Sensitivity isn’t exactly embraced in our culture. It’s considered weak, whiny, and vulnerable. It’s much better to be impassive, indifferent, and thick-skinned.

Here’s another idea. “Grow thicker skin” is some of the most useless advice around on how to deal with rejection.

how to deal with rejection

I’ll admit, it’s a somewhat subjective phrase, but let’s break down the metaphor for funsies. Thick skin suggests distance between the stimulus and your response. Instead of receiving the criticism or feedback, your skin is so thick that it doesn’t even register on your radar at all. It’s like tossing a pebble at a turtle. It bounces right off the turtle’s back, and the turtle has no idea it even happened.

Is that what we really want to be? Dumb, oblivious turtles?

I don’t suggest we all start crying in a fetal position anytime someone says the wrong thing or we feel a little stressed. But the concept of thick skin sort of goes to the other extreme. Instead of figuring out how to deal with rejection, we choose to not let it get it to us at all. We’re supposed to be completely invulnerable to anything that doesn’t go our way, and that doesn’t solve anything, either.

Let me give you a personal example.  

Recently, I put together a book proposal and sent it to a high-profile agent. It’s always been my dream to write and publish a book someday, and I was so excited to get this proposal in the hands of a big agent. She wrote back and, in so many words, told me she didn’t think I could write anything beyond a blog post.

Ouch! As a writer, I’ve dealt with a lot of rejection, but that stung. Hard.

You’d have to have pretty thick skin to receive that kind of feedback and say, “This is fine.” And if you did, you’d probably be lying.

grow thicker skin

I was devastated, but I hearkened back to the advice every writer receives when they first start writing: GROW THICKER SKIN. A little thick-skinned jerkface in my head started screaming, Kristin, Man up! You’re a writer, you should be used to rejection. You can’t take it seriously. Move on! The jerk in my head didn’t just pull these cliches out of the air. It’s advice I’ve heard over and over throughout the years. If you want to be successful, you’re supposed to be impervious to negativity.

But then I had a thought:

“What if she’s right?”

Could it be that this agent–who is a big deal and has enough experience to know what she’s talking about–is actually onto something?  And if she is, could I maybe improve my writing and still carry out my dream of publishing a book someday? The way I saw it, I had two options:

  1. Let the feedback sink in and take advice from a professional, or
  2. I could ignore it in favor of “thick skin” and keep pushing my proposal

I chose Option 1 and revisited my proposal. And, you know? It wasn’t so good.

The clips I’d given her were short, matter-of-fact, and boring. They didn’t include examples of some of my lengthier, more researched writing. And my first chapter was super clunky. Most of it was copied and pasted from blog posts because I was in a hurry to get the proposal finished. Finally, the hardest thing to admit was that even my best writing needed improvement overall. She was right. If I wanted to write a book, this proposal had to look like I could handle writing a book.

Facing the truth hurts, but the truth was that it wasn’t a good proposal. Had I not allowed the criticism to get to me and sink deep into my bones, I wouldn’t have realized how utterly craptastic it was. So, armed with the painful truth, I completely rewrote it. I used better writing clips. I started my sample chapter from scratch. I tried to write with a book in mind, not a blog.

Finally, it was finished. I pitched it to another agent and, long story short, I signed with her, met with a handful of publishers who wanted to publish it, then accepted an offer from one of them. (Yep, I’m officially writing a book!)

I bet you want to shove it in that other agent’s face, a friend of mine said. Um, absolutely not! If anything, I owe that agent bigtime. If it wasn’t for her criticism, and my sensitivity to it, I’d probably still be pushing the same bad proposal. Thick skin is what people use to avoid damaging their delusions of grandeur. When you can accept that you may need improvement, the need to develop “thick skin” to protect yourself from criticism is pointless. 

I don’t necessarily think we need to glorify sensitivity (or maybe we do, I think it’s kind of nice), but we should at least recognize its value. The right amount of sensitivity to feedback and criticism is where the magic happens. You acknowledge your emotion, try to understand how, if at all, the feedback reflects on you, then use that to your advantage. Even if you’re not emotional about it, being sensitive to the feedback means you allow it to make an impression on you.

If you have thick skin, you miss out on some serious opportunities to move ahead. I can think of at least a handful of times I should’ve had thinner skin as a writer:

  • When I wanted to learn how to start freelancing but my writing was so bad it left someone speechless. Instead of asking what they didn’t like, I put on my armor and walked away.
  • The time my writer friend Eric told me not to write for free because it devalued my writing overall. I put on my armor, did it anyway, then learned my lesson.
  • The time I interviewed to be an editor at a big website and then they never hired me. Instead of emailing them and asking what I could improve on, I put on my armor and acted like I didn’t care.

This isn’t to say we should be sensitive to all feedback and criticism. Feedback can be wrong. If you’re not sensitive, though, it’s a lot harder to tell whether the criticism you’re getting is constructive or not. It rolls off your back by default, so you never have a chance to parse it.

For my entire career, I’ve focused on having thick skin and not allowing rejection to permeate me. It’s made me tenacious, I guess, but tenacity only takes you so far if you have a crap proposal on your hands.

Rejection and criticism are made to be pesky roadblocks on the way to bigger and better things, but it would be a lot more productive if we thought of them as pit stops: places to reflect, recalibrate, and improve.

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Kristin writes and makes videos about money, the economy, freelancing, and travel. She's written for Lifehacker, NBC News, Mentalfloss and more. Learn more about her here.