I received some feedback the other day from someone I only know through social media. It was a thoughtful critique of something that I had written. The first time I read it, I felt defensive. My initial instinct was to justify myself. Eight-months-ago-me, without the benefit of intense therapy, would probably have responded in that moment, rationalizing my words, and suggesting that the criticism was invalid. Instead, I sat with my feelings and with the feedback for most of the day. A curious thing happened. Typically, I stew in criticism to the point that my emotions of anger, frustration, vulnerability, and embarrassment start to fall off the bone. This time I didn’t.
Instead, I focused my attention on the kindness that this person had done me. The message was not an attack. It was valuable insight that, if I listened and assimilated it, would equip me to do better in the future. When I responded later in the day, I acknowledged the validity of the criticism and expressed appreciation for it. The person did not have to take the time to read and engage. Certainly, they had no obligation to offer me their thoughtful words. Moreover, they opened themselves up to my potentially poor reaction. I am thankful for the person who took the time to offer me their perspective.
As I have thought more about it, I realize how many things in my life have been hampered in the past by my taking all feedback as a personal attack. That is not to say that I have not been subjected to personal attacks or projection couched as “feedback” or “coaching”. I have borne more than my fair share of that. Instead, I am thinking about the times that I received information and treated it as gospel rather than as a data point. That’s all feedback really is after all, a data point. We are inundated with data in every form in our daily lives. Perhaps the most abundant source is our interpersonal relationships. What we do with that data matters.
In many ways, this transformation from automatically personalizing feedback to critically evaluating it is one of my biggest accomplishments in therapy. Treating all feedback as equally valid or translating it into an attack on me as a human being is more than unproductive, it’s actively harmful. What I’m learning (slowly) is how to gather, analyze, and understand the information I receive from others about myself. Then I can use my own data more wisely.