“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?
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