Anyone who knows me or who has read this blog, or has met me once has an idea that I’m a sensitive person. Since I was little, I have been told, “you’re too sensitive” and, “stop taking things so personally”, these observations implying that being sensitive is a significant problem that needs to be addressed. Certainly, the negative aspects associated with being sensitive have made themselves abundantly clear throughout my life. I’ve often wondered how great it would be to just stop caring so much about what others think, which of your friends may have judged you today, whether you should have said what you said over lunch to a colleague… the list goes on. Having said this, I’ve always had a conflicted relationship with this certain characteristic. I’ve never been certain if it’s something to be valued or a trait that should be actively discarded.
By now, you will have a fairly clear idea of the rough beginnings that I encountered in a French pastry kitchen. One phrase that friends and family kept repeating to me was, “whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger”, or, “oh well, you will get thicker skin”, or my personal favourite, “toughen up”. Whenever I hear these phrases, or variations of them, I interpret the exchange as:
“your skin is too thin = you’re too sensitive = that is a bad thing = don’t worry, the experience will help to improve this”.
As well meaning as these comments are, they’re not particularly easy to absorb, especially when you’re in the middle of a challenging situation. It can also come off sounding quite flippant.
Like I said earlier, I understand how being sensitive makes situations harder to navigate. Especially when your situation happens to be a kitchen in France. Being sensitive, I quickly learnt, is generally not valued here. I was told that this whole yelling thing is common enough, to the point that people witness it, accept it, and sometimes employ the same behaviour. In this way, I can see how you can eventually become desensitised to it. My colleagues, for example, either barely react to a telling-off (big understatement), or they scream back. I regularly watch people explode into fits of rage one day, and share jokes with one another the next. What I would give to be able to cope better when I hear someone bellowing from rooms and rooms away, or when someone’s skin colour literally changes depending on how furious they are. Effectively, my brain receives these everyday situations with its Sensitivity Lens set to level 10, thereby changing how I interpret and therefore react to things. The water does not run off the duck’s back, in my case.
On the other hand, I’ve recently started to wonder if it is all bad news. I mean, we’re all different and we each possess various sets of strengths and weaknesses that we play to. Sensitive people often overthink seemingly throwaway comments, or become anxious. But it also means that our emotional intelligence is usually at the top of its game. Being intuitive, mindful and also having an A+ standard of manners (don’t smirk! Manners are the best) all seems fine to me.
We were working away one morning discussing the tempers of some of the chefs, and how to best manage them. One of the girls commented, “Zahara, you’re a fragile bird, so you get rattled by the chefs”. I paused, uncertain whether I wanted to reply, or even if I had the ability to reply, but then just as quickly I realised I really didn’t care if the vocabulary was correct or not. Before I had time to apply a filter, I found myself saying, “Actually, I completely disagree with what you just said. I’m not a fragile bird”. She was shocked, because in her defence, I can see where she’s coming from. I cried in a bloody fruit fridge and my eyes turn into those of a possum when someone raises their voice, be it at me or simply in my vicinity. I get how it looks. Also, I haven’t disagreed with anyone since I started working there. In my defence, on the other hand, I will take that personally because you are very directly addressing, well, my personality. She did the French shoulder shrug, eye-roll and lip pout combo, and said, “sorry but it’s true”. To which I said, “nope, it’s not. You’re wrong”. I’m not a Goddamned fragile bird. For the love of chocolate croissants, I moved overseas to a non-English speaking country, where the people aren’t necessarily welcoming, to work in an industry that’s famed for being nothing short of hostile and demanding. Don’t fragile bird me.
Thankfully someone else intervened and steered the conversation away. And let me say at this point that I’m well aware that in the history of disagreements, this exchange was as about as non-eventful as they come. Later, when I was reflecting on it (I love a solid internal debrief about various happenings during the day), I realised that while, yes, it’s just an example in standing up for yourself, it was also proof that I have become a tiny bit stronger. Whether it’s deciding to talk back, or to voice an opinion, or not caring how people may perceive or judge you, or a combination of factors, I was able to retort. And in realising this, it dawned on me that this was, in fact, the creepy development of thicker, calloused skin.
I don’t think you need to become altogether desensitised to a situation in order to develop thicker skin. Rather, it’s a balancing act where you learn to steel yourself and hold your own when you need to, while also not being a robot that has zero social awareness, or the emotional intelligence of a teaspoon. My workplace hasn’t desensitised me, but it has helped me see that I’m stronger than I realise and how I portray myself. Being sensitive isn’t necessarily a limitation, but rather something that needs to be managed. It doesn’t stop people from living fulfilled lives full of adventures and challenges, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s not a weakness.