When Negative Feedback Punches You in the Gut, Don’t Punch Back

There are positive ways to move forward.

Feedback comes at you from all sides — managers, editors, parents, partners, children, colleagues, clients, and, thanks to social media, total strangers.

It can spur you to improve and achieve more, or it can derail you and send you into a downward, negative spiral.

Whether it helps or hinders, it usually hurts.

Research from Psychtests.com reveals that negative criticism can feel like “…a punch in the stomach…followed by a well of emotions — sadness, anger, shame, resentment, and maybe a little guilt….It ends with one of the following scenarios: an angry outburst, a tirade of past achievements, a deer-in-the-headlights look, a resolve to come out better, smarter, stronger, or a desire to take sweet, subtle revenge.”¹

Let’s do a quick activity:

  1. Remember a time when someone lavished praise on you and your work.
  2. Remember a time when someone tore apart your work and ground it into the ground with apparent glee.

If you’re like many people, it was easier to remember № 2. In fact, not only did you remember it in great detail, you probably re-experienced the same feelings.

“Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good….In general, and apart from a few carefully crafted exceptions, negative information receives more processing and contributes more strongly to the final impression than does positive information.”²


Why Does Negative Feedback Have Such Long-lasting Effects?

As human beings evolved, the ability to notice and remember negative events and situations was a critical survival skill for recognizing and avoiding danger. Those who were good at paying attention to and remembering negative outcomes, passed this ability on to their offspring.

You have an inherent tendency to give more weight to negative comments than positive ones. Additionally, if you respect the person giving you negative feedback and view them with positive regard, their comments can sting more deeply than comments from strangers or from those that you regard less.

There’s something else at play here, too.

When you send your proposal to the client, hit “Publish” on Medium, display your art on Etsy, share your opinion at a meeting, or walk onto a stage and say your first line, your pride, self-esteem, and belief in the quality of your work are all on the line. You hold your breath and wonder how you will be received. Even when hoping for a positive result, you brace yourself for rejection and criticism.

“This means you expect it [negative feedback] more, and as a result you feel a certain sense of validation when it happens, and thus you focus on it more at the expense of the positive feedback, even if it’s [positive feedback] the majority.”³

There’s that punch in the gut.


The 90-Second Time-Out

When you hear negative, critical feedback, you instantly have a thought about it that releases a storm of neurochemicals.

If you feel as if you’ve been punched. It may trigger anger and an instinctiv response to punch back — hard — which isn’t the best response. You can say and do things that you later regret and may have to apologize for.

Raising your defenses is just as ineffective as an angry response. You discount the feedback, and often, the person giving it. This makes you appear arrogant, closed-minded, and unwilling to improve.

Some take negative feedback so personally, they convince themselves that it’s true — that they’re a failure and will never succeed. How many great works and careers have been squelched too soon by internalized, negative feedback?

None of these options are productive or resourceful.

In situations when your emotions threaten to overwhelm your ability to think clearly, you need to pause and let your sympathetic nervous system calm down. The good news is that it only takes 90 seconds before the neurochemicals are flushed from your body. After the initial surge, you can stop your emotions from running wild and taking over. The bad news is that you can do it only if you stop thinking about it.

According to Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist, in her book, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, if you keep feeding your emotions with your thoughts, you create a continuous, negative emotional loop. The solution is to break the loop and starve your emotions for 90 seconds. The challenge is being able to notice that it’s your thoughts that are making things worse and to focus them on something else.⁴

Concentrate on your breathing; think of someone or something you love, like a partner, child, parent, pet; start planning your next vacation; remember a pleasant event from your past — do whatever it takes to turn off your thoughts about the feedback.


Respond

If you are receiving negative feedback one-on-one, for example, in a performance review, keep quiet and actively listen. This can can be hard, but it’s necessary since your relationship with the person and your reputation as a professional hinge on what you say or do next.

Avoid clenching your jaw or holding your breath since that will raise your tension and increase stress; instead, breathe slowly. The more you focus on and control your breathing, the easier it will be to control your emotional response. Plus, you will sound more confident and assured when you speak.

