Ask The Experts: How Do I Develop A Thicker Skin And Become More Resilient?

The niceties are often the first thing to go when work gets stressful. How do you learn to not take things personally at work?

Ask The Experts: How Do I Develop A Thicker Skin And Become More Resilient?
[Photo: Flickr user Michael Coghlan]

We’ve all heard the bad boss horror stories and the tales of toxic work environments, but what about a stressful fast-paced office where the niceties often fall by the wayside? Is developing a thicker skin just the price of our work culture or can we speak up for our feelings?


Psychologist Art Markman tackles this common issue below.


I work in a fast-paced, high-stress atmosphere, and being thin-skinned in my line of work is just not an option. But as much as I know how important it is to be resilient and adaptable, I also know those are my weakest traits.

When things go wrong, I get ruffled and stressed out pretty easily, and I sometimes even feel like the walls are crashing in on me. I worry a lot: I worry that I’m going to seriously mess a project up; I worry that I’m disappointing my bosses and coworkers; and I worry that I’m too sensitive to high-pressure situations and can’t cut it in this business.

I’ve always had pretty low self-esteem and issues with anxiety, and I think my issues with resilience stem a lot from this, but I don’t want this to rule my life and dictate my career.

So please, tell me, what can I do to ignore the negative voices in my head and just go with the flow?



Dear S.S.

You have done a great job of describing the vicious cycle that a lot of people get into in high-stress situations at work:

You have concerns that you will not perform up to your standards and those of your organization. You have doubts about yourself that make you sensitive to difficult situations. When a difficult task comes up at work, you think a lot about what can go wrong and that increases the stress level.

The stress this cycle causes has three negative impacts.

  1. It’s just plain uncomfortable.
  2. It can lead you to want to avoid situations at work that cause stress.
  3. The stress itself can impair your performance at work.

Stress makes you more emotional, which can influence your interpersonal interactions. In addition, stress decreases what is called “working memory,” which is the amount of information you can hold in mind at any moment.

Decreasing working memory can give you tunnel vision and make you miss obvious solutions to problems. Any failures you experience as a result of the stress you feel will also affect your cycle of negative thoughts.

Here are six things you can do to help get you out of this cycle.

1. Focus on Ideals. One source of stress is a focus on the problems that may arise at work. It is easy to create avoidance goals at work. An avoidance goal engages the motivational system to avoid catastrophe. If you frame your work life in terms of looming problems, then that creates stress with occasional pockets of relief when disaster is averted.

2. Consciously Focus On The ideal Outcome Of Your Work
Think about the contribution you will make when things go right. When you focus on these positive aspects of work, you engage approach goals rather than avoidance goals. Because stress happens when you are focused on avoidance, the focus on positive outcomes helps to break the cycle of stress.


3. Make a Success List. Part of what drives the negative cycle is that you don’t feel good about yourself at work. To help break that part of the cycle, make a list of some of the real accomplishments you have made at work–projects that have gone well, people you have helped, clients who were happy with your work.

Whenever you are feeling down about something that has happened at work or concerned that you are not pulling your weight, look back at that list. Recognize that you are making a contribution at work and that your most negative thoughts are not always a good reflection of your role within your organization.

4. Write About It. Sometimes it helps to get the most negative thoughts you have outside of yourself in a literal sense. My colleague Jamie Pennebaker has done a lot of great work on the positive benefits of expressive writing. He finds that when people write about difficult or traumatic experiences, it helps to bind together those memories into a coherent story.

After writing, they think about stressful events less often and experience less long-term stress.

If you are frequently thinking about problems you have had at work, then start a work journal. When you are feeling particularly stressed out, take a half hour a day and just write out what you are feeling.


Talk about the events in as much detail as you can. It will not be fun while you are writing to be brutally honest about what you’re feeling. But, if you write about your difficulties for about three days, then you will find that those events have less impact on your future than they did before.

5. Take a Break. When you find the stress building up, it is useful to find a way to take a break. Decouple yourself from the situation, even for a short time. Take a walk outside if you can. Find some meditation or mindfulness exercises and practice them for even 10 minutes.

Find techniques to help you calm down in order to reduce the energy in your motivational system. That is another great way to break the vicious cycle of stress.

6. Find a Mentor (or Two). Because part of your stress comes from your concerns about what other people think about you at work, it is helpful to find some good mentors. Although some of your job stress may just come from your fears about job performance, it is also possible that you still have some skills to perfect.

There is no shame in having to learn more on the job. Ultimately, work would be really boring if all you ever had to do was to apply skills you have already developed in the past. In order to learn new things, though, you need to find successful people to help you on your way.


Look around your organization and find some people who have skills you want. If you can’t find anyone in your workplace, join a networking group and find someone who works for another company. Learn from them. Find out what makes them successful and incorporate those skills into your own work.

The other advantage of having a mentor is that you can talk about your fears and concerns. Often, you will discover that even people who have the outward appearance of confidence and success have had many of the same fears you have. They can give you strategies that they have used for combating those fears and getting more effective in the workplace.

Good luck!

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