Why Is Feedback So Triggering? How To Practice Healthy Detachment From Criticism

July 20, 2022

A concert had just let out, leaving the area outside of San Francisco’s Civic Center completely mobbed. Several streets were blocked off. Countless cars queued up in the middle of the road to pick up passengers, halting the flow of traffic. 

Ten minutes, three phone calls, and a couple of texts later, I managed to locate my passengers. After emerging from the crowd, the girl and her mom walked briskly toward my car. I saw that the mom was using a cane, which immediately softened me (as my own mom has mobility issues due to visual impairment as well).

The ride lasted about ten minutes. We chatted throughout. All seemed friendly and well.

A few days later, the following feedback arrived in my inbox, alongside a two star review: “My driver made me and my grandma walk five blocks just to get to the car.” 

Surprise was my initial reaction. At the start of the ride we’d all mutually apologized for the difficulties we’d had with locating one another. Their behavior during the remainder of the ride hadn’t indicated any latent feelings of resentment (or they’d at least done a good job of covering them up). 

Once they’d gotten in I’d made it a point to say I was sorry. I’d also tried my best to treat them with kindness and courtesy. After I dropped them off outside their hotel, they’d thanked me and continued on their way. 

Hurt feelings followed the initial surprise. Had I not gently made it clear over the phone that the street they’d asked me to pick them up on was blocked off, therefore inaccessible to cars?

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A new study reports that most people “are not able to comfortably accept criticism.”

“Even if they ask for feedback, their brain prepares for an assault. This closes instead of opens the mind to seeing situations differently.” Professors Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone found that even well-intentioned feedback, “…spark[s] an emotional reaction, inject[s] tension into the relationship, and bring[s] communication to a halt.” People want to learn and grow, but they also have a basic human need for acceptance. One-way feedback hurts. 

This is because feedback tends to be really about finding fault. So the supposedly “helpful” information you give people often raises defenses or lowers confidence, decreasing their desire to engage and create with you.

Though I partially agree with these statements, I also think that many of us can accept criticism—even if initially, our internal reaction may be defensive. I think we can get to a place where we’re able to assess the criticism and determine whether it’s valid or not.

Keeping up a semi-permeable force field against certain opinions and criticisms can be challenging, though. Sometimes people will criticize you because they want to help. Their feedback might contain some truth—and could therefore help either you or the immediate situation.

Other times, they come from another person’s insecurities or offsetting of negative emotions (perhaps misplaced anger and frustration). Sometimes their rebuke may not have even been about us or anything we did.

It can be hard to distinguish between the two. Still, I’ve found that being open and truthful with myself helps.

Mindfulness can help—first by simmering down our defensiveness, and then by allowing us to view the situation more objectively. Once that defensiveness is gone, we can more honestly assess.

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Following my reading of that review, though I could have traveled down a hole of self-flagellation, I stopped myself. I remained on land and gently detached my clawing thoughts from the nascent tangle of defensiveness and self-recrimination.

I stepped back and asked myself if there was anything I could have done differently.

After reviewing the facts of the situation, I sincerely felt like there wasn’t.

The street they’d been asking me to pick them up on was blocked off, therefore inaccessible to cars.

I’d communicated with them every step of the way.

I then acknowledged how stress can place us into survival mode, making it harder to empathize. Once there, we’re less likely to look at the full picture, or take other perspectives into account. Instead we may act on our immediate feelings in response to the perception of having been slighted in some way. Maybe in this girl’s case, it translated into her writing that review.

Maybe she wasn’t feeling great, or in the best place emotionally. Maybe she was tired after the concert.

Any of these possibilities could have led her to interpret my picking them up on a faraway street in a negative light.

In any case, the exact ‘Why’ doesn’t really matter.  What does is that we remind ourselves: We can only try our best in life to act with integrity, and sometimes people will misconstrue our behaviors or intentions. Sometimes they’ll neglect to give us the benefit of the doubt.

Let them. If there’s anything valuable or constructive to be gained from their feedback, then we can take (and incorporate) what we can. We can learn from it. We can be open to improvement. 

If it’s a friend or someone who’s a regular part of our life, perhaps we can ask: “What could I do differently next time?”

If the person’s comment seems truly more reflective of their internal state than of anything we did wrong, though, then there’s no reason to carry it with us. We can gently let it go.

In short: detach. Empathize. Consider the feedback. Be kind to yourself. And then move on.

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Photo: Kleighton Silva via Unsplash

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An LGBTQ bilingual writer, Eleni was born and raised in the California Bay Area. Her work has been published in Tiny Buddha, The Mighty, Elephant Journal, and Introvert Dear among others. She currently writes the column "Queer Girl Q&A" for Out Front Magazine. You can follow her on IG @eleni_steph_writer and read stories from her time as a rideshare driver at lyfttales.com.

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