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Self-Knowledge • Fear & Insecurity

Why Some of Us Are So Thin-Skinned

Sir John Major was a not especially distinguished (but then again, not unusually awful) Conservative British Prime Minister between 1990 and 1997. He stands out in collective memory for one point in particular: he was almost universally portrayed in cartoons wearing a pair of grey Y-front underpants, an irresistible symbol of his perceived ordinariness, lack of imagination and bathos. After passing legislation to limit the use of cones on motorways, Sir John was also rarely shown without a cone on his head (or elsewhere). 

Cartoon by Steve Bell of John Major with a traffic cone wedged up his bum.
Steve Bell, Prime Minister John Major, “Hello Cone Hotline”, 1994

The problem with Major’s premiership was not that he was attacked, but that he could not stop thinking – and obsessing – that he had been so. He would wake up in the early hours and sit in the Downing Street kitchen pouring over the latest jibe in the papers – and could not recover for hours. As one of his kindest aides later admitted, his ‘thin skin’ had ruined his time in office.

Why do some of us end up unable ever to forget mean things people say and do (from the largest to the smallest case) while others sail on unmolested? The central explanation is: the degree and sort of love we received in childhood.

A section of the population luxuriated in a love which will forever insulate them from jibes and calumny. However bad it gets, they know they were someone’s treasure and therefore never need to feel ashamed of who they are. But others of us were on the receiving end of such a tentative, fragile or non-existent love that we have been at the mercy of every tremor in the surrounding mood ever since. It may take only a small joke to drive us to something close to suicide. We feel so bad inside already, we are in no position to receive yet more confirmation, however minor, of additional awfulness. 

This thesis can at least help us to locate the problem. There is no point complaining about our critics. We need to study those who can have slurry heaped on them without giving a damn – and wonder why. They do not have magic powers; and it definitely isn’t luck. They had the boundless privilege of once being adored; they were rendered invincible by love.

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