Developing Openness to Feedback Through Cultivating Healthy Self-Doubt

feedback.jpgFor those of us, like myself, with a history of harsh self-criticism, it may seem like the last thing in the world we need to do is cultivate self-doubt! We often feel like we’re doubting ourselves constantly, for example, when we second guess or criticize ourselves.

Paradoxically, this tendency toward self-criticism can actually result in us being closed minded with others, because it makes receiving feedback from them even more painful than it might otherwise be. In order to protect ourselves from the pain of receiving feedback, we develop ways to avoid or block it. For me personally, I have noticed several ways I avoid or block feedback. I may not ask for feedback when it might be a helpful, for example, at the end of a therapy session that I felt unsure about, or at the end of a staff meeting. Or, I may present my opinions as facts, making it hard for others to disagree. I may come across as certain and confident when feeling anything but. I may shut down or pout after receiving feedback, making it less likely the person will want to do it again. I may come across as fragile and uncertain in the face of feedback, implying that it’s too much for me. All of these behaviors serve to (usually unintentionally) block feedback from the people in my life.

But, the problem is, I have some pretty cool people in my life. And if I’m not open to their feedback, it means I lose out on a lot of learning.  

So, I’m trying to work on this, to be more open to feedback – to the influence of others.  I want to learn more from the people who care about me. Because I’ve noticed that they sometimes know things I don’t. Big insight, huh?

Self-doubt is not the same as self-criticism

One of my biggest allies in being open to feedback seems to be cultivating a healthy sense of self-doubt. At least, I think it is. Even as I write this, I’m trying to practice being open to the possibility that I’m wrong about this very idea, maybe even in some important way.

One thing that has been useful for me has been noticing the distinction between self-criticism (which folks like me already have plenty of!) and the kind of healthy self-doubt that is gentle, curious, kind, and really important in helping us continue to grow. In my experience, my self-critic tends to be pretty darn sure of himself! He doesn’t sit there saying “Hmmm, I wonder if it’s possible that you made a mistake there?” Instead, he sounds more like “You are such a failure!!!” with certainty, coldness, and conviction. Self-doubt is actually kind of the opposite of that. Self-doubt is more about being curious, questioning, and open to what we have to learn from life and our fellow human beings.

And it turns out that self-doubt actually seems to be pretty helpful.

“Doubt Yourself as a Therapist, Love Yourself as a Person”

As a scientist, my interest in healthy self-doubt was first spurred by some data. A study by Nissen-Lie et al. (2015) examined the effectiveness of 70 therapists in helping 255 of their clients with interpersonal problems. There were two important findings.

Perhaps counter intuitively, the researchers found that therapists who expressed the highest levels of self-doubt about their work had the best outcomes. These therapists indicated they were often:

  • Lacking in confidence that they might have a beneficial effect on a patient
  • Unsure how best to deal effectively with a patient
  • In danger of losing control of the therapeutic situation with a patient
  • Unable to comprehend the essence of a patient’s problems

The most effective therapists were those who had both high self-doubt and who were, generally, loving with themselves
. This led the authors to state that the key to effective therapy was to “doubt yourself as a therapist, love yourself as a person.”  

This led me to ask myself, what if I don’t need to doubt myself less, what if I need to learn how to doubt myself more, but in a healthy way? How can l learn to reflect on myself without triggering the rumination, brooding, and shame that tends to happen in high self-critics?  

Self-Enquiry to encourage healthy self-doubt

This was when I stumbled upon the idea of self-enquiry. Self-enquiry is a practice, some might say a spiritual practice, of asking yourself good questions to help you to find your edge. Your edge is your personal unknown, where you have something to learn. Self-enquiry is based in the idea that “we don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are” and that each of us has more to learn about ourselves. This means that self-enquiry is a path of integrity and a means of encouraging lifelong learning about ourselves in the service of self-discovery. Self-enquiry cultivates healthy self-doubt in the service of being open to learning from others and the world.

Self-enquiry is a core skill in Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy (RO -DBT), which is a therapy for people who suffer from excessive and rigid self-control. Self-enquiry encourages us to see our mistakes as our teachers and our problems as opportunities for growth.  Rather than getting down on ourselves for our shortcomings, it encourages us to engage in a practice of asking ourselves good questions that can encourage us to grow as people.

In terms of feedback, I’ve been using a few self-enquiry questions to help me identify times when I might benefit from feedback and to help me stay open to it:

  • Is this one of those times when I need to ask for feedback?
  • Am I open to feedback right now? If I’m not sure, what clues indicate whether I am or am not? What might I need to learn?
  • What might be my contribution to this situation? How could I learn more about my contribution?
  • How can I show that I’m open to this feedback that is occurring?
  • Is this a person I can be vulnerable with? Is disclosing more about myself appropriate for this situation?

Each of these questions is uncomfortable for me and leads me to look somewhere I’d rather not. Each one seems to take me to my edge, to that point where I am unsure what to do now, how to respond, or how much of a risk to take – to a place of self-doubt. As such, they each seem like good self-enquiry questions, as least right now. They lead me to doubt myself in situations where I need to doubt myself -- in order to be open to learning. Asking good questions in order to learn helps me to stay in contact with the self-doubt, without becoming defensive, closing down, or becoming self-critical.

If you are wanting to work on being more open to feedback from others, then you might try asking questions like those above when you are situations where feedback might be appropriate. Or you might try out the feedback skill that we developed for our Big Heart, Open Wide class.

If you are wanting to learn more about self-enquiry, be gentle with yourself and give yourself time to learn. Since self-enquiry is a skill, it can take a while to develop. In terms of resources for learning, I wrote a blog post that provides an overview and another that explains how to use a self-enquiry journal. However, the best resource I know of is the upcoming book on RO DBT, which has tons of guidance on how to utilize self-enquiry in your life. Unfortunately, it’s not quite out yet, but if this topic is interesting, you might be willing to wait until February, 2018.

I wish you the best in your journey and much self-doubt (in a healthy way).

~ Big Heart, Open Wide


P.S. As I said above, I’m trying to be more open to eliciting and receiving feedback. So, what do you think of this post? What was most helpful? What could I have changed to make it more useful? Would you like more posts like this? You can respond in the comments below or on Facebook. I read all the comments.

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