Ask for additional information and probe for objective details and examples to separate feedback based on observable facts and behaviors from personal opinions, feelings, and biases. If you believe that you need to explain your actions, avoid sounding whiny or as if you are trying to make excuses.

When necessary, ask for a break so you can think about the feedback. Do this with grace and firmness by saying something like, “I need to think about what you are saying. Let’s take a break and get back later.”

When you are criticized at a meeting or in front of others, it can send you reeling. Not only does it blindside you, it can make your colleagues feel uncomfortable, and it reflects negatively on the person giving you the feedback. A bad situation for everyone.

  • Maintain a calm attitude and communicate in a polite, reasonable manner.
  • Listen closely and take notes, which can help you turn off the emotional faucet.
  • Disarm them by nodding, state your interpretation of what they said in a controlled, confident voice, and acknowledge that their criticism may have merit.

For example, I was at a meeting with a room full of attorneys to review their comments on a document I had written. One of them tossed the document toward me and stated in a loud voice, “This is [expletive].”

The room became still. I was shocked, embarrassed, chagrined, and furiously angry — all in an instant. I took a deep breath, nodded, picked up the offensive document, looked directly at him, and said, “Alex, I agree that the document needs revision. That’s why we’re here. Where would you like us to start?”

It took every resource I had to control my fury, but my emotional turmoil dissipated as soon as we started focusing on the revisions, and I stopped thinking about what had happened.

Ninety seconds is all you need.


Grow

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When you get your emotions out of the way, you can review the feedback objectively to weigh its relevant value. Bestselling author Joseph Grenny suggests that you start by identifying the story you are telling yourself:

“Is it a victim story — one that emphasizes my virtues and absolves me of responsibility for what is happening? Is it a villain story — one that exaggerates the faults of others and attributes what’s happening to their evil motives? Is it a helpless story — one that convinces me that any healthy course of action (like listening humbly, speaking up honestly) is pointless?”⁵

Once you have identified the story, you can change the narrative to a more resourceful one, view it more objectively, and identify anything of value that can be learned from the feedback.

  • Does it point out weaknesses in your skills? If so, how will you improve?
  • Does it reveal a mistake? If so, how will you apologize and ensure that it isn’t repeated?
  • Is it more emotional and subjective than factual and objective? If so, can you can identify anything that you might have done to trigger this type of response? For example, if someone responds to an email by flaming you, it may be due to the tone of your original email to them.
  • Is it valid and valuable in some way? If so, what is the value and how can you use it? If there is no value, ignore it and move on.
  • Is it unfair or unreasonable or does it reflect badly on your reputation or character? If so, you may have to respond. You can politely disagree, explain how you feel, and describe what you believe is untrue or unfair. Avoid becoming defensive and be prepared to let it go. People can be entrenched in their beliefs, and their perceptions are their reality. You may not be able to change their minds.

Sometimes no response is the best and most professional response. You may decide that potential damage to the relationship is too great to pursue the issue. If you decide to let it go, don’t let it fester into resentment, which can lead to more serious problems.


Bottom-Line

According to Ilona Jerabek, Ph.D., founder of Psychtests, “The important thing is to remove our ego from the situation, and get down to why we are being criticized. Is there a lesson to be learned? Is there a gap in my knowledge or skills that I could work on? Granted, some people may criticize to be spiteful, and some may lack the diplomatic finesse to serve the criticism without offending, but there’s almost always a lesson at the core. Focus on the message, not the messenger.”⁶

How you handle negative criticism is a mark of professionalism. If you tend toward knee-jerk reactions, it’s to your advantage to work on mitigating this type of behavior. The most important thing is not taking criticism personally even if you feel as if you are being attacked.

If the criticism has some merit, and it often does, take the appropriate measure to improve. You may need to make changes in how you work or communicate, address misunderstandings, apologize for mistakes, and so on. Be willing to do what is necessary to improve.

When appropriate, let your critic know how their feedback has been handled and what changes you have made as a result. You may impress them with your grace and willingness to consider and use their feedback in a positive way. This can help mend any lingering ill will and strengthen your relationship. You will walk away from the experience with new insights and confidence. [FYI, after the meeting, Attorney Alex apologized and asked me out to dinner. I graciously declined.]


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