Sunday, November 24, 2013

Thick Skin

We hear it a lot. It is supposed to be a sign of strength. Someone has a thick skin. But what does that really mean? We think it means they can handle whatever is thrown at them. We think it means words do not harm them. We think it means people do not take things personally.

But what does it really mean? What does it mean not to have thick skin?

Lawyers are simply expected to have a thick skin. Although all professionals have to learn some level of objectivity in their work, somehow lawyers are expected to be more stoic about it. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of types of law, but lawyers are often lumped into one category in terms of personality. We're supposed to be Type A, ruthless fighters who, by the way, have a thick skin. Lawyer ads exemplify this when lawyers are  compared to eagles and sharks and tigers. We are tough and often ruthless and definitely fight for our clients.

But that sort of mentality also comes with a price.

I know a lot of lawyers, and very few of them actually meet that description. But somehow deep down, I see a lot of lawyers think they have to meet that description. They feel they have to pretend to be strong even when the work is incredibly hard. They feel they have to push through pain, stress, fear, etc., just to show they are good enough to practice. They have to ignore the pain their clients feel because the law is reason devoid of emotion. That charade causes some people to disconnect from their true nature and forget that it is okay to be vulnerable. A thick skin is supposed to protect our inside from the harsh realities of the outside. 

And how do we show thick skin? Does it mean that we never sleep? Never take care of ourselves? Never show that we are upset? Never show that we need help? If we believe as a society that thick skin equals strength, does that mean those who do not have a thick skin are weak? 

At times, it seems as though that is exactly what the legal profession suggests. More than once, I have overheard lawyers telling stories - and laughing - about the person who cried on the witness stand. But when they tell those stories, I realize they are talking about the people I find the strongest in what they do. They are the ones I admire. I do not necessarily admire them because of their tears, but I know who they are discussing, and inevitably, it is the people I trust. Of course I trust people who do not cry, but tears are rarely a reason not to trust someone, particularly in certain types of work.

There is another aspect to a thick skin that involves not taking care of ourselves as we should. I have seen several articles floating around facebook about the vacation time Americans leave unused while the rest of the world uses every last day of it. And I have heard Americans call those people lazy. Interestingly, more and more people around the world are starting to follow the American model, which I do not understand, but it is happening nonetheless. Why do we feel this need to push ourselves and show everyone else how pushed we are? Why do we feel the need to never look "weak" in public? What part of taking a break, showing emotions, or even being vulnerable makes us so afraid?

I actually do not believe the biggest reason has to do with showing others how strong we are. It is that in some ways we actually feel less when we put on the thick skin charade, and in this world, that can have its advantages . . . in the short term. The world can be difficult to see. As news comes at us from all sides, we see the atrocities of the world from which we were able to hide only a generation ago. Being vulnerable to it is scary because it is scary to see the pain that others experience. When the Buddha first left his palace, he could not believe the horrors he saw. But then he decided to do something about it. He decided to show his followers a way through.

Similarly, yoga teaches us another way than believing we always need to have a thick skin. Yoga teaches us to be softer and more open to the possibility of feeling. And sometimes that can be scary. But arguably, in the long run, it also makes us stronger. Instead of hiding from the world in which we live, we learn to live within it and connect to people on deep levels.

And yoga shows us what strength is from a different point of view. We can be strong when we are vulnerable and scared and unsure. In fact, that is where our true strength lies. Our thick skin is no match to a yoga mat. On the mat, we cannot hide from ourselves, but it is the fact that we see everything about ourselves that makes us stronger. It often does not feel that way, but as we go deeper into our practice, we find a sense of strength we didn't know we had.

All too often, however, we think the true sign of strength is a thick skin. But that can cut us off from feeling anything at all. It can cut us off from the world around us. It can be important not to take what happens in our lives too personally, but the concept of a thick skin has moved us out of ourselves and into a world where the only way to be strong is to hide from what we are truly feeling. And that only leads to more dis-ease and distress later.

How often do you find yourself saying you have a thick skin? Has it served you? Are you willing to break it down and see something different?

Namaste!

© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.
The Post, Thick Skin, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.

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