Reality vs. Misconceptions
“Just for future reference” … “You’re an idiot”
“No thanks” … “Why did you even ask?”
“I’m too tired to hang out tonight” … “You mean nothing to me, you’re boring, and I wish you weren’t my friend”
“Please stop” … “You’re selfish”
*hears laughing from behind* … They’re making fun of me
*cancellation of a night out* … They hate me
*poor grade* … I don’t even deserve schooling
*any hint of disappointment, anger, frustration, fear, or worry* … I’m a terrible person
Yup, I have emotional thin skin (a DBT reference for being hyper-sensitive). A lot of people who suffer from thin emotional skin are diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) that is formed through childhood trauma where there was an inability to express emotions and/or genetic factors. Many people label thin-skin as “unstable”, “over-dramatic”, and decide not to take them seriously. However, people who do suffer from this misunderstood symptom are more than often being 100% authentic.
The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that controls emotion regulation. It controls how we feel, when we feel, and how deeply we feel. In a healthy brain, the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) has regular activity flowing through the front of the brain (where the PFC is located). This activity can be highlighted on a brain scan as red, just like our bodies, the more something is worked the hotter we get. In a BPD brain, the PFC is a light blue and a light green which indicates low activity rates. Again, like our bodies, we become cooler with less activity. Due to the low activity levels in the PFC, people with BPD have much less functioning emotion regulation than healthy brains.
Think of it like this…
If you were going to run a marathon, you would wake up, eat breakfast, stretch, and prepare for the long run. This is heating up your body and loosening muscles to set up for a successful marathon. Now, picture yourself getting out of bed, a little chilly from the dewy morning…then run a marathon without any preparation. These are the differences in a healthy brain vs. a BPD brain.
Diagnostic Characteristics of Borderline Personality Disorder
- Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment
- A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation
- Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self
- Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging:
Note: Do not include suicidal or self-mutilating behaviour covered in Criterion 5
- Recurrent suicidal behaviour, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behaviour
- Affective instability due to a marked reactivity mood
- Chronic feelings of emptiness
- Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger
- Transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe disassociating symptoms
Think of it like this…
If a dancer broke her leg before a recital she would be heartbroken. Telling someone who suffers from thin emotional skin is like telling that dancer she is overreacting because her leg will “eventually heal.” It was devasting for her to miss out on this opportunity to share her art with the world. I don’t care if your brother cries because you ate the last slice of pizza or your mom gets angry because you left a napkin in your room…these small events have the ability to feel just as devasting to the thin-skinned family member.
By now you’re probably wondering how the hell we get through the day with all of these emotions attacking our thoughts? I have several ways I personally cope.
For example: I work with someone who is the complete opposite of my personality. I’m a very charitable person who refuses to gossip, speak ill of people I don’t know, and I think kindness should be the priority. She gossips every shift, pokes fun at customers she doesn’t like and she describes herself as a “garbage person” due to her bluntness and sarcasm…as you can see our personalities don’t really line up but we’re still able to get along.
Knowing the nature of why my coworker speaks and acts the way she does really help me learn to accept the contrast. I know she doesn’t do it to be mean but she was raised to be sarcastic and has a hard skin. She pokes fun at people but she doesn’t mind being poked back. I’m the opposite, I don’t poke fun and I get really hurt when someone pokes me. This is a prime example of how people with thin skin can learn to work successfully without sacrificing their mental health. Learning how to cope with our own thin skin is a really difficult challenge because when we are always in emotion mind we tend to discount logic.
Living with someone who has thin emotional skin can be tiring and as healthy family members sometimes you too will become frustrated. What you need to remember is that these emotions your thin-skin family member is feeling are temporary but need to be nurtured. Borderline Personality Disorder is often created from past childhood trauma where expressing emotions was frowned upon. If your family member is becoming emotional don’t invalidate their feelings but rather nurture their experience and help them cope. It is really hard for them to be going through what they are…it’s a brain chemical imbalance and has nothing to do with you are the reality of the experience. What they feel is valid.
Think of it like this…
It’s hard to say sorry to someone when you are furious with them. Picture yourself yelling at the top of your lungs at someone who insulted your morals, political views, or something you treasure…now picture yourself at the climax of your anger, stopping to apologize to the person in front of you for raising your voice. It’s hard right? That’s what it’s like to be in emotion mind. Our emotions take over our entire logic system and we have to wait until we are brought back down to wise mind before we can see both sides of the story.
