Experiment #19: Trying to Handle Negative Feedback in a Positive Way

Feedback is a huge growth mechanism; in fact, a decent part of my job right now is trying to extract meaningful action items from a pretty massive trove of customer feedback. We all give feedback and take it throughout our lives - in grade school you get... grades, at some point you end a relationship or have a fight and throw some barbs at each other, and sometimes we leave Amazon reviews. The whole point to feedback is that it's supposed to encourage positive behaviors or allow an opportunity to correct negative ones.

Excessive crying is not a superpower
But feedback isn't always constructive or sometimes is just masquerading an attack. Or sometimes someone's having a bad day and you/your work are in the blast zone. Or sometimes we just communicate differently - someone's neutral tone is someone else's aggressive one.

I've always been, ahem, overly sensitive to criticism. I think it's because I beat myself up enough in my own head that having someone "offer a few suggestions" usually just fans some sort of hyper-negative fire in my head. Innocuous comments on report cards would blow up into me still thinking about how I failed at something, even 20 years down the road (I still remember I got a B in conduct in 3rd grade. Still).

As I grew older, people seemed to figure that a 'strong woman' would relish such opportunities for self-growth. I started to learn the difference between "good" critical feedback and "bad" critical feedback. Good CF fills you with hope - you scamper off ready to conquer some minor fault someone pointed out to you which is almost completely eclipsed by your heroic traits. Almost always, good critical feedback comes embedded in a nice package of positive feedback. Things like "I think the way you tackle problems is incredible and you are going to be so successful, but next time you type an email, read it twice to check your spelling. We all do it, and I'd hate for anything so small to interfere with the success that you deserve". Don't you feel great just reading that? It's a lot better than "Only comment: you have too many typos and it makes you sound dumb".

In college, the critical feedback still got to me and forced holes in my confidence but overall, it wasn't enough to break me. In graduate school, the blatantly negative feedback was incessant. It was like people forgot how to communicate anything positive to each other. At some point, you can't just be sobbing all the time because people are trying to help you improve and they're doing it in a shitty way. I started to develop coping mechanisms, like not responding to negative emails for at least 24 hours. The most useful skill I developed was learning to pull the grain of truth, the holy grail of self improvement, from their pile of poop they handed me and focus on that. I would tell myself that people wouldn't bother with feedback if they didn't think things could be fixed. In some ways, I grew very strong and resilient; I could read mean things about me/my intelligence/my work without crying. Success.
Calling BS all the time is comforting
but not always helpful

However, this often involved sometimes saying that "this feedback is total BS and not worth reading". This is the opposite intent of feedback - a complete dismissal of another person's thoughts and advice on how to grow. Tipping this scale too far means that you end up stuck; you only listen to yourself or feedback that appeals to you. Unfortunately, I think this happens as often as people who are overly sensitive like me, and it's just as damaging.

Post-school, I felt like I had finally figured out an appropriate way to sift through feedback. Someone calling me stupid at work? That's a dismissal. Someone offering criticism without a positive wrapping? Well, they haven't figured out good feedback yet but let's take what they said and try to extract the good. I was proud of myself, really really proud of myself, for feeling like I had mastered handling poorly worded feedback. Selfishly, I was able to grow from a lot of the feedback I received, and people love it when they see you grow from their words. Good things all around.
When life throws you out of your
 ice cream cone

But recently, I think I've had one of my greatest challenges yet in personally handing negative feedback, and being frank, I didn't succeed. In a short span of time, I just had a lot of not great things happen or said to me, between failing to complete Dirty Kanza and coming home to negative criticism (unrelated to the race) waiting me at work, on the home front, and from a program I volunteer for.

I tried to execute all my standard methods - (1) calm down, don't respond (2) think of growth, what can you gather from this that you know to be true and learn from it (3) don't let the BS get to you (4) defer and delay feedback when you know someone is upset (5) pretend that they are trying to help you, even if they aren't (6) recognize what is changeable and what is not (7) let yourself grieve fully - cry, breakdown, have a fit in private but the next day come back having released your grief.

But... it just compounded and was overwhelming. I found myself at one point shaking a fist at the ceiling and yelling "why did everyone pick this week?!" I started triaging - I will handle the most important negative thing first and then go on to the others, both internally and externally processing. The feedback ranged from truth packaged poorly, to someone having some personal issues and taking it out on volunteers, to something I could actually act and improve upon.

Of the feedback I chose to deal with, some of it has left cuts that I will still feel long after the fact. When you're exposed like that and feel like a punching bag, even after everyone apologizes, there's still these seeds of mistrust sown all throughout the day. A younger, less wise Lo would hold it against the individuals who said the feedback, and, well, everyone associated with them. "Are you friends with X? they are such a jerk, you must be evil too" But somewhere in the above paragraphs, I grew up and realized that only hurt me. You can't cut and run every time someone hurts you. Well, you can, but will you be happy then?

Expressing anger is best served when
killing a spider later or kneading bread
And that's what I've been working on - how to pick up yourself and not punish everyone around you because someone hurt you when you were vulnerable. I asked some very wise people about this, and the advice ranged from "you need to get over it" (true) to "I would be careful about who I trust" (...also true) to "just don't put negative feedback in writing" (that's actually brilliant). To try to repair these situations into positive learning events has come at personal cost, and being honest, I don't think I am doing a great of following my own advice and moving forward. We all make mistakes, sometimes ultra negative feedback is valid. It doesn't mean that it's always going to be true or that's who you are (I've been repeating this in the mirror).

The summary here? I can't always change who I am but I did learn something the last few weeks... I am going to be very careful about writing negative feedback to others after seeing what it still does to me. Ask yourself - what do you hope to gain from your criticisms? Venting? the person changing? Warning others? If the first, why ruin someone else's day? Go find a tree and scream your heart out. If the second, ask yourself if this is changeable request and if so, make sure you put a lot of niceties around it to in order to prevent devastating your feedback-ee and setting your relationship back. Your best case scenario from "offering advice" is that they are a stoic individual that can handle that, but that shouldn't be the default. If the third, then sure. If you got food poisoning from the Wendy's downtown, you should let others know. That's fair.

Also a conversation is better than a strongly worded email or letter. BUT, on a happier note, this week is moving week, and when sorting through things, I found old love letters from people who really cared about me at some point. Having those written down and to find again years down the road... priceless.

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