How to Give and Receive Healthy Feedback in Relationships

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Photo by Arisa Chattasa on Unsplash

I was completely baffled when a past partner told me, “Your list about the kitchen didn’t land like you wanted it to.” I had jotted down a few quick notes on our white board to discuss when he got home that day, asked the questions I needed to ask him, and then went back on about my business. And later, he told me it hadn’t landed well.

I wasn’t trying to land a joke or be cute. I needed to talk to him about four things in the kitchen. I talked to him. Moment over.

But he took my public note in our shared space as a criticism rather than communication.

Why do we do that?

Why is it that we can so easily turn simple feedback or a check-in into a belief that someone is judging us, or wants us to change, or isn’t happy with us? That someone checking in means we’re messing something up?

I wanted him to put my coffee press away differently and wondered about the recycling. It was not a big deal at all. Except that it was.

Trauma makes simple feedback difficult

I am terrified to check in with people. I am scared to tell them I need something different than what they’re offering me.

I once asked my ex-husband to turn off a lamp he’d turned on instead of leaving it for me to turn off, and it somehow became a two day fight and came up in therapy.

Trying to tell my mom that I was working on childhood issues in therapy and needed some space resulted in her telling me that it was all in the past and she didn’t see why I couldn’t just get over it.

When the response to your basic feedback has always been to tell you how sensitive and silly you’re being, you just stop asking.

You stop asking for clarity. You stop asking for reassurance. You stop asking for details. You stop asking for what you need.

Because asking is a risk and you’re so very, very tired of having to turn a one-minute chat into a multi-hour discussion about your intentions.

The only way to learn how to give and receive healthy feedback is to keep doing it over and over.

How to do feedback in a healthy way

You are going to need to trust me on this, okay? It will feel weird at first. But you have to talk to the people in your life about your feelings.

If you notice a friend has withdrawn and isn’t initiating conversations like they used to, you are allowed to say “Hey, I miss you, are things okay?”

If you are missing a partner but feel like they’ll be upset that you need their reassurance, lean in and let them know you’re thinking of them and would like to schedule a date night soon.

If you felt snubbed by a friend and it hurt your feelings, tell them. Say it. It’s very likely that they didn’t mean to hurt you, and if they did mean to, it’s time for a new friend.

It’s vulnerable. It feels scary. It feels like risking rejection.

It’s absolutely fundamental to learning how to advocate for yourself.

How to respond to criticism

I recently messed up with a friend. We went to an event together and I ditched her to hang out with someone else. At the time, I had no idea I was ditching her — but she felt ditched. She told me about a week later that she was upset and felt like I abandoned her to spend time with someone else.

And that feedback was legitimate.

My first response was defensiveness. I hadn’t realized she needed a buddy for her anxiety! It wasn’t my fault! I didn’t do anything wrong!

And here’s the thing: It’s possible to not do anything wrong and still hurt someone’s feelings, and they get to be upset.

I apologized. I told her that I understood her feedback and that next time we’d make sure to have a plan in place for her to have a buddy at all times if she was anxious at an event. I explained that I hadn’t realized that was my role for her that day and I wouldn’t have ditched her if I knew. I expressed remorse, owned my mistake, and told her how I would do better.

And wouldn’t you know it, our relationship is great. Because feedback between us is safe and open and healthy.

When feedback isn’t safe

Vulnerability can be rewarding. When you open up to a safe person and they reassure you and give you what you need, it’s an incredibly validating and healing experience.

But you may run into people who don’t respect your boundaries and who tell you you’re being too sensitive when you tell them what you need.

Those people are not your people.

Being vulnerable is healing when you’re with a safe person. And being vulnerable is educational when you’re with a harmful person. When they show you that they don’t respect your boundaries, believe them. Place more. If they disrespect those, remove that person from your life.

We don’t remove bits of ourselves to make other people comfortable. If they can’t handle being asked for reassurance or held accountable for hurting your feelings, they don’t get to take up space in your life.

Prone to sudden bursts of encouragement. They/them. Queer, autistic author of

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