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How to accept feedback without hurting your ego

WORDS BY DAISY HENRY

Leave your ego at the door.

Sometimes, hearing feedback on your work from your boss can be a great opportunity to grow, develop and feel motivated. Other times, and perhaps more often, hearing feedback on something you did wrong, or on ways you need to pick up your game, can suck.

Your cheeks flush, your heartbeat accelerates and you start making a mental list of possible career changes because clearly, you’re terrible at your job. Personally, if I’m feeling tired or irritable, hearing anything critical about my work can feel soul-crushing. But if I’m feeling capable, confident and secure, constructive criticism doesn’t shake me in the slightest.


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Since I started a career in media and journalism, I’ve heard from countless lecturers and colleagues that you must ‘leave your ego at the door’. You will receive criticism and feedback daily when you submit drafts, so you need to develop a thick skin.

But creating a barrier between your sense of self and your work is important across every industry. You will receive feedback no matter what job you’re in, and taking everything personally will do nothing but exhaust you and wear you down. In fact, the wealth of experience and wisdom your manager has from years in the industry can be beneficial for your own career.

To get some advice on the best ways to take feedback without it bruising your ego, I turned to Kate James, the founder of Total Balance. With two decades of experience as a coach and mindfulness teacher, Kate has spent a lot of time working with women and helping them to feel confident and empowered.

Fight or flight

Although your boss isn’t exactly a cheetah in the wild, and you’re not a gazelle about to be hunted, you can still experience a fight or flight response when you enter into a stressful situation or feel attacked.

“What’s actually happening there is that the amygdala gets activated, so that’s the fight or flight centre in the brain, and naturally we want to protect ourselves from anything that feels as though it might be harmful in some way,” Kate says.

This can also be referred to as an ‘amygdala hijack’, or when you have an emotional reaction that isn’t proportional to the situation (i.e., feeling highly defensive, angry or upset when you get criticism). When this happens, your brain goes into survival mode and reacts to the threat, rather than taking a second to think rationally about it.

How strongly we respond to this perceived threat is also dependent on our sense of self and the type of criticism that has been directed at us. “If it feels like an area that you’re vulnerable in, and you haven’t made peace with that vulnerability within yourself, you’re more likely to be reactive,” Kate explains.

Reaction vs response

Although there will be times when your boss is being unfair and causing you stress and anxiety, there will also be times when you might just be acting on emotion. Distinguishing between your response, and your reaction, is an important step in reading a situation, and identifying whether your feelings are valid or not.

“A response usually feels grounded and calm and you feel as though you can be somewhat centred. A reaction feels as though it’s coming from that place of heightened emotion,” Kate explains.

While reactions tend to be instant, instinctual responses you might say or do without thinking, responses are thoughtful and measured. Responding can be as simple as taking a breath and pausing to think, rather than acting without a filter.

“I think when we have a reaction, and there’s [a] strong emotion there… we may be more inclined to lash out or to say something that’s unhelpful or to respond in a way that just isn’t in line with what you might imagine to be the best version of yourself,” Kate tells me.

Instead, she advises it’s important to give ourselves a grace period if we’re feeling a strong emotion. Whether it’s a few hours or a couple of days, “it’s usually better to just allow yourself [some] time. Then you can do a little bit of internal inquiry.”

The growth mindset

Citing Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, Kate explains that adopting a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset, is vital in learning how to take feedback on board.

While a fixed mindset sees intelligence, creativity and ability as unchangeable and static, a growth mindset believes that there is room to develop and to get better. Often, the difference between the two is in your thinking. A fixed mindset will mean you believe that you’re just not good at something, whereas a growth mindset will have you thinking that you’re just not good at it yet.

“If we adopt a growth mindset, we often welcome feedback. And – even though it might feel a little bit painful in the moment – if it’s an area that you do care about… it might be that you go back and you say, ‘How can we be specific about this? Like, what do you think it is? What’s not working? And are there [any] recommendations that you have?’,” Kate explains.

“Growing in that way [and] building on that strength will often actually feel uncomfortable or be painful… or make your brain hurt. And that is actually because you’re building new neural pathways.

“If we want to develop positive relationships and look at the opportunities for growth. It’s really [about having] mindful awareness in the moment [and] a conscious response rather than a reaction,” Kate says.

For more on learning how to take constructive criticism, head here.

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