How to Get Over Our Fear of Feedback

“Can I give you some feedback?” These are perhaps the six most dreaded words to hear from a coach, employer or professor. We immediately tense up, our mind racing, trying to think, “What could they want to give me feedback on?” We soon go to a negative space thinking of the hundreds of different things we’re doing wrong each day.

Science tells us such a response is completely natural. Clinical Psychologist Diana Hill notes that when someone approaches you with feedback, it may activate your threat system: “When you are in a new or uncertain situation, your amygdala detects threats and sends out neurochemicals to signal your body to be on alert. You may notice your heart rate increase as the body prepares for an unknown situation.”

Though feedback triggers our threat system, that’s no reason for us to avoid feedback altogether. Hill continues: “However, it’s how you interpret these sensations (with higher cortical brain areas) that will impact your experience. If you interpret feedback as bad or dangerous, it likely will create a fear response (fight, flight, freeze), but if you see it as a challenge and remember feedback can help you grow, you can use the uncertainty as an opportunity. Next time you notice your body tensing with feedback, say to yourself, ‘I am here to learn and grow. This is what growing feels like!’”

Though it’s painful to hear in the moment, feedback is essential for our growth. A director always gives their actors and writers “notes” on what to change or make better. Our friends and family tell us if our marinara sauce is on point or “too salty.” If we didn’t have feedback, how could we ever improve?

Though it’s painful to hear in the moment, feedback is essential for our growth.

Understanding the important role of feedback, many are striving to make it less painful. Noted executive coach Marshal Goldsmith is well-known for promoting the concept of “feedforward,” or identifying some behavior we want to change then discussing with another person how to best change it. It’s a process that emphasizes looking toward the future instead of looking backward and obsessing over a mistake.

The process goes like this:

  • Pick a behavior you’d like to change
  • Describe that behavior to fellow participants via one-to-one conversation
  • Ask for two suggestions for the future that would help you achieve that behavior
  • Listen attentively as your partner offers suggestions

But whether you prefer feedback or feedforward, you should know that Buddhism is not about being perfect but instead about growing endlessly. That is why feedback is so valuable. Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda writes:

What matters is what we do practically to improve ourselves. Buddhism stresses the importance of the present and future. These are what matter. It teaches us to always challenge ourselves from this moment onward.

Discussions on Youth, p. 51

Feedback is about reaching our potential and not about our self-worth

When someone gives feedback on a particular aspect of our personality, it can feel like an attack on our entire being. That’s why it’s important to decide that feedback is not a value judgment on our overall self-worth. Psychologist Michael W Wiederman explains, “The overarching message you want to convey is that your feedback is about behavior (performance) and not character or how ‘good’ the other person is (i.e., their value or worthiness). Criticism is typically experienced as an attack on our self-identity, so it’s important to do what you can to minimize the natural self-defensive response that negative feedback typically engenders. Focusing as soon as possible on the next step helps convey the message that the actual goal of your feedback is helping the other person be more successful, not making them feel bad or you looking good.”

In fact, putting ourselves down after receiving feedback is counterproductive. Ikeda writes:

A river meanders but never stops. This is the natural way of things. Similarly, if you make continual efforts, your personality will improve slowly and steadily. The key is to keep moving forward and never stop. No one’s personality is flawless. All, without exception, have some karma that renders them less than perfect. Inevitably, there will be aspects of your personality you don’t like. But it would be foolish to become obsessed with such things, which could lead to feelings of self-hatred and unworthiness and consequently hinder your growth.

Discussions on Youth, p. 50

Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is a way to see our Buddhahood or inherent dignity each day. As we chant, we develop a solid sense of self that can’t be shaken by criticism or setbacks. We have the strength to disassociate feedback from our overall self-worth and instead decide, “I’m gonna be the person who grows the most.”

What we do with the feedback is up to us

Once we’ve received feedback, it’s up to us to decide if and how to apply it. Will we use it to move forward, or will we let it discourage us from taking another step?

Ikeda writes:

What is failure in life? Making mistakes does not signal failure, but giving up on yourself when you’ve made mistakes or are feeling discouraged does. Not getting back on your feet when you’ve suffered a setback or disappointment—that is failure. True victors are those who get up again each time that they fall down.

Discussions on Youth, p. 50

It’s also important to understand that the feedback we receive from others is ultimately subjective. Experts stress that feedback is another person’s take on how we can improve, and it can be tinted by their own life experiences or preferences. That’s why it’s important to reflect on the feedback we are given and not take it immediately at face value.

We can also use our time chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to reflect on ourselves. As we chant, we look at ourselves honestly. We can think about the feedback given to us and decide for ourselves, “If the shoe fits…” If the feedback truly alerted us to a part of ourselves that we’d like to change, then we can make a fresh determination for the future.

One of Broadway’s most successful songwriters, Stephen Sondheim, recalled being almost destroyed by a piece of feedback from his mentor, the legendary composer Oscar Hammerstein. Sondheim lived close to Hammerstein in suburban Pennsylvania when he was a teenager and looked up to him as a second father. Sondheim showed his first musical to Hammerstein when he was 15 years old and asked for his honest feedback. Hammerstein said, “It’s the worst thing I ever read.” Hammerstein then gave him detailed feedback for several hours.

Though he was devastated, Sondheim quickly realized that Hammerstein’s feedback came from his deep care for him and his desire to see him fulfill his potential. He took it to heart and went on to refine his craft. He went on to write iconic musicals such as West Side Story, A Little Night Music and Sweeny Todd. Seeing his remarkable growth, Hammerstein gave Sondheim a picture and inscribed it with: “For Stevie, my friend and teacher.”

If we have a strong sense of self-worth rooted in chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, then we have no need to fear feedback. Instead, we can use feedback to push us toward Buddhism’s ultimate goal: profound self-transformation and growth.

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