Are you easily offended or hurt by the things other people say or do? In these tips about how to develop thicker skin, you’ll learn how to use Stoic wisdom to stop fixating on the words and actions of others.
Epictetus says that “it’s not things that upset us, it’s our judgment about things.” If we can take responsibility for the way we think, feel, and react to other people, our skin grows thicker, and we are able to focus our attention on those things we have control over in life.
It’s possible to go through life, letting your thoughts control you. One of the ways that Stoicism can change your life for the better is to realize that, as Marcus Aurelius says, “you have power over your mind– not outside events.” He goes on to say: “Realize this, and you will find strength.”
“Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.”
– Marcus Aurelius
If someone said something that bothered you or left you feeling insulted, the Stoics would remind you that you are allowing yourself to feel insulted. Epictetus tells us we are “complicit in the provocation” if “someone succeeds in provoking you.”
“Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation. Which is why it is essential that we not respond impulsively to impressions; take a moment before reacting, and you will find it easier to maintain control.”
When you feel offended or insulted, it can be hard to shift your perspective to realize that you have the choice to not feel that way. If you can successfully do this, though, your skin will start to thicken.
Has anyone ever said to you, “don’t take it personally”? The Stoics knew that we can choose how we respond to the things that happen, which means that we can choose whether or not we take things personally.
“You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you.”
– Marcus Aurelius
If you’re used to being highly sensitive in response to the words and actions of others, this can take some serious practice. To start, you’ll want to listen to your own thoughts and feelings when someone says something that offends or insults you. What is your reaction, and why? Could you choose to see it another way or simply not be bothered by it?
“When your sparring partner scratches or head-butts you, you don’t then make a show of it, or protest, or view him with suspicion or as plotting against you...You should act this way with all things in life. We should give a pass to many things with our fellow trainees."
– Marcus Aurelius
What this comes down to is taking responsibility for the things you have control over– which includes what you think, feel, and say. In fact, if someone is deliberately trying to hurt you, you’ll find that not letting their words upset you is the best response. In the words of Marcus Aurelius, “the best revenge is not to be like your enemy.”
For whatever reason, we have a tendency it seems to value the thoughts and opinions of other people more than we value our own thoughts and opinions. Marcus Aurelius noticed this thousands of years ago and made a note about it in his journal:
“It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinions than our own.”
– Marcus Aurelius
If you’ve worked hard to build a perspective on something, why would you let someone else’s opinion completely bowl you over? If you know what you believe and what you think, why would a snide comment ruin your day?
On the other hand, maybe you haven’t worked to build a perspective on something you offered your opinion on. Maybe you don’t know what you believe. Maybe you don’t know what you think.
If this is the case, it’s time to take control of your own mind and your own inner life. It’s time to start building perspective.
You simply aren’t going to be able to make everyone like you in life, no matter how amiable, nice, giving, and selfless you try to be. If you feel like you have thin skin, you might find that you can become less sensitive by working on accepting that some people you meet won't be your biggest fans.
If you’re aimless in life, you’re a lot more likely to get blown over by what other people say or do. When you haven’t found your purpose or even started looking for one, you can just get whisked around by the whims of other people.
When you feel like your skin needs thickening, consider whether you have a sense of purpose and meaning that you carry with you through the day. What are you trying to accomplish before you die? What do you want to do with your life?
"People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time-even when hard at work."
– Marcus Aurelius
Finding your purpose is no easy task, and it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. But if you work to develop meaning in your life, you’ll find that your skin naturally gets thicker over time. After all, when you know what you’re working toward and why the passing comments of others will roll off like water on a duck’s back.
If you’re stuck ruminating about the past, even if it’s something someone said five minutes ago, the best solution might simply be to take action and do something.
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”
– Marcus Aurelius
This could be the case if you’re upset over a passive-aggressive comment your mother made about your spouse or if someone criticized your business idea. Rather than pouting and fuming, this might be the perfect time to take action.
Reading Stoic quotes and texts can be fascinating, exhilarating, and inspiring. But it’s important to not simply think about them intellectually. The principles of Stoicism are meant to be applied to your everyday life.
If you have a bad habit of caring too much about what other people think and constantly ruminating on what other people say, it might be time to start moving around. Take what you’ve learned from Stoicism and incorporate it into your decisions and actions, including how you respond to what other people say.
There’s a funny thing that happens in life. If you have everything you need and never face any adversity, it doesn’t mean that you will automatically be happy and content without a care in the world.
What usually happens instead is that you find things to be unhappy about, no matter how trivial or superficial they are. If you were raised in a palace with a team of servants at your beck and call, a pair of shoes that don’t fit you perfectly could be cause for a full meltdown.
For someone that has had to weather the difficulties of everyday life, though, this would only be a slight inconvenience or annoyance. They have bigger fish to fry and are able to put such an occurrence into perspective.
In a bit, we’re going to talk about getting out of your comfort zone to thicken your skin. But another thing you can do is expose yourself to the true variety of human experience to help put what people say and do in perspective.
