The Problem with Thick Skin

I hate the expression “thick skin.” Growing up, I was the kid who cried easily, who bruised easily, who was generally called too sensitive. I often heard that I ought to have thicker skin, which I never really got a handle on (even though I've seen it a thousand times, that ASPCA commercial with the doleful animals and Sarah McLachlan music still makes me weepy). Still, since growing out of childhood, it’s been a long time since anyone informed me that my skin isn't the proper level of thickness.

Until the decision to become a writer. I’ve heard hundreds—thousands—millions of times that the most important trait a writer needs is thick skin. I heard it and read it so many times that I internalized it, and when I was ready to query my novel, I was prepared for rejection. And I got it. I got some rejections that were long and filled with helpful hints, some that were kind but obviously form letters, and some that were blunt and short (my favorite is this one sentence rejection: “I will not be pursuing this project.” It gets the point across, I guess).

And those rejections stung. A few really stung, either because they were from agents I really admired or from agents who had read a full or partial. Each rejection made me blue for a while, but afterward I was always able to bounce back and get excited about my writing and the publishing process again. I was being rejected, but I was able to handle it with my optimism and love of writing in tact. I thought I’d finally grown some of this thick skin I’d been lacking my whole life. 
Bats have the thinnest skin of any animal. Don't make fun of his ears!
Well, here’s where the rant starts: the other day I got in a conversation on a forum with a fellow writer. I asked a general question about querying and he stated, without knowing anything about the book or having read my writing, that he seriously doubted I’d done the work necessary to get the book query-ready. Ouch! I knew I'd opened myself up to this kind of ass-hatery just by visiting a forum, but I felt compelled to reply. I wrote that I thought what he said was really unnecessary, unfair and mean, considering he couldn’t possibly make any kind of judgment on my writing.
To which he responded “You’ll need to have thicker skin if you want to make it in the publishing industry.” That answer has driven me crazy ever since, and I’ve finally figured out why that kind of thinking is absolutely wrong
The perfect rebuttal to any internet troll. 
Every agent who's rejected me was nothing but professional and kind. Even the ones who sent form rejections bothered to write “Dear Ms. Oakes” at the top. Many of them took the time to personalize the rejection in some way, and almost all wished me luck with my search.
I queried many, many agents, and not a single one was cruel, mean-spirited, discourteous, or unprofessional. And while I’ve heard agent horror stories (and editor horror stories, and marketing horror stories, etc), the vast majority of querying and published writers I’ve talked with, either online or in person, have not experienced any of those horror stories—they’ve experienced the same typical level of courteous rejection I’ve received.
When people say “You need thick skin to be a writer,” they’re generally referring to rejection from agents and editors. But, in my experience, it’s not the people working in the publishing industry who have the harshest criticisms, it’s fellow writers.  
I was in an MFA program and, in general, I adored the experience. But, one aspect of the MFA I found consistently unpleasant was workshops. Workshops were a requirement of the program, and they were often really fun and full of nuggets of invaluable writerly wisdom. But, sometimes, the discussions got downright cruel, and when the entire class joined together to rip someone’s writing to shreds, it was clear that nobody was learning anything. And when someone got upset, or objected to an unnecessarily cruel criticism, what do you think they were told? “You’ve got to have thicker skin if you want to be a writer!” 

It took me a while to decide that that kind of behavior was not only completely unwarranted, but potentially very harmful to beginning writers.
While whale sharks have the thickest skin of any animal, they're still quite sensitive about their poetry.

As writers, we should have thick skin. We should be aware that publishing is a business, and prepare for our writing to be handled in a businesslike fashion. We should be prepared to handle buckets full of rejections with professionalism and grace, and not allow rejection to hinder our love of writing. We should never act unprofessionally in response to rejection or criticism, and we should never allow our disappointment at rejection to overwhelm our dreams.

We should not, however, think that simply because we are writers we have to be insensitive when someone is cruel. If someone is cruel to you and you feel hurt, that does not mean “you’ll never make it in the publishing industry.” It simply means that people can be mean, and the rare mean person exists in every industry, in person and online. If anybody tries to tell you that you ought to suck it up and take abuse because “You need thick skin to be a writer,” just know that a) they’re wrong, b) they’re a bully, and c) the real publishing industry does not operate out of cruelty.
Writer friends, what are your feelings about how thick a writer’s skin ought to be? Do you have any personal experiences like mine?