Thin Skin vs Thick Skin: People with ‘thin skin’, or ‘thin boundaries’ are more sensitive than those with thick skin or thick boundaries. Their bodies and brains absorb and feel more signals from their surroundings. They react strongly to sensory stimuli and can become irritated by things like bright lights, loud sounds, particular aromas, tastes or textures.
‘I am often told that I should grow a thicker skin. I’m too sensitive. I let things get to me too much.’
“For a highly sensitive person, a drizzle feels like a monsoon.”
Thin Skin vs Thick Skin and Neurodiversity
Thin skin vs thick skin can be explained by the neurodiversity paradigm. People’s brains vary. Research has validated that some people are born with a certain kind of biochemical, or neurological makeup that can make them more emotionally or intellectually intense, sensitive, and more open to external stimuli than the general population. This difference is what differentiates thin skin from thick skin.
Neurodiversity is a biological reality; the term describes the infinite variation in our ways of functioning as humans. In fact, the idea that there is one “normal” or “healthy” way of perceiving and being in the world is merely a cultural construct (Foucault).
Nowadays, understanding of mental health and health are often confined to boxing people based on a disorder or diagnosis. Whilst there is certainly tremendous value in acquiring a formal diagnosis (accessing the right treatment, feeling validated for the difficulties, realising that one is not alone, research), such a ‘one size fit all’ mentality has its limitations.
The neurodiversity paradigm suggests the diversity embedded amongst us, though challenging to meander at times, make us stronger as a species, as communities, and as people. Having a group of individuals who functions more intensely in the world is not only a natural form of human diversity, it is also an essential factor in our evolution and the progression of our collective consciousness. This perspective is the opposite of the medical model, which contends that there is a ‘normal’ and desirable way of functioning, and the rest are disorders.
Awareness and information about individual differences in thin skin vs thick skin are invaluable in that they can help you make sense of your life history. By reviewing events and difficulties that you have experienced through a new perspective.
Thin Skin vs Thick Skin
Thin Skin vs Thick Skin comes from the Boundaries in the Mind concept, developed by Ernest Hartmann. Thin Skin vs Thick Skin offers an angle from which we can understand individual differences in levels of sensitivity.
Boundaries in the Mind is a concept that characterises the way a person operates in the world, particularly how that person handles energies and feels the tone of his or her surroundings: To what extent are stimuli “let in” or “kept out”? How are a person’s feelings processed internally?
“There are people who strike us as very solid and well organized; they keep everything in its place. They are well defended. They seem rigid, even armoured; we sometimes speak of them as “thick-skinned.
At the other extreme are people who are especially sensitive, open, or vulnerable. In their minds, things are relatively fluid… such people have particularly thin boundaries.”
To recap, having thin skin, or having thin boundaries means you are highly sensitive and may demonstrate the following from an early age:
- Reacting more strongly to sensory stimuli and becoming agitated due to bright lights, loud sounds, particular aromas, tastes or textures.
- Responding more strongly to physical and emotional pain in themselves as well as in others.
- Becoming stressed or fatigued due to an overload of sensory or emotional input.
- Be more allergic and have immune systems that are more reactive.
- Be more deeply affected by events during childhood.
People with thick skin, in contrast, may have the tendency to:
- Brush aside upsetting emotions, in order to solve the problem at hand or to get practical matters in order.
- Have less apparent mood swings, are slower to recognise how and what they are feeling.
- Less sensitive to subtle changes or nuances in their environment.
- May experience an ongoing sense of detachment and sometimes emptiness.
- It is worth pointing out that people with thick boundaries are affected by feelings as much as people with thin boundaries. In experiments, this was indicated by bodily signals such as heart rates, blood pressure, hand temperature and tension.
Thin Skin vs Thick Skin- Who has What?
The colloquial term ‘having thin skin’ may have a scientific basis. Since its discovery in the 1980s, at least 5,000 people have taken Hartmann’s Boundary Questionnaire (BQ) and more than 100 published papers have referenced it. Research is mounting to build a picture of issues and symptoms that are associated with the ‘thickness’ of mind-boundaries.
Interestingly, significantly thinner boundaries were found in the following population:
– art students (Beal, 1989, Hartmann, 1991)
– music students
– mixed groups of creative persons (Beal, 1989)
– frequent dream recallers (Hartmann, 1991, Hartmann Elkin, & Garg 1991)
– adults and adolescents with nightmares (Hartmann, 1991, Levin, Galin, & Zywiak 1991; Galvin, 1993)
– male and female fashion models (Ryan 2000)
– persons with unusual mystical experiences (Krippner,, Wickramasekera, Wickramasekera, & Winstead, 1998),
– persons with a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, Schizoid Personality Disorder or Schizotypal Personality Disorder (Hartmann, 1991).