It likely isn’t hard to find examples of people that have endured much more difficult circumstances than you. History is full of famine, war, and disease, not to mention stories of adventurous and courageous figures that brought themselves to the very edge of human experience. The more you understand just how extreme life can be, the less likely you will be to let it impact you when someone makes a rude comment.
Our culture values comfort and convenience, so when confronted with the notion of leaving one’s comfort zone, a lot of people reasonably ask: why?
The reason is that you will find it difficult to acquire new skills and grow as a person if you don’t expose yourself to things that make you feel a little afraid and less in control. If you want to develop a thicker skin, you’ll need to take that step into the unknown over and over again in your life.
“No man is more unhappy than he who never faces adversity. For he is not permitted to prove himself.”
– Seneca the Younger
The more opportunities you give yourself to develop and grow, the less likely you will be to focus too much on what other people say or do.
As an example, imagine you’re a sheltered and spoiled teenager who has been given everything they need in life. If someone insults them in a fairly superficial way, such as making nasty comments about their outfit, they might feel extreme outrage and pain.
If that same teenager were to deliberately expose themselves to what lies outside their comfort zone over the years, the exact same insult would likely wash right over them without making the slightest dent in their emotional state. They will be able to put such an insult into perspective (i.e., it’s not that big of a deal) and also potentially have developed a value system in life that allows them to be genuinely unbothered by other people’s vapid concerns.
On the other hand, maybe people are voicing constructive feedback to you that you can learn to incorporate into your growth. If you’re too sensitive, you won’t be able to put their perspective to good use. Learning to get out of your comfort zone can help you identify useful criticism that you can use in your personal growth without getting bogged down and feeling sorry for yourself.
It’s terrifyingly easy to go through life in the modern world without developing an inner life. This is truly a shame, as Marcus Aurelius tells us that:
“Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul.”
– Marcus Aurelius
We will never succeed in building a thicker skin if we don’t have a source of strength within us if we don’t get in touch with our inner self and build an inner life.
“Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look.”
– Marcus Aurelius
Aurelius also says that “man must be arched and buttressed from within, else the temple wavers to the dust.” If we don’t do the work to get in touch with our inner selves and develop a rock-solid inner world, we will struggle to withstand the destructive power of other people’s thoughts, opinions, and actions.
One of the concepts in Stoicism that can have a tremendous impact on your life is starting to separate things into two categories: what you have control over and what you don’t.
“We should always be asking ourselves: ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’”
Epictetus tells us that there are certain things in our control, which are:
Other things aren’t in our control. These are:
What falls in the category of things that aren’t our own actions? The words, actions, and thoughts of other people.
Epictetus encourages us to “make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it occurs.” We can’t control what other people think about us, and we can’t control what others do and say. This means that these things fall into the category of “the rest” that we should try to take as it occurs.
If you are able to successfully separate what is and isn’t in your control, you’ll find that you’re a lot less bothered by the words and actions of other people.
No one is an island, and having strong connections to other people can help us endure difficulties and overcome obstacles. At the same time, though, the people we are around can have a deeply negative impact on us if we associate with individuals who have attitudes that are negative and unproductive. Epictetus warns us against this in the following quote:
“Other people's views and troubles can be contagious. Don't sabotage yourself by unwittingly adopting negative, unproductive attitudes through your associations with others.”
It’s, therefore, a good idea to be purposeful and considerate of who you spend your time with. If your high school friends seem to have a vested interest in you not changing and growing because it would disrupt the comfort of their own lives, you’ll have to think about whether these are people you want to spend time with. On the other hand, if you have a solid network of family and friends that support you and your journey as a person, don’t take it for granted.
We all have topics that are a bit more sensitive than others. Maybe you grew up in a household without much in the way of financial means, and a person’s well-meaning comment about your outfit makes you feel attacked because you misread where they are coming from, for example.
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
We all have a lens through which we look through life. The more we examine our own lives and become self-aware of the things that are more likely to set us off, the better positioned we are to deliberately thicken our skin.
A decidedly negative aspect of our culture is the emergence of self-victimization as a way of gaining social clout. If you feel like a victim or even seek opportunities to portray yourself as a victim, you’ll never develop thicker skin.
The ancient Stoic philosophers each had their share of experiences that could leave them feeling like a victim. Epictetus was born into slavery, Musonius Rufus was exiled several times, and Seneca the Younger was ordered to commit suicide. Even Marcus Aurelius, once the most powerful man in the world, was betrayed by his most trusted general and the “victim” of an attempted coup.
Did they allow these experiences to become excuses for why they suffered misfortune in their lives? No. They believed that you could either focus on your power or your powerlessness in life– we can’t control external events, but we can control how we feel about them and react to them.
It’s easy to remember the things that happen to us that we see as bad or unfortunate, but not as simple to keep all of the blessings of life top of mind.
“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love.”
– Marcus Aurelius
The Stoics remind us that focusing on the things we don’t have is a recipe for unhappiness. Recognizing what we do have can help build resilience against feelings of dissatisfaction, entitlement, and envy.
“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
If you’re offended by something someone said or someone hurt your feelings, you wish that things were other than they are. You’re likely also overlooking all of the things that others have said that you appreciated or that made you feel good about yourself. By focusing on being grateful for your life, you’ll find that you’re less impacted by what other people throw at you.
