What to do with hurtful feedback

It’s never nice to hear, but there are ways you can cope with bad feedback, says Elva Ainsworth.

Learning is good for you, and feedback helps you learn so you should welcome feedback – right? We know the theory, but occasionally we get some feedback that really hurts. Someone says something and you feel it in your belly before you can even think about what has happened. 

It is not a logical response but it can still stay with you for years if you do not manage to unpick it. It can even leave you with what seems to be a permanent upset; a scar. Your wound might not be bleeding now but there is a faint mark showing that the hurt took place – you will never be quite the same again. 

You may think this sensitivity is simply a natural part of life, something to expect and tolerate, something to brace yourself against and protect yourself from. But you are not in a position to be fully creative and open when you are upset; how much more might you learn if you were truly open to feedback from every quarter? 

If you are truly open it helps you to know that you can get over these upsetting opinions about you. Before taking you through six practical steps to get over some tricky feedback, here are some truths about you that are worth exploring and some key assumptions to consider taking on:

  • You are fine just as you are; even if other people may not always approve.
  • You can always learn more about yourself, however much you already know.
  • Your emotional responses are your own – not directly caused by anyone else even though they may have been triggered by others.

If you reflect on the pieces of feedback that have hurt you the most you can usually see that they are about some aspect of yourself that is very precious to you, from someone very important to you and often delivered when your emotional ‘fuse’ was already under strain or at least when you were in a highly vulnerable position. 

My nine-year old son once not-so-kindly told me “your cooking is really bad!” 

I would normally have ignored this, but I had just had a near-death experience in a kayak in the Cornish sea with my other son and his comment cut me to the core. I cried for about an hour. 

It took a few days of unpicking but, in the end, I could see that I had decided it was my job to be the cook in the family and I expected them to appreciate it, but they simply didn’t – they just wanted chicken nuggets and chips! I could also see that I was extremely vulnerable that day after being saved from drifting further out to sea but that I had been pretending to the boys that I was ok. 

As a result, I always advise that you get into a safe, comfortable, well-rested state before you read your 360 degree feedback. It was only through some coaching that I saw I had interpreted the above interaction to mean that I had an uncaring son when maybe, instead, I had a son who was jealous of the attention the younger (nearly drowned!) brother got. 

This hurt did heal and no grudge or disempowerment was left, though I will always remember the incident. So, what can you do if you get upset by some feedback? Here are six ways to get over it:

  1. Get clear what you are responsible for. What did you do, what did you say, what didn’t you say, what didn’t you do? Get clear that this was you, own what happened and remember that you are fine as you are and that you are learning.
  2. Assume you deserve this opinion/feedback given what you did and who the person giving feedback is. Then look at what you can apologise for – find something and share it with them.  You will feel the dynamic shifting and the upset lifting.
  3. Consider it may be more about your gender/age/accent or expectations of you than it is about you personally. With biases and pre-judgments taken into account, other people’s opinions are sometimes more about the assumptions they make about you than they are about the real you.
  4. Look at whether or not you want to change the opinion of the person giving feedback. Changing someone’s opinion can be done but it is quite a challenge! There are things you can do to allow them to see you differently: taking big, bold actions that signify the transformed you and sharing openly about what your intentions are and how you want to be considered differently are just a few of your options.
  5. Consider that someone else’s opinion says more about them than it does about you. Some people have empowering and positive opinions of others; some are distrusting and critical of others; whilst others are somewhere in the middle.
  6. Get clear on the upsides of this opinion.  Believe it or not, there are always advantages to every opinion (and downsides!). Once you can consider that there may be some upsides, your upset will be receding.

You can transform any feedback from hurtful to useful (or simply irrelevant) but, if you struggle to make this shift, take heart – there are always alternative strategies such as projection or denial, or simply plain anger or rage. You may at some point be ready to see things differently; all you need to do is be open to growth and you may find the scar will magically disappear.


About the author

Elva Ainsworth is the founder and CEO at Talent Innovations




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