I have a long and storied history of consistently projecting all of my own worst fears onto statements from friends, employers, colleagues, strangers, and faceless hoards of internet blabber-mouths alike.
A strongly-worded comment about parenting on a message board can leave my stomach churning for days in anger and self-loathing. I can turn one sentence from my spouse into the inescapable impression that he is simply waiting for the arrival of some paperwork from his lawyer to begin divorce proceedings. I am able to take any look, conversation or internet magazine article down into my custom-made ‘Fear & Judgement Dungeon’ and dissect its tone, language, and delivery for slights and personal attacks of any kind.
If this was a superpower, I’d rule the world.
I always come up with the same conclusion from down in the Dungeon: everybody must hate me.
This conclusion, however wrong-headed it is, leaves me feeling pissed off and defensive. This happens, like, a lot.
Let me give you a recent example of how my thin skin left me feeling like less of a person AND like punching someone in the throat.
I read the Facebook status of an acquaintance. She was asking whether it was appropriate for a professional singer to own a pet. In the responses, a mutual acquaintance had written something along the lines of, “It’s better than a husband and kids, because then your career is over. Really.”
Any guesses as to the gender of the commenter?
I am familiar with the commenter, as he (you guessed correctly!) sings at the same church as the other singer and I. Here’s where the magic happened: I took that comment – a comment not directed at me, nor relevant to my life – as personally as if he had walked into my house and said to my own face that my musicianship is worthless, as I won’t ever have a ‘career’ – what with my marriage and progeny, and all.
My rational brain tried to kick in, urging me to take things in context. The singer for whom the comment was meant is bound for an international career. While that still leaves the statement completely paternalistic in nature, it also speaks of an unfortunate truth, one that ambitious women have been mired in for many years. So, my rational brain said to me, calm down and don’t take this personally.
Enter the rest of my psyche, which would not be satisfied until it spent twenty minutes with that two-sentence reply down in my ‘Fear & Judgement Dungeon’, taking it apart piece by piece and wringing as much outrage from it as I possibly could.
Is this guy implying that my musical efforts aren’t worth anything, as they are not attached to the cache of a ‘career’?
Is he suggesting that because I chose to marry and birth children, I shut myself off from having even the small-scale career I am aiming for? (I never wanted the big diva job, to begin with.)
How could he possibly be unaware that huge opera stars like Renee Fleming, Beverly Sills, and Anna Netrebko all procreated with their husbands?
I have to sing in front of this guy – what sort of thoughts are going through his head when he hears me perform?
Uh, huh. Yeah. I take it just that far.
Reading these thoughts back to myself is embarrassing. The man wasn’t talking to me. What he thinks has zero influence on my life. But I still gave his opinion the power to anger me and make me feel like a toad. By doing so, I forfeited the one thing I need in order to make my thin skin thicker – a healthy sense of self-confidence.
Does anyone know where I can order up some self-confidence? I’ll take even a cheap Chinese knock-off, at this point, just to get started.
I have a dream that one day I will develop the near-impenetrable skin of a rhino. Until that time, in order to build a sure and peaceful sense of myself, I need to take what I have – lots of very thin skins of self-protection – and layer them one upon the other, paper mache-like, until I have built something strong enough to keep at least the unintentional slings and arrows at bay.
Also, maybe I need to lose the keys to the Dungeon.