Helping people who are highly self-critical benefit from feedback

It’s often painful to get feedback from other people, and even harder to know what to do with it when we do get it. It can feel like an attack on our person, and it can be hard to identify whether there is something in the feedback that we can actually change.

For our clients who are highly self-critical, their internal critic is constantly giving them “feedback” about all the ways they are bad/wrong/damaged/flawed or how they are making mistakes or screwing up in some way. Often this “feedback” is not helpful. In addition, the experience of being criticized by your internal critic after you receive feedback makes it harder, perhaps even overwhelming, to get feedback from others.

Compounding the situation, people who are highly self-critical tend to interpret feedback as rejection (or at least a threat of rejection).

Research shows that among high self-critics, the normal tendencies that all of us have to be on the lookout for signs of rejection are heightened, making them even more sensitive to potential criticism and rejection. This can increase the chance that neutral or ambiguous social signals are interpreted as hostile. For example, we might interpret a blank expression as hostile, feel like someone interrupting you when you are speaking means they don’t like you, see someone’s slight turn of the body away from you as dismissing of what you have to say, or simply think that a frown means a person is upset with you. 

Alternatively, high self-critics tend to interpret low intensity signs of rejection or criticism as if they are strong signals and react to them with a lot of self-hatred, self-criticism, anger, defensiveness, and/or intense shame. The result is that high self-critics often feel like they overreact to self-criticism. For example, they may take the feedback in too quickly, getting stuck in self-blame. Alternatively, they may automatically discount the feedback and argue defensively.

All of these responses are learned behaviors to protect oneself from the pain of feedback and perceived criticism. Unfortunately, these behaviors also get in the way of of a person benefiting from feedback. Especially in close relationships, it’s important to be able to listen to the feedback that others give us and be able to modify our behavior when warranted. We all have blind spots that we need others to help us recognize and learn about. We only have our one experience of the world, and feedback from others with different experiences can enrich our lives in ways we probably don’t even know about. The people around us have a lot to teach us, especially those in our tribe who sometimes know us better than we know our selves. 

But it’s not just the “negative” feedback that can be difficult to take in. For high self-critics, difficulty with feedback can also extend to rejecting, avoiding, or defending against “positive" feedback because it can feel so incongruent with how they see themselves or may feel like they’re setting themselves up for hurt if they ever let their guard down. As a result, they also have a hard time benefitting from positive, affiliative feedback that might activate their social safety system or serve to counteract their own self-criticism.

When we are not open to feedback, we lose a lot of opportunities for learning and growth.

Learning how to be open to feedback, take what is useful, and leave the rest is a difficult skill to master. Because we love acronyms here at AWC (in case you hadn’t noticed!), we developed a tool we call “WALKS the TALK” where we teach clients a step-by-step process for receiving feedback in an effective way. In our class for highly self-critical and shame-prone clients, this is one of the skills we work on towards the end of the class, once they have already started practicing some self-compassion and loving kindness.

We teach 3 steps regarding feedback:

  1. Noticing feedback and your reaction to it in the moment
  2. Giving yourself time to reflect on what parts of the feedback may be useful
  3. Deciding on whether or how you want to respond to or incorporate any parts of the feedback into your life.

The 3 main components are broken down into 8 specific steps the client can practice, often over the course of a few weeks. When teaching this skill in our class, we typically have clients practice the “WALKS” part of the skill, stopping at the S - “Stall and Soothe” step. This is to give the person time to reflect on the feedback. We’ve found that this is a very important step that people often miss—pausing to reflect on the feedback before responding—and so we will often just have clients practice up to this point.

In our class, we have clients practice with one another and then practice with someone they trust outside of the group as homework. But you could certainly also work on this directly in individual therapy as well. We have also found that having clients actually write down their responses on the handout is an important part and would strongly encourage you to include that part as you’re working with your clients to develop this important skill.

You can find a copy of our WALKS the TALK handout here and you’re welcome to use it with clients if you feel it might be helpful. And because we here at ACT with Compassion also benefit from feedback, we’d love to hear from you if you use the tool and have any thoughts about it.

P.S. For those interested in learning more about helping clients to benefit from feedback, there’s a new evidence-based approach called radically open dialectical behavior therapy (RO-DBT) that focuses a lot on how to be more open to feedback, including those around us. The WALKS the TALK skill adapts some of the principles from an RO-DBT skill that relates to accepting feedback (the ADOPTS skill) from their skill manual for treating emotional overcontrol.

Article written by Jason Luoma and Jenna LeJeune

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  • Joseph Mary
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