How to learn from critical feedback without becoming defined by it

We love feedback. And we hate feedback!

I played lead guitar in a prog band in my late teens and 20s. We’ve never had a career-ending review in a newspaper or anything of that sort. But even the seemingly innocent comments sometimes stung more than a little. Like a friend’s passing remark after a performance, “I didn’t know you could play!” I could only think, “What did you think I was doing fronting a band for 10 years?!”

I used to believe that confident people didn’t care what others thought of them. I bet if you ask 100 people what it means to be confident, 98 will give you the same answer.

What I, along with those 98, didn’t realize was that not caring about what others think doesn’t make you confident. It makes you a sociopath.

You see, according to Sheila Heen, a Professor at Harvard Law School, humans have two innate needs. We need feedback like plants need water to learn and grow. And we need to feel accepted just the way we are. But the mere existence of feedback suggests that the way we are is not good enough.

Is it then any surprise we’re so conflicted about feedback?

And it’s not just us mere mortals who struggle to accept feedback.

Brené Brown once said in an interview, “If you’re not in the arena, also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”

And ... just look at me, awash with my impostor syndrome. Wondering just who the fuck I think I am to disagree with Brené Brown!

But I genuinely believe that not a single one of us is not in the arena, getting our faces planted in the dirt one way or another.

Then how do we accept, nay—welcome feedback without feeling deflated? How do we develop the strength and wisdom to pick out the valuable bits from the criticism? Regardless of where it’s coming from and how skillful it is.

Now, I’m not saying that we must accept all feedback. “You’ll never amount to anything” is not useful feedback. You’re encouraged to discard it!

But it’s helpful to separate how we feel about the shape and source of feedback from the learning we can extract from it.

Sheila Heen, in her book Thanks for the Feedback, identified 3 types of triggers that block our ability to learn:

  1. truth triggers: we don’t trust the contents of feedback; it seems wrong or unfair

  2. relationship triggers: we don’t trust the person giving feedback, “Look who’s talking!”

  3. identity triggers: we don’t trust the story the feedback tells us about ourselves, “This is not who I am!”

I’m not going to discuss the first and second triggers—I can’t recommend Sheila’s book enough if you want to learn more about it. It’s a wonderful book full of insights and practical advice.

Here, I want to focus on identity triggers.

You are worthy of love and belonging just the way you are

Maybe you’ve made a mistake. Maybe you really could have done a better job with that project. Maybe you were unfair to that employee. Maybe, maybe! We’ll get to that. But first?

You’re worthy of love and belonging. Just the way you are. With all your quirks, shortcomings, and imperfections.

If you’re not feeling that, may I suggest a practice of self-compassion?

What would you say to a 3-year-old who made a mistake? Wouldn’t you think this 3-year-old was still worthy of love and belonging? Well, getting to adulthood didn’t make you any less worthy. What if you talked to yourself like that 3-year-old?

Okay, but what about that mistake? Or that job you could have done better? Or that employee you could have treated with more grace?

Truth is, we’re all works in progress. We all make mistakes. But does that make us less worthy of love and belonging?

And I would bet my reputation that if you’re still reading this, you are the kind of person who wants to do better next time. Am I right?

What if feedback showed you exactly where and how you could do better next time? Wouldn’t that be a gift?

And yeah, most of us suck at wrapping gifts (I know I do). Some of us also like to play a joke by hiding a small (but valuable) gift inside a big box filled with stuff that goes straight to the recycling—what a waste!

So this gift of feedback often looks more like an insult than a gift.

It doesn’t help that humans are negatively biased by evolution. It is far better for our survival to overreact to a rustle in the bushes, thinking it’s a lion when it’s only a rabbit than to ignore the noise and become lunch.

So we fail to spot an opportunity when we feel threatened by criticism. And, please, do protect yourself if you are threatened!

But what if you’re not threatened? What if you’re only hearing the part that feels threatening? What if this person genuinely wants to help you? What if they are simply unskilled in the art of feedback? What if you could uncover the golden nugget in their feedback with a few clarifying questions? What if it ends up helping you become a better leader in the long run?

Taking the long view helps put criticism in perspective as temporary discomfort for the sake of growth.


P.S. Read more about how to develop psychological flexibility, which allows you to remain calm and adaptable under pressure, embrace diverse perspectives, and consistently make decisions aligned with your values.