Friendship: why being the “thick-skinned” friend can feel like a curse

Friendship: why being the “thick-skinned” friend can feel like a curse

Having a natural resilience shouldn’t make me your emotional dumping ground, argues one writer.

I’m often told, much to my delight, that I’m a good friend. It’s something that I actively try to be, priding myself on always being there for the people I love, no matter what they (or I) am going through.

But where I really shine is as a confidante. Whether it’s on the other end of a rambling voicenote or over a coffee, my pals know that I’ll hear them out, help shoulder their burdens and offer helpful solutions to their problems.

It’s something I’m very good at because, as I’ve been told ever since I was little, I have “thick skin”. 

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As Merriam-Webster puts it, I possess the ability to keep from getting upset or offended by the things other people say and do. And throughout my life, this has been used as one of the highest compliments.

As a child, my parents tell me I never really cried that much, or threw tantrums. I could handle adult situations and conversations with ease because I was mature, measured and no one worried that it would affect me.

It makes sense; I’m naturally extroverted and developed my thick skin after being bullied because of my same-sex family. I learned early on that the best way to cope was to not let other people’s comments and critiques phase me.

It’s a skill that I have to say has served me well as an adult, particularly during the pandemic where everyone’s resolve and resilience was seriously put to the test.

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But I’ve noticed that it has led people to assume that they can just dump all of their trauma and stress on me, without warning or consideration, because I’m deemed strong enough to handle it.

In the past, I’ve come away from what I thought would be a friendly catch-up feeling like I’d been used as a punching bag, having absorbed someone else’s woes without having the opportunity to air my own.

Because often, when you have thick skin, people often forget that you do actually feel things too – you just might not show it. Or you don’t have anyone in your life that you could fully unload to, and take on the role you play for others. 

"Being the thick-skinned friend doesn't mean you can just dump your trauma on me"
"Being the thick-skinned friend doesn't mean you can just dump your trauma on me"

I will never complain about supporting people I care about, but it’s time it was said: it is hard being the strong friend all the time.

When you care about someone, hearing the hurt they’re experiencing can make you feel like you’re living through it too, even if you’re not. It becomes a balance act: trying to lift someone else up while not letting yourself be brought down.

You can only take so much in your stride before you begin to feel stuck, and then it’s like treading water or wading through treacle. 

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Having thick skin isn’t an invitation to say anything you want, because we’ll just brush it off. We’re still sensitive, and we’re not immune to sadness, anger or heartbreak. We still get overwhelmed and frustrated; we overreact sometimes and need calming down.

But when playing the role of the infallible friend you can tell anything and everything to, it can sometimes be hard to find room for our own anxieties, our trauma.

There is absolutely a line to be drawn between being a good friend and an emotional dumping ground, and so I’m learning to no longer view having thick skin as the ultimate compliment.

When you give it some real thought, it’s actually a very strange thing to praise. We only really tell women that they need thicker skin, and to be less emotional, but to somehow remain soft and understanding while doing so.

It feels to me like yet another unrealistic standard for women to live up to, some kind of marker of how much shit we can put up with before we crack. But I don’t need to prove what I can endure in order to be admired more.

I am still, and always will be, a great friend, but no longer at the expense of my own wellbeing

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