In your job, among your friends, with your husband, and in any other relationship, negative feedback is a given. It’s not a matter of if it will come, but when. While some feedback is certainly positive, there’s also likely to be a fair share of constructive criticism. Sometimes it can be uncomfortable, even downright painful, to receive negative feedback. I believe the ability to positively receive negative feedback, to embrace it, is vital to joyous self improvement. Hopefully, I can help you adopt this perspective! In this post, I’ll delve into the frame of mind and functional tactics that will help you to shift this paradigm! In doing so, I’ll help you maximize your opportunities for personal growth.

Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.

Frank A. Clark

Why Negative Feedback Is Hard to Receive

At the most basic level, negative feedback is the process of being told we have erred. It only comes our way when we have done something wrong. Whatever the case, we made a mistake at least once, if not on multiple occasions. Our mistake(s) were substantial to the point that someone needs to actually confront us. There are many reasons that the reveal of our missteps can be difficult for us to experience.

It can be embarassing.

Even if we would generally consider ourselves humble, we still value ourselves and the things we do. We don’t make mistakes just for the fun of it. When people present us with our own mistakes, it shows a discrepancy between the value we see in our labors and the actual value. We lower that value when we err. When we receive negative feedback, we see how our intentions to do things correctly didn’t quite pan out and, worse, we were unaware of the fact. For the moment, it can make a person feel like they are inferior, which makes it easy to feel embarrassed.

It can make you question yourself and your efforts.

Anytime we’re confronted with the fact that we’ve taken the wrong path, we’re likely a bit disoriented. Naturally, we start wondering, “Where did I go wrong? What did I not understand? How did I get mixed up?” As a result, we start to wonder if we actually have what it takes to succeed. Also, we will wonder what else we’ve missed without realizing. We might even feel like we’ve wasted our time, our most valuable resource, and our very selves, if the mistake is monumental enough and we’ve invested considerably in whatever we are pursuing.

It’s not always kindly communicated.

People don’t always share negative feedback in the most edifying manner. Some people might simply not be possess gentle communication abilities. The mistake we made might need urgently addressed and rectified, so much so that the person giving us criticism might not even have the bandwidth to speak kindly. Depending on the gravity of our mistake, sometimes the person showing us our error might be downright spicy about the whole situation. Naturally, this can cause us distress.

It can make you feel guilty.

Unless we are plagued by antisocial or reckless behavior, we don’t typically want to create bad circumstances for ourselves or others. If we contemplate the negative repercussions of our mistakes, sometimes that leads us to feel guilt. This sense of remorse for our errors is real and difficult to deal with sometimes.

Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.

Winston Churchill

Why Negative Feedback Is Necessary & Unpreventable

We are imperfect. Therefore, we aren’t always going to do things the right way. Fortunately, we have relationships with people who have different strengths and experiences than ours. It is this added perspective that makes feedback a vital part of the personal growth project. Now consider yourself someone who wants to seriously improve in one area of life or another. Wouldn’t that aspiration to grow make you desire feedback, positive or negative, in order to develop more efficiently and effectively?

We are all limited by our own perspectives, experiences, and understandings. Try as we might, we can only notice and comprehend the things that come to our attention. If we surround ourselves with people we value, these people can cushion us from our own limitations by sharing their unique ideas and wisdom. Of course, we can do the same for them!

Now picture a world in which you never get any negative feedback or constructive criticism. No one ever learns what they do wrong. Nobody ever tells anyone how to do things better. In addition to being a completely unrealistic scenario, this quickly becomes a very dystopian hypothetical. Sure, you will feel good about yourself because no one is ever telling you about your mistakes. But at what cost?! We would all be haphazardly messing things up. While we would feel good about ourselves, we would be subjecting everything and everyone to our mistakes.

Not only that, but we would be leaving innumerable opportunities for self improvement on the table. Sometimes, even if it is painful, the clearest way for us to learn right from wrong, and best from okay, is negative feedback. Sure, positive rewards (giving us money for a job well done) and negative punishment (taking away things we don’t like when we do what we’re supposed to) would be motivating factors. But then, we would be stuck figuring out things based only on positive feedback for a very long time. Technically, in this unrealistic scenario, we wouldn’t even have that… because the absence of positive rewards and/or negative punishment would constitute negative feedback.

So! You see, its not only impossible. It’s disadvantageous and unavoidable to live life without receiving any negative feedback whatsoever. Even if we could eliminate it, we wouldn’t want to because it gives us vital information about how to be the best we can be.

Feedback is a gift. Ideas are the currency of our next success. Let people see you value both feedback and ideas.

Jim Trinka & Les Wallace

How to Receive Negative Feedback… Without Crying

I am a fairly sensitive person. I have lots of feelings. Because I consider my value in life to stem from the things I do and create, I am deeply invested in what I do and create. I also care about what people think of me, especially the people I admire. Therefore, negative feedback does sometimes grate at my emotions, self esteem, and self confidence. I won’t pretend otherwise! Because of my inherent qualities, and because I take my self improvement very seriously, I’ve had to learn to receive negative feedback gracefully. Here are the best practices!