As Einstein famously said, “a person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” Rather than being afraid of risks and petrified that other people will see you make mistakes, work to embrace failure and rejection.
“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”
You can’t pin all of your hopes on one job application or one girl you want to ask out on a date. If you do, rejection will be crushing. Instead, look at your life as an opportunity to keep pushing yourself. If you do, there is no question that your skin will get thicker.
In the same way that you will develop calluses on your fingers if you play guitar regularly that help you play for longer without experiencing pain, you’ll find that embracing rejection and failure will thicken your skin in the face of other peoples’ opinions, thoughts, and actions.
If you read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, you’ll see that he’s constantly humbling himself.
He knows that his role as emperor could make him prideful, so he actively works against that force in his own life. Other Stoics also deliberately humbled themselves– Cato would walk barefoot and bareheaded to battle the potential to be corrupted by power and success, while Seneca experimented purposefully with poverty.
“Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues.”
If you find that you are highly sensitive to what others say and do, it’s possible that it might be time to work on building humility. Pride is a destructive force, and humility destroys it. When you avoid being overly prideful, you also avoid caring too much about what others think.
Amor fati is a Latin phrase that is translated to “love of one’s fate.” The idea here is to accept and even embrace everything that occurs in your life– even the things you judge as “bad.”
The truth is that most of us can look back at some of the worst things that happened to us and see that there we experienced positive benefits from them. Adversity helps us grow and become stronger. It helps us learn about life and make better decisions the next time around– so long as we don’t let it destroy us.
“Welcome every experience the looms of fate may weave for you.”
– Marcus Aurelius
Practicing the love of your own fate can allow you to not put so much stock in what others say or do. It can help you focus on controlling what you can and adjusting your perspective on things you can’t.
Studies have found that journaling has a number of benefits, including:
Another thing that journaling can do for you is help you develop a thicker skin. You don’t have to be a great writer to start journaling– it can be helpful to write in a stream of conscious way and not censor yourself. Remember that no one ever has to see this writing, so you don’t need to be worried about what others might think of it.
“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
– Anne Frank
Journaling can help you put your thoughts down on paper and free yourself from the burden of cycling thoughts. It can help you untangle what your feelings are and gain the self-awareness necessary to take greater control of your mind.
It’s hard to develop a thicker skin when you remain unaware of how and what you are feeling. With regular journaling practice, you’ll likely find that you are more conscious of your emotions and less likely to allow yourself to be impacted by the words and actions of others over which you have no control.
Another Stoic practice that can help you develop thick skin is memento mori. The Stoics believed that death is a natural process that cannot be avoided and therefore should not be feared or viewed as negative.
“No man can have a peaceful life who thinks too much about lengthening it.”
– Seneca the Younger
When you’re afraid of death, whether consciously or unconsciously, it holds you back from truly living, at the same time, it keeps you from thinking about the reality of death, which will visit us all.
If you can remember that you are going to die (and so is everyone you know), it can help put things in perspective. The statement your relative proposed that you found insensitive doesn’t seem to hold as much weight when you look at the bigger picture. Your coworker's passive-aggressive slight is less likely to ruin your day when you regularly meditate on the fact that you are going to die.
"Only those are fit to live who do not fear to die; and none are fit to die who have shrunk from the joy of life and the duty of life. Both life and death are parts of the same Great Adventure."
– Theodore Roosevelt
Practicing memento mori can also help you develop your goals and find your purpose. A lot of the small stuff you usually sweat will begin to dissipate as you gain a larger perspective of life and its finitude.
We’ve all had the experience of lying awake at night reliving a conversation that happened earlier in the day or even one that occurred a decade ago. We can fixate on things that people have said to us, the discovery of people talking behind our backs, or any number of other occurrences we can perceive as insults.
“Remind yourself that past and future have no power over you. Only the present—and even that can be minimized. Just mark off its limits. And if your mind tries to claim that it can’t hold out against that…well, then, heap shame upon it.”
– Marcus Aurelius
The Stoics remind us that all we truly have is the present moment, and getting lost in the past or the future is focusing on things that are outside of our control. You’ll find that the more you practice living in the present, the less likely you are to ruminate on things that you allow to offend or insult you.
When someone says something that offends or bothers you, you’ll never be able to thicken your skin if you’re always reacting without thinking. Instead, you’ll need to practice self-awareness and control your impulse to be defensive, combative, or self-victimizing.
This doesn’t mean that you should pretend you don’t feel the way you feel. What it does mean, though, is that you should be deliberate in how you respond. This also doesn’t mean that you should lie about how you feel and try to come off as “stoic” because you think that’s the right thing to do.
What it does mean is that you should take a second and breathe. Zoom out and put the comment in perspective. Remember that you aren’t in control of what someone else says or thinks, but you are in control of what you say and think. If you’re able to remember this in the moment over and over again, you’ll find that your skin gets thicker naturally. Soon enough, something that would have given you an intense tinge of emotional response doesn’t ruffle your feathers in the slightest.
If you’re looking for more ways to apply Stoicism to your everyday life, check out these 10 daily Stoic meditations to start your morning.