Author Georgina Kirk, Put Yourself Across
Feedback and authenticity have an interesting relationship - and understanding it is crucial both to being happy as you are and to improving.
How we receive feedback is a barometer of how authentic we are. The more authentic we are, the more we’ll benefit from constructive feedback and the more we’ll improve. Equally, the more authentic we are, the less we’ll be damaged or pushed off course by negative feedback.
What do I mean by authentic? I mean self-aware, I mean knowing who you are and being comfortable with it – that is, not complacent but secure.
How would you describe yourself? How would your friends and colleagues describe you? How different are those images? Becoming authentic involves applying some scientific method to find the truth. Look at the evidence. Plot the graph. If you and most others agree but one of your colleagues has a wildly diverging view, for one reason or another, that colleague is probably not seeing you clearly. However, the same principle applies when your friends and colleagues have broadly one view and it’s you who see yourself differently. Logic suggests the majority view is the one closest to the truth.
Some people vastly over-estimate themselves. Some people vastly under-estimate themselves. I’ve spent many years in both of these bubbles. I grew up with an inflated sense of my own fantasticness, believing myself to be witty, wise and wonderful in every way. I dismissed all negative feedback as ignorance and jealousy, knowing I was the only one in step. When the feedback became so uniform I could no longer brush it aside, I fell into depression and slid to the other end of the axis, seeing myself as a complete loser, who didn’t deserve to take up any space in the world, let alone make an impact.
The further our self-image is from the healthy, realistic line, the less inclined – the less able – we are to believe feedback that paints a different picture. This is the same in both directions. When I was Ms Tremendous, I disregarded any indication that everyone didn’t love and admire me. When I became Ms Useless, I disregarded any indication that everyone didn’t hold me in contempt.
From an entrenched position like this, it’s very difficult to improve.
The paradox is: if you want to improve, you first need to be happy as you are. Unless and until you know who you are and feel secure, your attempts to improve will be guided by other people’s views; you’ll be living by other people’s standards because you haven’t worked out what your own are.
If the guiding principle of your life is to please people in general, you’ll end up failing miserably – not through any inadequacy of your own but because people are inconsistent. Even if your aim is to keep only one person pleased with you, one person can still be inconsistent and, anyway, you can’t always be certain you’re interpreting his/her wishes correctly. Moulding yourself to fit (your view of) someone else’s vision of what you should be like is a course that will inevitably end badly.
If the prospect of receiving feedback scares you, this is a signal you may not be living authentically, that you’re not following your own principles but someone else’s.
If you automatically disregard all feedback that doesn’t match how you see yourself, this implies your self-image may not be realistic. If any hint of criticism feels like an attack and any perceived failure provokes an existential crisis, you’re not seeing yourself clearly. Whether you’re heavy on the side of self-promotion or self-effacement, you’re out of balance.
Start from the premise that you’re essentially good. If you think you’re rubbish, I can assure you, you’re tons better than you think you are. What may be less obvious – though it’s equally true – is that if you think you’re staggeringly fabulous, you’re also much better than you think you are. Arrogance masks insecurity. Your behaviour may be rather less good than you’ve persuaded yourself it is – it may even be appalling – but you are essentially good. The sooner you come to understand this, the sooner your behaviour will start to reflect the real you and the happier everyone will be.
Working on discovering who you really are can be a painful process but the result will always be positive. If you’re not comfortable with who you are, you haven’t discovered your true self. You’ll know when you’ve arrived because the pain stops. Whoever you are and whatever you’ve done, this is as true for you as it is for anybody else.
Once you know who you are, you’re able to stand firm in the face of unfair criticism. Criticism hurts only when:
a) you suspect it may be true and
b) having been less than perfect means to you that you’re not as good a person as you thought you were.
We have to distinguish between who we are and what we do. You can make terrible mistakes and still be a good person. Everybody makes mistakes, they’re part of life. The test is in how you deal with them.
Once you know who you are, you’ll also be able to take what’s useful from feedback to help you improve. Once you’re standing on a firm foundation, which is not shaken every time you don’t get the reactions you hoped for, you’ll be well placed to rethink your approach when necessary.
Whether formally or informally, we all receive feedback all the time. How you respond to it is superficially an indicator of how well you’re doing and more profoundly an indicator of how well you know yourself. Not all feedback is helpful but being aware of your reaction to it is always helpful, guiding you to stay true to yourself and to be able to sort the wheaty feedback, which will help you improve, from the chaffy feedback that will, if you follow it, lead you astray.
Written by Georgina Kirk. Georgie is a coach and consultant in effective communication, and a motivational speaker.