When the negative feedback hurts…

Consider why specifically it hurts. Does it hurt because you feel like you can’t do anything right? If that’s the case, consider how high your self imposed expectations are. Also consider if the level of support you’re receiving is insufficient for what you’re being expected to do. In either scenario, the person critiquing you might be able to help you parse through expectations and develop a better solution to handling things. They can help you pinpoint exactly what has been going well, what needs worked on, and how to work on it better in order to achieve the desired results. Does it hurt because you take pride in yourself and that’s now someone is taking it away from you? Then get over yourself! Make this the last time you need to hear this specific criticism!

When someone is uncharitable while giving negative feedback…

Realize that their limitations are not yours. They are likely being emotional… frustrated, angry, scared, or something else that manifests in an angry or hostile manner. Just because they are emotionally escalated doesn’t mean you have to be. You can be patient. Try to focus on their intentions, rather than how they are going about accomplishing what they’re trying to accomplish. If what you’re receiving is truly negative feedback, and not a superfluous dressing down, the person giving it is trying to fix something. Filter out the negativity, the anger, the cussing, and fix your mind on understanding the root of the communication.

Yes, you’ll need to build distress tolerance in order to weather someone chewing you out. You won’t establish this tolerance overnight. But focus on what is ACTUALLY happening on a physical level: you messed up, and someone is trying to make you understand the mistake. Their anger, and your emotional response to it, are real emotional and even physiological experiences, but they aren’t physically happening out in the world.

It’s also helpful to understand the differences in negative feedback. Sometimes a person will tell you how to do something better or more correctly next time. This is constructive criticism. Other times, a person might tell you about your mistakes, pure and simple. This is criticism or scolding. Someone might call you ot or go so far as to chew you out. While you might prefer one over the other, understand that other people are allowed to have such preferences, too. Some people prefer a brief “that’s wrong”, and others might prefer to go into the specifics of constructive criticism. You don’t get to decide others’ preferences for them, only your reactions in response.

While I absolutely recommend improving your tolerance for distress, I also advise you to establish and enforce healthy boundaries when necessary Should someone begin to give you negative feedback in a way you find untenable, address it.

Say something like, “The way you’re speaking to me is disrespectful, but I do need to hear and understand what you’re trying to communicate. Please continue, but with with a less distracting degree of disrespect.” Or maybe, “I’d also be happy to have this discussion at a later time if you need a moment. You seem frustrated, which is very understandable. Still, I’d rather be able to discuss this with cooler heads so we can ensure to resolve the issue.” There’s also this slightly more nuclear option which ends in you walking away: Wait them out as they rant and rave, and then say, “Thank you for helping me understand my mistake. It won’t happen again, but neither will I tolerate being spoken to like this again.”

When you feel embarassed…

Realize that for the most part, you’re the only one who knows that. Sure you might blush or hear your own voice start to tremble, but the other person is likely so busy giving you feedback they won’t notice. We spend so much time thinking about others’ perceptions of ourselves that we don’t notice how little they ever think about us at all.

When the criticism makes you feel despair…

Realize your best way to prevent future negative feedback is to learn from the feedback you’re getting right now!

When you don’t agree with the feedback…

Seek to understand before you seek to be understood. (That’s one of my favorite nuggets of wisdom from John C. Maxwell. First, hear the person out. Ask questions to clarify anything confusing or unclear. Repeat the information back to ensure you understand what they’re saying. Once you do, decide if you truly disagree. If you still disagree, decide if that even needs to be brought up! If you didn’t solicit the feedback, or if they are wrong, you can disagree privately. This is something you should consider if the person isn’t someone you’ll regularly come into contact with. If they are in any position to hold you accountable to the feedback, or if you share an ongoing relationship, that’s when its time to discuss.

When you feel remorse for your mistakes…

Decide where that remorse should be placed. Does it make sense to apologize for your mistake, even if it was an honest one? Should you listen in earnest and seek guidance to rectify the error? What if you compensate for your mistake somehow? Should you change how you operate in the future to ensure it never happens again? We can’t always resolve guilt entirely, but we can contemplate and carry out a rational response to the guilt we feel.

What to Do Next

I’m suggesting a multitude of habits and thought patterns designed to help you shift a paradigm within your own mind. I hope that over time you will be able to tolerate the distress of getting negative feedback. Hopefully, you’ll cultivate new ways to respond to criticism that work for you specifically.

As you do these things, my greatest and most audacious hope is that you will come to view negative feedback as a gift, an opportunity; that you will seek out constructive criticism. I often dream about what the world would be like if everyone was so eager to improve that they were willing to set their own pride and feelings aside in order to accept others’ help (however harsh or kind!) in addressing the ways they can do better, be better.

Be the person who invests more in their growth than their comfort. Embrace the discomfort of being wrong– it can actually be quite comforting to know that you aren’t meant to be the one with all the answers. Be grateful that people care about you and what you do enough that they’re willing to help you prevent making mistakes in the future. Remember that usually, you have to be doing something at least partially right for someone to be able to point out what you’re doing wrong at all!

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