On the other hand, groups that score significantly “thicker” on the inventories include:
– naval officers
– persons with a diagnosis of Obsessive-compulsive Personality Disorder
– persons suffering from “Alexythymia” (Hartmann, 1991)
– patients with a diagnosis of Sleep Apnea (Hartmann, 1992).
Having thin skin may have implications beyond psychology. The concept of mind-boundaries is unique in that it also ties in with an impact on physical health. It was found that thick boundary people are more prone to hypertension, chronic fatigue syndrome, and ulcers; whereas thin boundary people are more susceptible to migraine, irritable bowel syndrome, and allergies. There also appears to be a relationship between thin boundaries and multiple chemical sensitivities (Jawer, 2001).
In their work ‘Your Emotional Type’, Dr. M. Jawer and M. Micozzi pointed out that being aware of your emotional type (where you are on the mind-boundary spectrum) would allow you to access the kind of support that is more likely to benefit you.
Interestingly, a survey suggests that people with thin boundaries are more likely to value psychotherapy, to have been involved in psychotherapy, and to have benefited from psychotherapy (Hartmann, 1996). In other words, people with thin boundaries likely make up the majority of therapy clients. Despite its limitations (lack of quantitative data, inevitable generalisations), the idea of mind-boundaries offer a unique framework that can enhance therapy effectiveness by valuing individual differences.
Do You Have Thin Skin or Thick Skin?
For a quick reference, here are a few items listed on the boundary inventory. For further information please refer to ‘The Emotional Type’ developed by Dr. M. Jawer and M. Micozzi :
My feelings blend into one another.
I am easily hurt.
I spend a lot of time daydreaming, fantasizing or in reverie.
Sometimes it’s scary when one gets too involved with another person.
A good parent has to be a bit of a child, too.
I can easily imagine myself as an animal or what it might be like to be an animal.
When something happens to someone close to me, it is almost as if it happened to me.
In my dreams, people merge into each other or become other people.
There are no sharp dividing lines between normal people, people with problems and people who are considered psychotic or crazy.
I am far from a down-to-earth, no-nonsense kind of person.
I have had the experience of someone calling me or speaking my name and not being sure whether it was really happening or whether I was imagining it.
It would appear that the difficulties and woundings experienced by a person with thin skin/ thin boundaries are not dissimilar to those experienced by others with heightened emotional sensitivities. Without awareness and understanding, one can imagine how sensitive people might have been plagued with misunderstanding and confusion for many years.
“I’ve never gotten thick skin. If you close yourself off and you get this protective armour, there is a price you pay with that – of not feeling. And the feeling is important when you are a songwriter.” – Taylor Swift
To read more, here is an interview I did with Michael Jawer, a writer and researcher whose works explore the idea of thin skin vs thick skin. In this episode, we discussed:
— The concept of energetic boundaries; What it means to have thick/ thin skin
— What is Alexithymia— when people can’t name their feelings
— How having thick/ thin skin affects your physical symptoms; e.g migraines, allergies
— The relationship between boundaries and MBTI Personality types
— Who are the orchids and the dandelions
Here is a short trailer:
Having Thin Skin and Thin Energetic Boundaries
In their seminal work ‘Healing Developmental Trauma’, Heller and LaPierre (2012) discuss the idea of ‘energetic boundaries’ and how these boundaries can be compromised. This is another concept we can use to understand the Thin skin vs Thick skin idea. People with thin skin are also more likely to have thinner energetic boundaries.
Our energetic boundaries constitute the three-dimensional space that is above us, below us, and around us. It buffers us and regulates our interaction with other people and the environment. We are all to some degree aware of the impact of a compromised physical body— try imagining someone standing too close to you in public transport. However, unlike physical boundaries, energetic boundaries are invisible. Thus, the experience of a boundary rupture can be puzzling and distressing. For instance, you may not be able to recognise clearly when and how your energetic boundaries are being violated.
People with intact energetic boundaries are able to have an internalised sense of safety, and a capacity to set appropriate limits with others and the world around them. However, where there is a chronic early threat, you may struggle to fully develop these energetic boundaries. If you were born sensitive, with thin skin, trauma will further weaken your energetic boundaries.
With thin skin and ultra-thin energetic boundaries, you will physically become extremely sensitive to your surroundings. This phenomenon is also experienced by those who identify as empaths. Sometimes, you can appear ‘psychic’ and be able to energetically attuned to others and the environment. On the flip side, you can feel swamped or invaded by other people’s energies and emotions. Having thin skin or thin energetic boundaries can also lead to the feeling of “spilling out” into the environment, not knowing the difference between self and other, inner from outer experiences.
