Alyssa Hollingsworth 17 June, 2016 at 6:01 am

    I think some of the difference is in the wording. What some might consider “thick skin,” I consider “a discerning eye.” While as an INFJ I often can’t control the initial plunge and physical feelings that come with criticism, years of workshopping have made it easier for me to digest hard feedback to the point that my physical symptoms only last a few seconds.

    I don’t know if that will remain true when my books are on the shelf and one-star reviews come in (as they always do). Unlike my Slytherin writer friends, it’s harder for me to deal with rejection from an out-right stranger than from someone I know. So, we’ll see how that goes.

    But while I’m still sensitive to others’ feedback, I’ve learned to deal with it in safe and constructive ways. I do think that’s necessary for the mental health of us intuitive folk!

  • Reply Ty Unglebower 17 June, 2016 at 8:29 am

    I can’t say that I experienced the physical symptoms you mention here, but one of the main reasons I left a local writing group was, in a sense, I got tired of hearing what other people, most of whom where on the same level of success as I was, telling me what they didn’t like about my writing. It all seemed to be more about how they would have written it, as opposed to how to improve what I had written.

    That of course may be the specific problem of that exact group, but the concept is more universal for me. I think in the end, we write what we are going to write, what matters to us, in the language that speaks to us best. Somebody will enjoy it, and somebody will despise it, but I’m not sure we are better off paying strict attention to the latter.

  • Reply Glynis Jolly 18 June, 2016 at 6:25 am

    I’m an INFJ. I can take criticism, but only from people I believe are qualified. An editor can mark up my manuscript and scribble notes. I read it all, hurt a little, but get into fixing what makes sense to change. Yet, if my mother does the same thing, a dark thick cloud appears over my head that may not leave for months. For me, my mother is not qualified to make sure judgments.

    • Reply Christy Esmahan 20 June, 2016 at 1:27 pm

      That is exactly me too!! 🙂

  • Reply Kimberly Murphy Wilbanks 5 July, 2017 at 3:43 pm

    I sympathize with your dilemma. I loathed the admonition to grow a thick skin. Somehow I’ve come out on the other side of that, but I would not say it’s because I grew a thick skin. What you do in this piece is strike a blow for the right to continue to be sensitive, even though feedback wrecks you. I am assuming you do not advocate letting oneself be gutted constantly. So what is your recommended alternative?

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 5 July, 2017 at 4:08 pm

      I think the best alternative is learning to draw, and hold, firm boundaries. This comes down to trusting yourself and listening to your own intuition about any piece of feedback you receive. First, where is the feedback coming from? Is it coming from a trusted colleague who you’ve known over the long term and who has given you a lot of good advice in the past? Or is it coming from someone who you just met in a critique group and doesn’t seem to be your audience? That question of audience is the second issue to look at. Is the person who is giving you feedback someone who has experience reading the genre you are writing in? Do they enjoy the genre? Are they making a comment on a technical aspect of writing craft? Or are they offering an emotionally-charged opinion because they are reacting to something they don’t agree with in your story? These are the types of questions to ask yourself whenever you receive questionable feedback.

      • Reply Kimberly Murphy Wilbanks 5 July, 2017 at 6:15 pm

        Yes, strengthening boundaries is what I did. I figured out how to value my ideas and impulses while realizing there is no shame in having to learn how to shape them into something mutually intelligible to both me and a reader. I also finally grokked the notion that while my ideas are of me, they are not me. Again, more clearly drawn and strengthened boundaries. To me, mastering the craft of writing is learning the sleight-of-mind necessarily to bring a reader into my world by activating things in their neural wiring that unlock experiences common enough to us all to be mutually intelligible. But, now that I think of it, thickened skin also symbolizes a boundary that still continues to exchange with its environment. It is still a permeable, if selective membrane.

        But…now that I think of it

  • Reply Sharilee 2 October, 2017 at 9:39 pm

    Hi Lauren,

    I have rediscovered your blog because a writer in one of my Facebook groups mentioned it. Three years ago, when I first trying to get into writing, I was part of a freelance writing group and the leader of the group said made a comment much to the effect that I wasn’t cut out to be a writer because I was worried about _____ a certain issue with an editor. A few months later, she was offering free blog critiques to anyone that asked and with my blog, she flat out said that I wasn’t cut out for blogging because I couldn’t decide on a niche.

    I was so crushed I felt like she had punched me in the face. Both times, I reached out to her as a mentor and she completely put me down, personally. Not my work but me. I was so shocked, and it was made even worse by the fact that I was paying for her membership. I am totally an INFP and what you have written here describes me to a t. All of my life, I have heard, “get a thicker skin” but for someone that is sensitive, that’s asking them to be a different person. Our sensitivity is what makes us adept writers and it’s a package deal. Thanks so much for articulating this. Much love.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 5 October, 2017 at 10:41 am

      Hi Sharilee 🙂

      First of all, I want to say that I am so, so sorry you went through that. I have had similar experiences and I know it just takes so long to bounce back from it. You probably already know this, but I want to reinforce that whatever that woman said to you, all of her harsh critique, had very little to do with you and everything to do with her. It’s possible she grew up in a home where brutal judgment was the norm and so that’s what she learned. We really will never know. But what is clear is that she is not a match as a person for you, either as a friend or a professional contact.

      Second of all, you can always email me to chat about writing or blogging! I’m at writecitysf@gmail.com and I love making new writing friends and am always willing to help wherever and however I can.

      Thanks so much for reading 🙂

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