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Nine Tips for Handling Hypersensitivity

How hypersensitivity happens and how to keep it from happening

On the side I organize jazz trios for restaurant gigs, about six a week. For us jazz hobbyist they’re not bad gigs. They pay solid money so I’ve got lots of musicians who want to play them. It’s nice—the musicians are eager to please so that I’ll hire them back.

I play bass and sing, and one thing about bassists—we like to create deep grooves with the drummer. I’ve had a few drummers who would love more gigs and I’d love to have them back, but only if they change some little thing about their playing. Play softer, steadier, less busy—one or two things to work on if they chose to.

We musicians all have fixer-upper flaws like these, but neither we, nor our peers necessarily know what they are. Still, it would be useful to share our feedback. We could ingest it with a grain of salt and then later digest it, deciding what’s nutritious and what’s crap from whatever feedback we get from each other.

Still, ingesting feedback doesn’t prove that easy. It tastes bitter; we tend to want to spit it back in the server’s face rather than ingest it.

Giving feedback isn’t easy either, and may not be worth the risk. I’ll often bite my tongue rather than causing a fuss, sometimes just not hiring people back, which is unfortunate. I too get laid off of gigs without being told why.

Turning the Minor Major

We can all be hypersensitive about feedback, often because we interpret minor criticism as major. By minor criticism, I mean saying something like, “Here’s a habit of yours that you might want to work on.” By major criticism I mean saying something like, “You’re a failure.”

Big difference.

Aren’t there shadings subtler than that? Sure. We could talk about nested or graduated feedback, for example telling a drummer his snare drum is too loud, he’s too loud, he’s a bad drummer, he’s a bad musician or he’s a failure as a person.

But I mean to keep it simple—just two levels, the minor and major—bad at this one thing or bad overall—simple because in a way I think many of us—me included—have a tendency to interpret at just these two levels: I have a flaw; I am a flaw.

I’ll speak for myself. A lot has to do with my torso’s reaction to minor feedback. I get a vague stomachache, chest ache or both, as though minor feedback creates a fissure through which some toxic swill seeps in. The swill portends a flood of panic, as though I’m about to recognize that I’m fatally flawed.

A toxic swill pools mid-torso and festers like a collecting point for all sorts of psychic antigens, my all-time greatest hits against me all paddling toward the ache to breed together, giving me the general impression of being a failure.

I find it useful to understand the mechanics of my torso’s amplification of minor feedback to major. To name it is to tame it. If I can see where the translation happens I can intervene to overcome my tendencies to amplify hypersensitively.

There are variations on the amplification theme. Sometimes minor feedback becomes major because I’ve lucked into a string of minor feedback, and one more piece is enough to make me generalize that I’m fundamentally flawed.

Sometimes it’s that a minor criticism touches a particularly sensitive nerve, some vulnerability where I’ve had doubts about myself all along, doubts I’m trying to keep below the threshold of noticeability and then when someone brings it up, it resurfaces.

Sometimes it’s the reverse, not a sensitivity but a source of pride. For example, if I pride myself on laying down very steady bass grooves, someone critiquing my groove seems to be attacking a pillar on which my general self-esteem rests, and the whole thing crumbles.

Whatever the mechanics and source of this amplification, it can create the kind of disconnect you might remember from O Henry’s famous story, The Gift of the Magi: A young couple, madly in love want to give each other the best possible Christmas gifts. He pawns his pocket watch to buy her a fine comb for her beautiful thick tresses; she cuts her tresses to buy him a beautiful chain for his pocket watch. Their love-intended gifts undermine each other.

Out of appreciation for a friend you want to offer a minor helpful suggestion, which your friend interprets as an argument that he’s bad overall. Your gift fails and your friend’s response does too. He gets defensive, implying that you shouldn’t have shared it, which is a minor criticism of you that you might interpret as major, as though you are a jerk overall. Two people’s potential gift of minor feedback missing the mark, because in hearing it we pawn or cut off our generally positive self-esteem.

It’s obviously more complicated than that. For one thing, given the prevalence of this pattern it’s easy for either the giver or receiver to exploit it. A catty feedback giver can pretend he’s giving minor criticism when actually it’s major, “Wow! Aren’t you sensitive! I was just trying to offer a minor suggestion that you give up your dreams because you’ll never succeed! Why do you have to blow things out of proportion?”

