I know very few people who relish the thought of hearing critical feedback. It hurts to hear that something we’ve done — especially when it’s an endeavor we love and that feels very much a part of who we are — is flawed or inadequate in the eyes of someone else. It hurts so much that we often deliberately avoid seeking it out.
I used to do this. At work, performance reviews were a source of singular dread because I’d have to hear all the ways my manager thought I needed to improve. In my creative endeavors (writing, in particular), I would shrink from showing my work to anyone save those I knew would love it… or tell me they loved it, at any rate.
I knew I was sacrificing opportunities for valuable insight, self-knowledge, and long-term growth by doing this. I knew, on some level, that hearing honest feedback was necessary to help me move past my own blind spots (we all have them). Yet I avoided it all the same.
Feedback is not a referendum on your worth
I avoided critical feedback because I fundamentally misunderstood what it was telling me. Here’s what I felt like the feedback was telling me:
You are fundamentally flawed. This feedback means that clearly there’s something wrong with you. You aren’t good enough. You are unworthy of love, respect, and kindness.
I bet this sounds familiar to a lot of you. Women, in particular, are conditioned to internalize feedback and treat it as a referendum on our self-worth, but I don’t think anyone is immune. With this inner monologue running in the background, no wonder hearing feedback is so painful!
But it isn’t true. Feedback doesn’t tell us anything about our worth or whether we are good enough. If you really think about it, feedback doesn’t directly tell us anything about ourselves at all.
Here’s what feedback actually tells us:
The person providing me with this feedback has just given me information about how they perceive the world.
In other words, feedback is not about you. It’s about the person giving the feedback.
Whoa, right? My mind almost exploded the first time I heard this. It's a simple, but profoundly powerful, mental shift that can transform our relationship with feedback from toxic and abusive to helpful and illuminating.
Feedback is a tool to help you serve
This is a radically different approach to feedback than the one we're used to, and it helps to see how it might look in practice.
Let's say your boss gives you some very critical feedback about a recent project you managed. She gives you a long list of things you did wrong, people you accidentally alienated, and a host of other ways you really screwed up. What does this feedback tell you?
Does it tell you you're incompetent, worthless, a horrible employee who should quit right now before someone fires you? It may feel that way in the moment, but remember, your boss's feedback doesn't tell you anything about you. It tells you what your boss believes is important when it comes to managing projects effectively. See the difference?
The feedback is still incredibly useful. It helps you understand how to meet your boss's expectations and be more successful in your role. In fact, it's all the more potent because it lacks the sting of a perceived attack, enabling you to hear the feedback more clearly.
When we remove our sense of identity and self-worth from the equation, feedback becomes a powerful tool to help us serve.
Whether you’re an employee, a manager, an entrepreneur, an artist, a volunteer, or just a human being with hopes and aspirations and relationships, hearing feedback about what your audience needs and thinks can help you understand the people you wish to serve and therefore serve them better.
It takes awhile — and a lot of practice — for all this to sink in. I still struggle with it sometimes. I've found it helps to remind myself why I'm seeking feedback (or, if feedback is seeking me, what I stand to gain from hearing it).
A former colleague used to say that "feedback is a gift." For a long time, I thought she was crazy or brave or possibly a glutton for punishment. But now I see what she meant. No matter where it comes from, feedback offers you a way to become more of the person you want to be.