Tips to Work with someone with Thin Emotional Skin
- Explain the situation … if something is triggering the thin-skin worker try explaining the situation to help them understand why things are the way they are. Exp. if a customer prefers going to a different cash let the worker know it has nothing to do with them
- Have patience … Try and have some patience for the worker, they’re going through a lot and need some extra support.
- Advise Coworkers appropriate behaviour … if a coworker is gossiping or complaining about the thin-skin coworker it could start to affect your team’s job performances. Try putting a “no gossip” policy in the office and encourage communication between employees.
- Give them a “safety” word … When I worked as a groomer at PetSmart the salon had a “safety” word for when someone became overwhelmed. The safety word can be any random word that isn’t used in daily conversation such as “peanut butter” or “pepper” This word signals that the employee needs a short break.
- Practice positive reinforcement … Instead of only telling the worker what they’re doing wrong, try telling them whats going right as well. Let them know when they do something good. This helps keep the worker happy and motivated.
- Give them the option for extra training … Even just having the option for extra training is comforting because it removes the “shame” felt when the thin-skin worker doesn’t understand something.
- Praise successes and good work … What are they doing well? Let them know! Praising successes will keep your worker motivated and improve your relationship with them. The more they are praised the more they’ll want to impress.
- Don’t let it affect their job performance … Overall, having thin skin isn’t an excuse for missing deadlines, having an attitude, or affecting our work performance. Try all of the above skills and communicate with your worker, they don’t get special privileges and they need to learn how to deal with the stress of their career because it will help them in the long run.
- Don’t ostracize them … Remember not to favour or ostracize a worker that has thin emotional skin because this can lead to self-consciousness and an un-balanced workplace.
Tips to Help a Family Member with Thin Emotional Skin
- VALIDATE. VALIDATE. VALIDATE. … See “Think of it like this (3)”
- Acknowledge their emotion without giving sympathy for the inappropriate timing … exp. “I know you feel like this but we have to move on…”
- Give them time to cool off …Cooling off is underrated because it’s the best coping strategy for emotion mind that there is to date. Time heals all wounds…
- Keep calm and don’t blame them nor’ make them feel guilty for the emotion …This will just make them feel worse and likely enhance the negative emotion
- NEVER MIRROR THE EMOTION … This creates a dynamic that can become unstable very quickly and often puts a strain on an interpersonal relationships
- Use neutral body language … We all know that actions speak louder than words.
- Talk to them afterwards to debrief … Showing your support to your thin-skinned family member will make them feel comfortable and will often lead to less intense emotions with you in the future
- Just sit there … Yup, just sit there. Just being in the room with someone who is having an intense emotion is a huge sign of love and support.
- Take care of YOURSELF! … Remember that we can’t help somebody else if our own health and happiness is in jeopardy. Take time to perform some self-care, take some time to cool off, and talk to someone about how you are feeling. You can’t save someone from drowning if you don’t know how to swim.
Tips to Cope with Emotion Mind
- COOL DOWN! … Take some time to cool down. This skill is underrated because it makes a HUGE difference to our immediate reactions while in emotion mind. Even if you just close your eyes for one inhale and one exhale…you’ll calm down at least a little…I promise.
- Create a Mantra … Personally, I use the mantra “Be. Here. Now.” because I can usually tolerate the moment I am in, it’s the moments that have passed or are to come that make my head spiral. If I’m here now then I know I’ll survive.
- Meditate … I meditate once every morning and once every night. Sometimes I’ll go on meditation binges where I’ll meditate for 6-8 hours a day for weeks (especially when I was in yoga teacher training). Meditation is a hard practice to start and get used to but once you’re in it I promise it’ll make a difference. Give yourself a chance.
- Check the Facts … My favorite DBT skill! Checking the Facts is a great way to realize if our emotion matches the situation. Take a step back and write down the situation, emotions, and outcome without judging or having bias on one side or another. You will usually see the reaction wasn’t warranted and if it was you can take action to change it or accept it.
- Describe … Another great DBT skill. Describing how we feel allows more clarity for the emotion we are currently feeling and often settles us down when we start to think of what it feels like physically, emotionally, mentally, interpersonally, etc.
- Make a coping box and a safety plan … EVERYONE should have a safety plan. My safety plan includes my emergency contacts, medication, my service dog is trained for several services, and places to go to be safe. A coping box is an individualized box that reminds you of positive coping strategies and keeps your focus on recovery.
- Self-care is necessary … there are no buts about it.
- Talk it out … be it to a therapist, friend, family member, boss, doctor, etc. Talk about the situation and try to come up with a plan for if it happens again. Also look into creating a safety plan with this person so they can help you remember and utilize it.