Feedback is the way we learn how others see us, if we are willing to listen.
Posted Feb 08, 2020
Robert Burns, in his poem "To a Louse," points out that we don't see ourselves as others see us. In my experience, this is broadly inclusive. We don't always understand the impact of our words, facial expressions, and actions on others.
Our view of ourselves, our intentions, and our behavior can be quite different than that of others. For example, when I think I'm funny or being kind, I learn that others didn't receive my words or actions in that way at all.
Psychological research tells us that having social relationships is one of the most important keys to having a contented and happy life. That can be a challenge when we don't perceive ourselves as others do. We can be unaware of the ways that we block intimacy or push others away. The person who tends to talk in a monologue, who blames others, who doesn't smile, who complains too quickly and often, or who doesn't accept responsibility can be puzzled as to why it's difficult to build connections. They can be unaware of how they are affecting the people around them.
The natural way of learning about your foibles is through feedback. Other people give you information about the ways you are coming across, usually through teasing or by telling you what annoys them. This gives you an opportunity to change your behavior and strengthen relationships.
But feedback may or may not be given in a kind or skillful way. In fact, much of the time, people give feedback when they've become frustrated. At that point, the feedback is usually sharply worded or accusatory, so it's difficult to hear. Well, actually, feedback is usually difficult to hear. Having someone tell you that you walk around looking angry is not pleasant. So you may respond in ways that block important information about how others experience you.
There are many different ways to block feedback, including getting the other person to stop giving feedback or pushing the feedback away, not considering it at all. You may respond tearfully with harsh judgments of yourself, saying, "I'm such a loser, I hate myself, I always screw things up." The other person may try to soothe you and stops giving feedback, perhaps deciding you can't handle it.
You may over-apologize, saying, "I am so sorry, so very sorry. Oh no, I can't believe I did that." Maybe you argue back, saying, "That's not true," or you attack with a sort of tit for tat, "Well, you are always late whenever we get together, and that's not so pleasant either." All of these can shut the other person down, and you may lose out of deepening a relationship.
Perhaps you ignore feedback from someone. You minimize it and decide it's not important. This can result in the other person eventually ending the relationship, and you're saying that you had no idea anything was wrong. Why didn't they tell you? You could also just end the relationship when you receive feedback, avoid the person, and withdraw because you decide it's just too complicated or relationships never work out for you or the person is too mean.
If someone you care about offers feedback, you may want to ask yourself if the relationship is important enough to you to consider the feedback. Do you think the feedback has validity? Is it a change you can make and still be true to your values? Is it feedback that is true just for this person, or it is true with most of your relationships?
Most relationships involve some compromise and adjusting in order to work. If you shut down feedback, you may lose opportunities to deepen the intimacy.