The Emotional Cycle of Receiving Difficult Feedback

“How to give feedback” is a long-running discussion in management, leadership, and business circles. The latest phase in the craze is seen in the proliferation of the ‘radical candor’ methodology: teaching managers to balance “caring personally” with “challenging directly.” Frameworks such as radical candor are meant to help managers ease the emotional burden of providing feedback by structuring it carefully. Less often are there discussions on how to receive feedback effectively.

Sometimes feedback is constructive, sometimes it’s more critical, and occasionally, it errs on the side of being downright soul-crushing.

Like many Type-A overachievers, I take a lot of pride in my work. Wholeheartedly embracing a drive to keep getting better, I actively solicit feedback from my peers, managers, and direct reports. Usually, I’m able to recover from feedback in an instant: distilling, internalizing, and putting it into action quickly. If delivered well by a manager, most feedback should be easy to manage. But occasionally, feedback can feel deeply personal, even when it’s not intended to be. It can come as commentary on anything from work ethic and performance to attitudes and behaviors.

There’s an emotional response cycle associated with receiving this particular kind of feedback. When you receive feedback from a manager that rocks you to your core, awareness of the associated emotional responses can help you ride the wave of emotions back to normalcy.

Pain

First, there’s pain. The feedback feels so deeply disheartening that it manifests itself physically. Your heart races, you can’t relax, you may cry. The initial response is summarily ouch. It’s happening because you care, because you’re invested, because you want to do extraordinarily well in everything you do. Such a departure from the norm of excellence that you’ve so carefully built can rock you unsteady as it unearths insecurities you’ve worked to improve.

Almost immediately, this pain triggers your fight or flight response. Influenced by thousands of years of evolutionary history, your body responds to this psychological threat by telling you to run or respond with force. In a workplace setting, you may decide to do both. You may lean into the fight: aggressively challenging the person who gave you the feedback or seeking revenge on anyone who holds a similar opinion. Alternatively, you may reject the feedback entirely, running away from it mentally and pretending that it never happened. You may even try to physically distance yourself from the person who gave you the feedback and reject opportunities for additional context.

This can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, depending on how long it takes for you to calm down. Embrace it and take time to meditate, take a walk, or practice other self-calming techniques.

Anger and Rejection

To diminish the pain and discomfort, your thoughts shift towards anger and self-righteousness. “How dare they?!” you think. One step further, you may reject the whole situation as a farce or even begin to entertain thoughts of quitting. Maybe this is the last straw that prompts you to walk away from a team, workplace, or even a career.

Before you allow this situation to influence your entire career trajectory, take a moment to put things into perspective. Is this feedback actually life-changing or does it simply feel that way? Don’t make decisions when you’re in an emotionally fragile state.

Instead, consider your options. Feedback is often like an unwanted sweater gifted to you at Christmas. You can choose to wear it, or you can choose to put it into a drawer and never speak of it again. Regardless, you must stay thank you (we’ll talk more about this step later).

This stage may last anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks. Sometimes, the impact of the feedback ends here. After processing your anger, you may choose to simply ignore the feedback entirely, tucking it into a drawer and never taking it out again. That’s totally okay. But sometimes, it may be worthwhile to do some deeper introspection.

Introspection

Hopefully, you’ve been introspective from stage one, attempting to reconcile the pain with determining whether the feedback is actually accurate or helpful. It’s time to dig deeper.

At some point in the first three stages (pain, rejection, introspection), it’s important to talk it out. Talk to your mentors, your friends, your peers. Gaining additional perspective from thought partners can provide objectivity that you may not be capable of articulating given your heightened emotional state.

Once you’ve talked it out, it’s time to focus internally. Think back over the last several months: is there any scenario where this feedback could be applied? Think critically about your actions: is there a difference between your good intentions and how your actions may have been perceived? Think about the consequences: what will happen if you don’t internalize this feedback? Take as long as you need to mull things over. It’s okay for things to still hurt, for you to be a bit sensitive, for you to continue processing things emotionally.

There’s an emotional high that comes when things finally click: “If I can tackle this, I can overcome anything!” When you realize how you can improve, you may feel a surge of empowerment. Ride that wave to the finish line!

Closure

Reflecting on past behaviors and future consequences will help you develop a game plan. Whether you ultimately choose to reject the feedback entirely or your introspection drives you to internalize the feedback, it is critical to close the loop.

Always say thank you. Regardless of what you choose to do with the feedback, saying thank you to the giver is a sign of respect and signals professionalism.

If you choose to internalize the feedback, let the person know that you took his/her feedback seriously and that it helped you get better. Narrating the change will also help you achieve closure. If it’s a big deal, revisit the narrative and turn it into success journey for yourself.

Congratulations! You now have an opportunity to craft the perfect response to the interview question: “Tell me about a challenge or conflict you’ve faced at work and how you dealt with it.” Consider sharing your story with your peers, mentors, or friends.

We don’t talk enough about how to process feedback. It’s almost as if we’re expected to simply take it on the chin, which not only isn’t healthy but doesn’t allow us to actually reflect and absorb the feedback. It’s okay and necessary to experience these emotional phases. Embrace the journey and you’ll come out a stronger person.

h/t to Joy Haugen, Career Coach and Outcomes Lead at General Assembly, for the ugly sweater analogy. ❤️

Hello! I’m Shanaz Chowdhery. I’m a productivity enthusiast, relentless optimist, and casual game theorist. Currently the Regional Director @ General Assembly in DC. Formerly @ Yale & Teach For America.

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Shanaz Chowdhery

I have very strong opinions about esoteric productivity hacks. Follow me to optimize your efficiency.