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6 forces that cause us to self-sabotage constructive feedback — and how to overcome them

“Feedback is a gift,” is an easy bumper sticker to apply, but a harder philosophy to put into execution in your real life.
A woman eagerly listening to feedback while sitting at a table with a laptop.
Nick Fancher / Death to Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Feedback can sting, but choosing to engage with feedback is what turns a painful comment into a strength.
  • In order to harness the power of feedback, it is important to recognize the factors that can derail opportunities to improve.
  • One actionable way to overcome fear of feedback is to ask for it in bite-sized portions.

Whether you’re being told you are falling short of your potential, or falling short of someone else’s expectations, feedback stings. “Feedback is a gift,” is an easy bumper sticker to apply, but a harder philosophy to put into execution in your real life. Unleashing the power of feedback takes hard work. Making the choice to engage with feedback is what turns a painful comment into a strength. The way you transform an “ouch” into your superpower is to pick up the feedback, examine it, and make a plan for how you will do things differently the next time.

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Because what I’ve learned in my 23 years of being in business is that there is always a next time. Perhaps it’s not with the same people, or the same company, but opportunities to stop making the same mistake abound. 

6 forces that can hold us back

In the work I’ve led, I’ve identified six forces that hold us back from being the strongest version of ourselves. Feedback can become a future strength if you can recognize the following:

  1. Deficit Mindset: Viewing life through the lens of weaknesses or what is missing; a focus on problems rather than potential.
  2. Shrinking Effect: Underestimating one’s own abilities; the act of diminishing or shortchanging oneself.
  3. Satisfaction Conundrum: Chasing external markers of success (achievement, money, more stuff) and never feeling fully satisfied.
  4. Superhero Façade: Maintaining the illusion that all aspects of one’s life are in order.
  5. Setback Spiral: Negative thoughts, feelings, or actions that arise from criticism, setback, or disappointment and have the potential to get progressively worse in the face of shame or embarrassment.
  6. Systemic Bias: Structural constructs that underpin asymmetrical power dynamics; system-wide barriers to progress and change.

Any one of these six forces can make us feel like feedback is a stick of dynamite versus an opportunity to improve. For example, Superhero Façade holds us back from making the space for feedback, while Deficit Mindset and Setback Spiral set us on a course to only see weakness over potential and allow criticism to exponentially affect all aspects of our lives. In order to harness the power of feedback in our lives, we must avoid falling into one of these traps, allowing the feedback to define you — we must “rightsize” the feedback.

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Know your worth

Many of us fall back on letting feedback confirm the inner critic’s worst fears about ourselves or prompt concerns about what the other person thinks (dreading disappointing them, fearing that they don’t like you, worrying that they’re judging you). Internally own your worth and place value in your own opinions. Know who you are and rely on yourself to know what is true about you. In my work, we call this quality “Self-Sustaining.” 

The Self-Sustaining quality is like Teflon armor that deflects any energy devoted to taking criticism personally. Self-Sustaining is rooted in the fundamental belief that “I am enough” and so criticism is benign; it can be fairly evaluated on its merits and not seen as judgment. If it helps, write a list of everything you like about yourself — whatever comes to mind immediately. Or perhaps examine your “confidence language”: the superpowers you bring to the table every day. Keep adding to this list every day until you feel comfortable with it.

The power of “one thing”

The mentor chooses you, you don’t choose the mentor. Making yourself mentorable means enlisting people on your development journey. One way to not fear feedback is to ask for it in bite-sized and actionable ways. When I was at McKinsey, I carried a “one thing” notebook. I found that the open-ended question, “Do you have any feedback for me?” always elicited an ambiguous response such as “You’re doing great, just keep doing it,” or, “Not at the moment, but I will let you know.” Instead, I started to ask a simple question: “What’s one thing you think I can do better and how?” Everyone had one thing they thought I could improve upon and a way they would handle the situation. I collected these “one things” in a notebook and as I mastered the skills, I would cross them off. I still have this notebook from my business analyst days as a reminder of how to continue building skills. Ask for advice on one thing people in your network think you could do better, one thing they do that makes them successful. If you ask your boss or a colleague, it will also send the signal that this is something you’re actively working to improve. They’ll take notice, feel involved in your learning journey, and give you credit as you demonstrate these skills.

Mahatma Gandhi’s mantra, “Nobody can hurt me without my permission,” is a call to action for us to unclutter our minds of worries about what others think of us.

Mahatma Gandhi’s mantra “Nobody can hurt me without my permission” is a call to action for us to unclutter our minds of worries about what others think of us. When we are less concerned with the personal element of likability, we know who we are, and we can focus on the feedback’s constructive elements to improve a situation. It’s the antidote to “spiraling” because we can tie ourselves to our own self-worth and not become victims of our perception of someone else’s judgment.

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