I’ve often complained (and by “complained,” I mean “bragged”) that one of the difficulties of my job teaching teenagers is that they are much too interesting as people, which means that it requires regular, fairly vigorous discipline to not just let them talk through their voice lessons. Partly this complaint serves as part of my ongoing rebuttal against the popular notion of young people as dispassionate smartphone zombies, but honestly the struggle is real. Occasionally, I will meet up with a student for coffee so that we can talk, guilt-free, to our heart’s content, and it was one such recent meeting that included discussion of developing a “thick skin,” which sensitive kids are often told they must do in order to succeed and be accepted by society.
This particular student is a gifted young writer, a fierce advocate for those with less privilege than she, and a caring, loyal friend to her peers. All of those things require compassion, empathy, and sensitivity to other people’s circumstances and pain. She’s also been told that she’s “too sensitive” and that she needs to develop a “thicker skin.” Personally, I think this is a crock.
Yes, learning how to manage your own feelings is part of becoming a functional, productive adult in the world, but the idea that a person can be simultaneously sensitive to other people’s pain while entirely indifferent to their own seems honestly ludicrous to me. The same sensitivity that makes this girl take notice when someone else is being hurt or belittled by a teacher or a fellow student doesn’t just shut down when the person being hurt and belittled is her. Of course she recognizes that it’s happening. Of course she feels it. I’m not saying she shouldn’t try to deal with these feelings in a productive way, but crying is dealing. Allowing herself to acknowledge and examine her feelings is dealing. Pretending those feelings don’t exist is not dealing, yet it seems to me that’s most often what’s expected.
Pretty much everything I have ever done as a job—acting, singing, teaching, writing—is made possible by putting myself in other people’s shoes, working to understand experiences that aren’t my own and spending a whole lot of time letting myself feel and find expression for those feelings. Breaking down the barriers that get in the way of that was hard work for me as a young person, but once they were down, they were down for good. Being that vulnerable is terrifying—especially as a young person—but it’s also what gave me the ability to become an artist and a teacher. Learning to manage the consequences of that vulnerability as an adult has been even harder, but nothing about it feels like developing a “thick skin.” The skin is as thin as it ever was. It has to be. I’ve just learned how to absorb the wounds such that I can control how and when I express the pain they create. This is the price of empathy, and it’s certainly the price for creating or teaching art. I obviously think it’s worth it, and I’d say the same to anyone. But we should stop pretending to kids that it doesn’t or shouldn’t hurt. It freaking does.