How to Receive Negative Feedback

Receiving feedback has always been hard for me. I grew up in a community and in an environment where I felt the persistent pull towards perfection. Part of it is in my nature. Part of it was nurture. I could probably blame my parents, but since they are likely going to read this, I’ll put on my big girl pants and take responsibility for my grown up self. I remember the stress that I would put on myself to get a good grade, look a certain way, and perform in sports. It was exhausting. I remember how fatigued I was trying to make sure that things were… well… perfect. My perfection seeking is not an uncommon story among those in the workforce today. Negative reactions to feedback often extend into adulthood and creep into how we show up and receive feedback at work. If I don’t feel like I am performing at my best, or someone mentions that I wasn’t, I might shut down. My body wants to go into fight, flight, or freeze. Neurologically and psychologically, we are wired to reject negatively interpreted feedback in the workplace and it is not our fault

Humans are biologically wired to care about what people think of us. This neurological dependency on others dates back to prehistoric times when our ancestors shared the earth with saber-toothed tigers. If we were to become unliked or rejected by the tribe, we were sent off on our own. Since members of the community relied on the group for survival, solitude ultimately meant certain death. While this notion of social acceptance has primal evolutionary roots, its shift from survival mechanism to social identity has become one of the most significant challenges to total self-acceptance. When we receive negative feedback about ourselves, and interpret this as rejection, the brain processes emotional pain and physical pain identically (Forbes, 2015). When we receive feedback, it is no wonder we go through a range of emotions.  In some ways, it triggers the prehistoric survival mechanism, and can cause a person to completely shut down. 

However, there’s good news! Just like other skills, receiving feedback is a skill we can practice. Since entering my career about ten years ago, I have immensely improved the way I embrace feedback and even what I do when I receive it. In my early twenties, I would silently cry after literally all input I received, and it was a terrible place to be, frozen in fear or ready to run to the bathroom. At the time, I researched a few tips and tricks to “get better at receiving feedback.” Most people have heard some of the following best practices:

  • Ask for feedback deliberately
  • Assume positive intent from the deliverer 
  • Take the input that makes the most amount of sense for you

To expand on this concept, one model suggests that feedback is like stacked, colored plates in a cabinet. If you look at the stack of 10 plates, and you might see nine blue ones and one red one. This plate model suggests when you should pay attention to feedback. The red plate might be someone’s personal preference, which could be honored and taken into account. However, you could probably chalk that up to a one-off. However, if you’re receiving the same feedback from various people at various points in your career, think of this as the blue plates stacking up in your feedback cabinet.  You might want to pay attention to all the blue plates.

I’ll be honest.  All of this helped a little, but I was still tearful. However, after learning more about the human neurological system, I had a total shift in perspective. What goes on behind the scenes in your body when you start to sense “rejection from the tribe” is that you neurologically go into fight or flight mode. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) has a direct role in the physical response to stress, impacting both the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). When the body is stressed, the SNS contributes to what is known as the fight, flight, or freeze response. The body shifts its energy resources toward fighting off a threat or fleeing from an enemy (, 2019) Your very well-intentioned boss might trigger the same reaction a charging woolly mammoth would have 50,000 years ago! The issue here is if you have any childhood trauma, pre-existing post traumatic stress, or anxiety, you are predisposed to triggering an SNS response more readily. We need to find new skills and tools to “stay in the window of tolerance.” This is the zone where you can feel emotions without escalating inappropriately and you can actually hear what your manager is saying to you.  Here are some tips for expanding your window of tolerance and staying there while receiving feedback:

  1. Notice your bodily sensations when you are receiving feedback. You can gauge your physical sensations and what you are experience somatically, in your body. Are you feeling a burning sensation in your stomach? Do you have a killer headache? Check your heart rate.  Notice your breathing.  Notice your jaw and your shoulders. Breathe in through your nose for a count of three, then out for a count of three. Try to get your heart rate down, unclench your jaw, and relax your shoulders.  Your manager will not likely notice these things, especially if you are on Zoom.
  2. Notice what you are thinking and the thought patterns you are running in the moment. Did you create a story around how your manager hates you and you are worthless? Are you connecting this feedback to an old story about yourself. Stop it. Just stop it. We need to take charge of the stories we tell about ourselves.  If you’re going to make things up, make up something that feels good.  Think something positive about yourself and elicit a memory of a time where you had achieved self-acceptance or remind yourself of your competence, your strengths, and your worth.  
  3. Separate your behavior from your sense of identity. Not all managers all the time word things correctly and deliver their messages with ease. Sometimes our internal lens has us hear what we want to. Realize your manager (no matter how it sounds) is likely critiquing an incident or your actions, not who you are as a person.  Behavior is a function of personality and environment.  Focus on the behavior without taking it personally.  What you do is different from who you are.

With these things in mind, know that you are not alone in the world of receiving feedback. If none of this works, you can always remind yourself that your nervous system is reacting as if your manager was a saber-toothed tiger.  Maybe that will be enough to break you out of your patterns and help you breath a little more deeply.  If you need help processing feedback, let us know. We’re always here to help.

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