Why Negative Feedback About You is Good

I know a guy, Bob (not his real name, of course). He is incredibly successful (professionally and athletically) and works hard for those achievements. When I met him several years ago, I was struck that he is nice to everyone and incredibly helpful. A few months ago, I was talking with another endurance athlete in our community. We started talking about Bob, and he informed me some thought Bob was arrogant. We were both completely stumped, as neither of us experienced Bob this way. 

This is a perfect example of their personalities. Molly tolerates the dog park, whereas Fromm thinks it's the best thing EVER.

This is a perfect example of their personalities. Molly tolerates the dog park, whereas Fromm thinks it's the best thing EVER.

This exchange really got me thinking. After pondering many scenarios, I landed on one important concept: no matter what you do, not everyone will like you. For many of us, this is a tough concept to swallow, especially if we believe we've done nothing to warrant that opinion. We want to believe that if we do the right thing and treat people well EVERYONE will like us. How can they not, right?! 

The reality is we can't possibly please everyone, especially if we're being authentic. Different people have different preferences. Take my two dogs, for example. Fromm is a total extrovert, always wants to play, and needs (yes, needs) frequent snuggles. Molly is a complete introvert, is super chill (and doesn't play), and needs her space. It's fascinating to watch how different people gravitate toward the dogs with two very different personalities!

It's even harder for us to grasp this when people have a strong response to us (like thinking Bob is arrogant). Yet, people are entitled to their own opinion and experience of us, even if we don't see ourselves that way. I think it's responsible, however, for us to ponder why someone might see us that way and find the kernel of truth in their experience. Doesn't mean we agree, but if we can understand that perspective, we are apt to learn something about ourselves. Who knows, maybe they're pointing out a blind spot to us?

There's a concept in psychology called the Johari Window. I often use this concept when I'm helping athletes understand different levels of self-awareness. Essentially, there are 4 levels of awareness we have of ourselves: open, hidden, unknown, and blind. Open is what everyone, including ourselves, knows about us. Hidden is what we know about ourselves but others don't know (things like secrets). Unknown pertains to what we don't know about ourselves and what others don't know about ourselves. Blind pertains to what others see about us but we don't see.

We often get defensive when people give us feedback about our blind spot, largely because we don't see it. Yet, if we take that feedback and get curious about it, we will learn something about ourselves or our relationships. Maybe it's something we don't like about ourselves and want to change. Maybe it's something we've been told before and dismissed. Maybe it's something we don't agree with at all. The goal of understanding our blind spots is to not have them be blind to us anymore. If we understand ourselves better, negative feedback won't bother us as much. And more importantly? We will be more of the person we want to be.

So the next time your coach, roommate, professor, or partner gives you feedback you don't like, pause for a minute. Try to hear the message for what it is, find the kernel of truth, and work to understand that perspective. Doesn't mean it's right? But maybe you'll learn something about yourself. I know I've learned a lot about myself by considering the feedback of others.

Dr. Erin Haugen is a licensed clinical psychologist and sport/performance psychologist located in Grand Forks, ND. She specializes in helping college student-athletes excel in sports and in life. She is a former basketball player, current triathlete, and LOVES dogs. 

Disclaimer: You should consult an appropriate professional for specific advice tailored to your situation. If you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency, you should call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.