Environmental sensitivity is another telling sign of having compromised energetic boundaries. Because intact energetic boundaries are needed to function to filter environmental stimuli, without it, you may feel extremely raw, as if you are ‘walking around with no skin’. With very thin skin, you may feel constantly flooded by environmental stimuli, including ‘human contact, sounds, light, touch, toxins, allergens, smells, and even electromagnetic activity’ (Heller and LaPierre, 2012, p. 157).
The inability to filter external stimuli makes the world seem continuously threatening, leading to a constant state of tension and hypervigilance. As a result, you may feel the need to isolate yourself. As you don’t have an adequate internal sense of safety and energetic boundaries to count on, you may have defaulted to using minimising contact with other human beings in order to feel safe.
Here are some of the questions drawn from a Checklist developed by Heller and LaPierre (2012) on symptoms that may indicate difficulty with the connection (with self and others) due to early trauma.
Do you suffer from environmental sensitivities or multiple allergies?
Do you have migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, or fibromyalgia?
Did you experience prenatal trauma such as intrauterine surgeries, prematurity with incubation, or traumatic events during gestation?
Were there complications at your birth?
Have you had problems maintaining relationships?
Do you have difficulty knowing what you are feeling?
Are you particularly sensitive to cold?
Do you often have the feeling that life is overwhelming and you don’t have the energy to deal with it?
Are you troubled by the persistent feeling that you don’t belong?
Are you always looking for the why of things?
Are you uncomfortable in groups or social situations?
Does the world seem like a dangerous place for you?
Thin Skin and Misophonia
Many people with thin skin also have misophonia. Neuroscientists have long been investigating the different ways in which our nervous system reacts to sounds, and have found that certain people are more auditory sensitive than others; their auditory systems are described as being ‘over-responsive’ to stimuli. (Auditory over-responsiveness).
Thin Skin and Hyperacusis
Hyperacusis is a condition that comes from a difficulty in the way the brain’s central auditory processing centre perceives noises.
Individuals with hyperacusis have difficulty tolerating sounds that do not seem loud to others, such as the noise from the dishwasher, fan on the refrigerator, or shuffling papers. Such sensitivity to the most ambient noise can have a huge impact on the person’s day to day activities. Hyperacusis may be a result of injury or trauma and can develop gradually over time. Conditions associated with hyperacusis include Post-traumatic stress disorder, Chronic fatigue syndrome, Epilepsy, Tinnitus, Migraine headaches and Depression. Currently, there are no specific corrective surgical or medical treatments for hyperacusis. However, sound therapy may retrain the auditory processing centre of the brain to accept everyday sounds. This works on the basis of neuroplasticity (Brout, 2018), and should not be confused with psychological interventions such as CBT or exposure therapy.
Thin Skin and Misophonia
Misophonia is a neuro-otological diagnosis in which certain auditory stimuli are being interpreted by the brain as threats. The condition was established in 2001 by American otolaryngologists Pawel and Margaret Jastreboff. They observed that some people reacted to sounds such as chewing, keyboard typing, and coughing, with high levels of irritability, elevated heartbeat, muscle tension and sweating, along with other stress responses and strong negative emotions.
Hyperacusis and misophonia are different conditions. Unlike people with hyperacusis, individuals with misophonia respond particularly strongly to repetitive and pattern-based sounds. In hyperacusis, the response to the sound was felt as physical pain in the ear canal. In misophonia, the reactions were more emotional, involving fear, panic and irritability, and go alongside other physical stress reactions such as racing heart and tight chest, but dissipate when the noise goes away. In hyperacusis, the louder the noise, the greater the pain, while in misophonia, it was not the loudness that constitute the reactions; Regardless of the sound’s loudness and frequency, the emotional response and whole-body contraction are instantaneous.
Existing research on the cause of misophonia is limited. There is little to no research on the relationship between misophonia and thin skin in particular. So far, we know that auditory over-responsivity is related to the part of the brain called the amygdala, which plays an important role in the body’s fight/flight/freeze processes. Although physiological responses are induced as a result of triggering noises, misophonia is neurological in nature and is not a psychiatric disorder. Therefore, psychological interventions such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or ‘Exposure Therapy’ actually make the condition worse rather than better.
Thin Skin Misophonia Resources
According to the Misophonia Management Protocol (MMP), one management approach is to add background noise to your day to day life, combined with some form of cognitive therapy. Here are some products that you may find helpful (I am not commissioned by any of these products or companies, they are chosen based on my own experience and clients’ feedback).
The sound of rushing air (white noise) is produced in 10 unique variations. It is one of the more powerful models and is loud enough to cover day-to-day noises. Generally widely recommended by reviewers. This is an international model and would require an adapter.
DOHM is slightly different to the Lectro Fan. The sound is not electronically generated. I personally prefer Dohm as it feels more ‘natural’- it is literally just ‘a fan in a box’. It is much quieter, though. It comes with two speeds and adjustments for volume and pitch.