No, I’m not talking about the burns unit, rather skin in a psychological sense. You may have noticed the idea of needing protection from the world turns up in my work on this blog, I thought I’d take some time to elaborate. I’ve often felt like I was thin-skinned – or even missing skin entirely. I’ve since discovered this can be quite a common experience for many people – especially in the trauma recovery or mental illness communities. I am sensitive to my environment, strongly affected by things and people around me. I feel emotions intensely and seem to lack a lot of the psychological buffers that help people shake things off. A lot of my life I’ve felt tossed about by emotional storms I can’t prevent but have to ride out. I’ve been missing some emotional skin – some of the personal boundaries that help to separate us from our environment and the people around us. I’m highly adaptive to different environments, and sometimes even to the people I spend time with, identity becomes blurred as I unconsciously take on their perspectives, mannerisms, language. I lacked defences to unfair criticism, being assailed with severe self doubt – what psychologists call ‘poor ego strength’. There is an inclination to obedience and submission that meant hours, days, or weeks could go by before triggered emotions turned up – ‘actually I feel really angry about that situation last week’, well past the point where those feelings could protect me or I could act on them.
This sense of lacking skin is linked for me to feeling raw, and chronically unsafe. Heightened sensitivity, perception, adaptation, and damaged boundaries all combine to create a painful state where I feel like all my nerves are exposed and I’m permanently vulnerable. One result of this state for me was to feel intense ambivalence about other people – both craving and deeply fearing contact. Another was difficulty with intense emotions, feeling ‘flooded’ and profoundly different from other people most of whom seemed unconcerned by events and experiences that I felt deeply.
I don’t feel so raw over the last few years, developing skin has been something I’ve been working on. I don’t mean I wish to be less sensitive or passionate, but in less pain, less overwhelmed by the world. There are tremendous positives to characteristics like sensitivity and adaptation. But without protection, without some buffering, it seems to me that they leave you vulnerable to exhaustion and despair.
I’ve found that I need artificial skin to survive. One of the first ways I started to create this was through my journals. I started writing when I was introduced to the idea of poetry as a kid. At about 15 I was carrying a big blue binder around with me everywhere and stuffing it with poems, notes and drawings. My level of trust was very low so it didn’t leave my side. Since then I’ve always kept a journal, usually of poems. This private space was my voice, a receptacle for all my intense feelings and a place I could be honest. There’s a fairy tale about a woman tricked into a horrific situation and forced to be silent. In it she digs a hole and screams all her agony into the earth. My journals are that earthen hole for me. Over time as I reread I learn about myself, I start to see patterns and needs. What was only a scream once has become a dialogue with myself.
Years later when I moved into a caravan, that also became part of my artificial skin. I’ve found I must have time alone to process or I do not function well. I also need my own space, a room or home that is mine alone, with no intrusion, no compromise, no sharing. This became the place I returned to from the world, to check in with myself. When I was caught up, over adapting, losing myself and my own perspective, the caravan was like a hermit crab returning to their shell. In it I felt safe enough to work out what I thought, I felt, a distance from the world that was essential to have the strength to disagree, to know myself and have my own voice. I was curious to later read Julie Gregory describing a similar process in Sickened where she lives alone in a house full of mirrors, learning who she is and what she needs.
Self talk has also become part of my artificial skin. Without the automatic buffering afforded by a ‘strong ego’, I have to talk myself through rocky situations. I coax, coach, and reassure myself deliberately when I encounter a situation that needs skin. I don’t just mean bad situations either, for example, I gave a talk in Melbourne last year that was very well received. I got a lot of hugs afterwards, which was enough to blow all my fuses and induce massive dissociation. I ended up hiding in the toilets talking reassuringly to myself, waiting for everyone to move on to the next talk and to be able to stop shaking and start to feel my feet on the floor again. Talking myself through that, and also finding someone else who knew me to take me for a coffee and just chat about ordinary things, served as my skin and helped to buffer me.
This brings up an important part of skin – other people. There are many ways people create skin, some of them have terrible costs. Some people emotionally numb, dissociate, or desensitize to distress around them, becoming cold or indifferent. There are a lot of forms of artificial skin that deaden you or are like armour covered in spikes that hurt people who move close. True artificial skin should ideally replicate as close as possible the natural kind – a permeable barrier that separates you from the world but does not leave you invulnerable to it, or inflict harm. Other people and how we are treated are an important part of our psychological skin. For me, becoming involved with the groups Sound Minds and Bridges exposed me to a whole room of people who treated me in a respectful, caring manner. Experiences of kindness and love build our self worth, and when we feel we are worth something it’s easier to protect and care for ourselves.
I’ve also done a lot to try and make peace with my nature. I’m always going to be someone who feels things intensely, who is affected by things around me. I have learned I need to hang on to the upsides of these qualities, to seek out role models who are also intense emotional people, and get less angry at myself for my weaknesses and limitations. Instead of blazing at myself with frustration and burning with fury that I’m weak, emotional, pathetic, always the drama queen – my journals have a lot of this kind of self hate in them – I try to be unsurprised and accepting of the downsides, and to enjoy and embrace the upsides. So I cried at work again – oh well. I write poetry that I like, I care deeply about other people (although being sensitive is no guarantee of always getting it right sadly, I still regularly miss the mark and feel upset about that), I live an intense passionate life full of art and depth and mood. These are things I value. If they mean I’m sensitive to criticism, vulnerable to being overwhelmed, and need to maintain an artificial skin to buffer the world, I can be okay with that.
If you feel that you’re missing some psychological skin too, perhaps some of these ideas might be useful to you, or get you thinking about the kinds of artificial skin you need. We don’t have to accept things the way they are. People with sensitive natures and boundary issues can still be resilient and learn how to protect themselves. The things that make you vulnerable are often also the very qualities that give life such depth and help you endure the hard times. Take care.