Last week, in a speech at NYU, Hillary Rodham Clinton quoted Eleanor Roosevelt. (This photo is just a joke, ok, Secret Service? Hillary is my BFF; she just might not know it yet.)
“Women in politics or public roles should grow skin like a rhinoceros,” she said.
I instantly felt the zing of truth: yes! oh please! For indeed, rhino skin would be MOST helpful.
But how? How do you grow a skin tough enough to ward off disparaging comments and mean-spirited critiques? When you stand out, speak up, and do something worth doing, haters are part of the deal… and they’re enough to make some of us quail.
This is something I think about a lot, since so many of my clients (+ me) don’t naturally have rhinoceros skin. We don’t even have baby mouse skin. Heck, sometimes we have no skin at all. We are just walking bunches of raw nerves and Very Big Feelings.
I’m sure you’re not like that. You have teflon bullshit-repellers, right? You were born whispering Expelliarmus, right? Can you please come live in my house?
Here is how it is for the rest of us:
We crumple at the tiniest of criticisms, let alone a public lashing the likes of which Ms. Clinton withstands on a regular basis.
We double over at the merest shred of negative feedback, either retreating into wounded despair or lashing out defensively.
We hear the deep knell of doom at the first hint of rejection, deciding it’s a bell that clearly tolls our own wretched unworthiness.
This might sound dramatic, but if you’re sensitive, empathic, intuitive or creative, you know what I’m talking about it.
It doesn’t help that if you’re nodding your head right now, not only does criticism hurt you deeply, you’re probably more skilled than the average bear at picking up on it. What hideous irony! The same skill-set that makes you a keen observer of the human condition and a master at reading subtext is the exact same skill-set that opens you wide up to the veiled hints, passive-aggressive jabs, and underlying innuendo that more robust folk seem oblivious to.
But here’s the thing. You tender folk, you with the souls of poets and mystics, you also have big dreams and fierce hearts.
And the truth is, we NEED you out there in the world.
You with your yearning and optimism, your gentle compassion and your enormous emotions– the world is hungering for your discerning leadership. We’ve had our fill of brash braggarts; we need you wise and loving souls to take your place among the leaders of the world.
Which means you’re going to need to grow some rhino hide, dearheart.
Here are some things you can do right now to get tougher while staying soft and open:
Stop trashing your nervous system. If you can’t watch TV news without feeling torn apart, then STOP WATCHING IT. If fluorescent lights make you twitchy with their evil flickery depressive hum, turn them off and light some candles. If you feel frayed every time you’re on a train or in a grocery store, buy some noise-canceling headphones. These small actions might seem silly, but don’t underestimate the cumulative wear and tear small irritants have on your nervous system. It’s crucial to give yourself more space and peace inside your own body so that you’re rested and ready for the important moments.
Develop a trusted inner circle. You need a coterie of kindred spirits you won’t hesitate to call in tears, in crisis, or in jubilation. Friends who will give it to you straight; who will tell you the truth; who’ve got your back. People who are grounded in the same values and goals as you who can see your greatest gifts and biggest vulnerabilities. They will become your compass as you steer through an adventurous life; they will point north for you when the way is murky and unclear. This inner circle might include friends, mentors, a coach, a mastermind group, or an informal board of directors. They are the ones who will help you sort out stinging-but-useful criticisms from mindless smear campaigns. Treat them like gold.
Understand the one-third rule of tribes. This is a brilliant concept from my friend and colleague Amy Pearson. Here’s the deal: 1/3 of people you meet are going to love you, no matter how much of a mess you are, because you’re their FAVORITE kind of mess. 1/3 of people really aren’t going to care, no matter how brilliantly you dance for them. You could do a triple flip on toe shoes, and they’d yawn politely. And 1/3 of people are going to just loathe you. Yup, EVEN IF you explain it really well and see their side too and yadda yadda– nope. They just aren’t going to like you. This isn’t bad news, it’s actually fantastic news because too many people spend 90% of their energy trying to win over their haters and detractors. This is a total waste of time. And if you contort yourself to try to be accepted by people who aren’t ever going to be on your team, you’ll become unrecognizable to your true kinfolk, the 1/3 who get you and like you even when you misspeak, fall down in the mud, and have spinach in your teeth. It can be incredibly freeing to stop trying to win over your haters and just focus on connecting with your real tribe– and more effective, too.
Don’t let haters into your inner circle. Period. I don’t care if you’re related to them, you work for them, they’re really famous, or you share a bed with them. If you’ve got someone in your life who sort of thinks you’re kind of a loser? And they inform you of this fact ‘for your own good’? And they kindly, thoughtfully tear down all your shiniest dreams and pooh-pooh your best ideas? And tell you that your taste in music and boots is kind of embarrassing? Get them out of your heart. Immediately. You may still need to work with them; you may still see them on a regular basis; but YOU are in charge of whose opinion you let into your tender vulnerable spirit.
Read the Harry Potter books again. Part of Harry’s journey is to learn to disbelieve the many, many people who doubt his intentions, his actions, and his character. The whole series is a how-to primer for empathic heroes in how to become tough warriors with true and tender hearts. Never doubt that the ones with The Biggest Feelings have the capacity to become true heroes, because a quest driven by love is always more powerful than one based on hate and fear. (Don’t agree with me? That’s okay. We just might not be in the same tribe.)
Don’t doubt the fierce power of seemingly fragile things. The snowdrops are coming up in Portland, and it takes mad courage to push those delicate blooms up through frozen soil, freezing water, and uncertain winds. But up they come, dreaming of sunlight and springtime.
So here’s to you, Gryffindor: first, create a space space inside yourself where harpies cannot tread. Ground into the truth of who you are as reflected in the eyes of people who love you. And get ready to practice, practice, practice unfurling yourself into the wide blue yonder.
One last hint: don’t try to parry Voldemort your first time out of the gate. I recommend you start with something small, like handling mean comments on your blog post for instance, before you try to take on the entire right-wing lunatic fringe.
You’ll have rhinoceros hide in no time.