Thursday, March 23, 2023

I was at an event years ago when one of the hosts proceeded to speak to the guests, honoring the occasion. Following her speech, I overheard her family members approach her and when she asked what they thought, they all profusely replied, “It was amazing! You spoke so well! I loved it!” I recall asking myself what I thought of it and thinking that she had rambled a bit and some of her tangential thoughts made it easy to lose the message she was trying to convey.

This was not a judgment of who she was as a person. Or even as a speaker. It was a reaction to the particular speech that she gave, and it was not one that influenced my views of her or my experience at the event. And yet, I could not imagine myself ever sharing this feedback with her.

It brings to mind the interview question “How do you handle feedback?” To which many of us have likely responded, “Oh, I love it!” Now, it is very possible that we can appreciate feedback and that it can help us reflect, grow and move forward. But I truly doubt that most of us love or enjoy feedback or critical comments. It typically makes people uncomfortable because in their minds they are being told what they can do better, which, based on “all-or-nothing” thinking, must mean that they are doing something wrong now. And then in turn that they are wrong, that they are bad. And this tends to lead to defensiveness and blame of others or internal berating dialogue and judgment of one’s self.

So no, I do not think most of us respond well to criticism, because it feels as if our faults are being put on display. In reality, though, feedback ought not to be equated with judgment. I spoke about this subject with friends recently as I gave a virtual parent presentation on the subject of body image and fostering a healthy relationship with food. Most individuals in attendance were folks from my circle as I purposely advertised it almost solely amongst my friends. Afterward, I received the same messages as the ones I described above—with sentiments of “You were awesome!” I responded to each of these friends or acquaintances with my thanks, but also asked them for critical feedback: What didn’t they like? What could have been different? What did they want more of”

And this permission led to receiving that feedback. And at no point did I feel judged or did I berate myself. This is likely because I know these individuals and there is a level of connection and trust and because I asked for it first. And more than this, the feedback was communicated with curiosity, lower energy and no judgment. So I took notes. And I reflected. And now I believe I am able to grow, and this feedback will help not only me with regard to how I present and arrange the content, but it will also help the folks in attendance in the future.

What would it be like to live in a world where we actually provided feedback and it was done with kindness and without activation? If we could reflect on our defensiveness both when giving and receiving feedback and know how this impacts our ability to communicate and to listen?

I believe that we live in fear because of a very real “all-or-nothing” culture: We tend to focus solely on “what went wrong” or look exclusively at what went well. If we could instead notice the dialectic of what we appreciated, felt confident or good about, as well as areas of growth, we would be able to have authentic and honest conversations. We might be able to say, “The speech was a little long and it was so clear how joyful you are to be here.” And this wouldn’t be groundbreaking or insulting. It would be tucked away. Perhaps there might be a prickly wave of defensiveness, but we would be living in a world where our judgments surrounding self-worth would not be tied to one comment from another person and one event. Our self-worth would not be limited to accomplishments, accolades or appearance. Instead we would have confidence surrounding who we are at our core, and then lean into how we can grow. We would recognize that there can be various opinions, and all can be true.

Receiving feedback would not be about a feeling of not being liked. It would be about pausing and gaining from the experience. But the world we live in now makes it difficult to take this in stride and not feel hurt if someone tells us they didn’t like how we did something or that, in general, improvements may be necessary.

We can start by parsing through what we take these comments to mean about ourselves and challenge the cognitive distortions that make it so we ignore other important pieces of information or cause us to generalize. We can validate the emotional experience we are having and notice where defenses may arise. We can recognize if the feedback is given without lower energy and bring this to the surface of the conversation. And above all we sit with discomfort and not blame others or blame ourselves, but instead look to learn and grow.

Temimah Zucker, LCSW, works with individuals ages 18 and older in New York and New Jersey who are struggling with mental health concerns, and specializes in working with those looking to heal their relationships between their bodies and souls. Temimah is an adjunct professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, an advocate and public speaker concerning eating disorder awareness and a Metro-New York supervisor at Monte Nido. To learn more or to reach her, visit www.temimah.com.

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