And the unreceptive recipient can deliberately amplify the feedback to keep from having to ingest it. “Right, so when you say I should drum quieter, what you’re really saying is that I’m a total loser. That’s cold. You’re a horrible person.”

Nine tips for managing hypersensitivity:

Here are a few ways I work on taking feedback less sensitively and giving it more productively:

  1. It’s only ache: When my torso toxins start seeping, I try to slow my automatic interpretation, not leaping from minor to major, not even interpreting the ache as about anything at first. It’s just the indigestion of ingesting the potential disappointment of potentially discouraging news, that may prove to be something or nothing, but for the moment is just a sensation, albeit an unpleasant one.
  2. Ingest now; digest later: Feedback is bitter going down. But rather than spitting it out, or in the feedback bearers face, I try to just hear it first which doesn’t mean in silence necessarily. Often I hear best when I mirror it back as accurately as possible not distorting it, but just registering literally what the feedback provider is saying.
  3. Refining and then trusting my psychic immune system: To be patient with the time it takes to ingest feedback I have to cultivate confidence that sleeping on it, (a full and somewhat upset stomach) I’ll be able to digest it competently, deciding what to heed and not heed, what’s nutritious and what’s crap. Indeed, now that we know that there’s both good and bad bioflora, the digestive track metaphor is particularly apt. I try to cultivate a psychic immune system that blocks the feedback I don’t want to breeding in me, while absorbing the feedback I hope will bloom into personal improvement. And the more I trust my immune system, the less I need to deploy it immediately, the more I can ingest patiently, knowing I’ll be able to digest feedback on my own terms, taking my sweet time about it.
  4. Bewarehouse management: Often when my stomach churns I have to stop to wonder what started the churning. I try to inventory the particular discouragements I’ve encountered plainly and precisely, so as not to amplify or downplay them. I try to keep an inventory of my stock of inner doubts too, accumulated and familiar enough that I can look at them plainly. And I try to inventory in real-time, like the warehouse manager who tracks incoming goods (and bads), kudos and disappointments that get delivered to my gut in the course of my day so I know what’s passing through.
  5. Vulnerability tracking: I go through periods that are like psychic flu seasons, times when I’m vulnerable, much more likely to take minor feedback as major, for example when I’ve chanced into a string of minor disappointing feedback or when my support network—people and positions that affirm me, drop down to unstable levels for whatever reason. I monitor and sometimes restrict intake of minor feedback during these times of unusual vulnerability.
  6. The double-edge sword of “Don’t you dare share.” Getting critical feedback comes at a cost, but so does cutting it off. I try to remember that. Every time I get testy when someone offers me criticism, I’m inviting them to keep me in the dark, humoring me, and depriving me of something I may wish I knew they were thinking. Or worse, I’m inviting them to drop me rather than go through the ordeal of dealing with my testiness.
  7. Skill-seeking: I practice giving feedback like it were an instrument, my bass or my voice. Every chance I get to give it skillfully and appropriately is like a gig, a chance to improve technique. I try not to get down on myself when I give the feedback wrong, any more than I get down on myself when a gig flops. I’m playing a long-game but with an eagerness to get better, so I try to learn by trial and error what works and doesn’t work.
  8. My cultivated feedback double-standard: I embrace the false but strategically useful belief that there’s nothing you can’t say if you find the right way to say it. It’s not true, but it motivates me to look for the best possible way to convey minor feedback so it’s heard as minor. “There must be a better way to say it,” I say to myself, whether there is or not. Still, I try not to hold other people to a very high standard on feedback giving, at least not so high that I give myself an easy way to deflect the feedback when it’s poorly delivered to me. I’ve got to try to say it right; but I’ve got to try to hear it whether it’s said right or not.
  9. Vacate the Vatican: Thehardest feedback for me to ingest is delivered as though by an infallible pope. If there’s any place we need to caveat what we say with “I think that…” and “I could be wrong but…” it’s in the delivery of feedback. Omitting such boilerplate clauses is the fastest path to escalation, two people exchanging gifts they can’t use because if one is pope the other is majorly flawed sinner doomed to hell, and who can handle that? Pretty soon you’re dueling popes both implying that each other’s minor flaws are major after all.
More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D., MPP
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