Discerning the meaning of feedback

“Our ultimate freedom is the right and power to decide how anybody or anything outside ourselves will affect us.” ~Stephen Covey

I’ve been the recipient lately of an unusually (for me) large amount of positive feedback, and this has done wonders for my mood and my self-confidence over the last few months. However, this has also provided an opportunity for me to really observe how I react to feedback from other people, and I’ve discovered something very interesting.

When I receive positive feedback from people, I tend to perceive this feedback as telling me more about the other person than about me. It tells me that the other person is generous, kind, non-judgmental, positive, and compassionate. While it’s nice to hear good things about my skills or how I am interacting with others, my focus when I receive positive feedback is on what positive things it tells me about how the other person views the world.

When I receive negative feedback from people, I tend to perceive this feedback as being about me more than about the other person. If I can find even the smallest grain of truth in what the other person is saying about me (and I almost always can), then I internalize that negative feedback as telling me that I am not good enough in some way. Even when I may recognize that the other person has been triggered by their own personal “stuff,” my baseline assumption is that if someone would go out of their way to provide negative feedback, then I’m probably even worse than whatever they are telling me (since most people are too nice to be critical for no reason).

It’s taken this recent outpouring of positive feedback for me to recognize this tendency, but once I saw the pattern, I can see how this is not serving me. No wonder I internalize the critical voices around me and not the positive ones!

The truth is that all feedback is as much (or more) about the giver of the feedback as it is about the receiver. There’s no good reason to assume that positive feedback is any different from negative feedback in this way. Negative feedback is no more “real” or “true” than positive feedback is, no matter what my inner critic may claim.

If Stephen Covey is right that true freedom is about choosing how I let others affect me, then that freedom includes choosing how I let feedback (both positive and negative) affect me. This is not to say that I should just ignore all feedback that I get to remain unaffected by it. Feedback is helpful even though it is never perfectly objective.

There are times when I will get negative feedback that I really need to hear in order to become the person I want to be. There will also be times when I get negative feedback that is about the other person’s personal preference, and it is not something I want or need to change, so I can just let it go.

Likewise, there will be times when I get positive feedback that is given simply out of the other person’s kindness and their desire not to hurt my feelings. There will also be times when I get positive feedback that is a genuine assessment that I have done something well, and I would be well served to take that in and let it inform my self-understanding.

The key is learning to distinguish the times when the feedback is something that is about me that I need to hear and act on and when the feedback is primarily about the other person that I don’t need to do anything about. And that determination is much more complex than the simple assumption that I have been using (positive = about them / negative = about me).

I suspect it will take time for this discernment to grow, but becoming aware of the need for it is the first step!

How do you discern when feedback you receive is about you and when it is about the person giving the feedback?

A Note on Comments: A chrysalis is by nature a fragile and vulnerable place to be, so I am committed to keeping this a safe place for me and for my readers. Comments sharing your own journey, even if your experience is different from mine, are always welcome and encouraged. Expressions of support or encouragement are also welcome. Comments that criticize, disparage, correct, or in any way attempt to undermine the validity of another person’s experience or personal insight are not welcome here and will be deleted.


5 thoughts on “Discerning the meaning of feedback

  1. That’s a REALLY good question. I’m wondering if, on some level, my reception of the feebdack is more about my perception of the relationship I have with the other than about the particular feedback content. Even if it’s a heretofore stranger I’m interacting with, I think I’m influenced more by the character of our interaction (e.g., does she seem to be attentively listening to or seeing me & those around her? Or, is he paying primary attention to his own stories, perceptions, etc.?) than by other factors. But…I’m going to be wondering about my criteria all day now! 😉

    • Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Callie! I had not even considered the individual relationship aspect. I have a family member who tends to spend a lot of time criticizing other people behind their backs even though she is very sweet to them face-to-face, and so I tend to disregard any positive feedback I get from her and amplify any negative feedback because of watching this pattern of how she treats others. In many relationships, I think the person’s patterns of treating me or others in the past influences the way that I perceive the feedback I receive,although my strong default is still what I described in my post. I’m not sure about people I don’t really know. I will need to pay more attention there. Thanks so much for exploring this question with me! It’s helpful for me to expand my awareness to how individual relationships influence my default pattern. Thank you!!

  2. I usually know it’s about the other person when their negative comments are out of proportion to whatever it was I was posting about. So if I write about a contentious issue and someone “flies off the handle” at me for the issue, it’s safe to assume most is from that person’s issues. They may have something legitimate to contribute but if it’s totally misaligned and unexpected for what I said I do my best to not take it personally. It’s easier when I’m feeling well than if I’m a bit down b/c then I take things more personally more easily. In Eastern philosophy it’s encouraged to not become attached to negative or positive comments. If we are complimented we don’t take it personally anymore than if insulted. A non-attachment view is encouraged and I’ve found this helpful to some extent. Mostly, I like psychological explanations though so realize whatever is being said-good or bad-is from the other person’s ‘stuff’.

    • Thanks for sharing, Natalya. It’s interesting that you bring up comments to a blog post. I had not considered whether I reacted differently to those than to real life feedback, but I will have to think about that (and observe). I’ve been really working on the non-attachment approach, and it is helping quite a bit, but I still have room for growth there. Thanks so much for the comment!

      • Hi KJ, I guess it’s more straight forward to use blog posts as examples and know what to think. “Real time” comments do get a bit trickier to figure out. It’s super important to be present and remain aware so as not to react. I find if I can do that I retain enough rational thought to determine if the comment was really about me or not.

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