TIME Brain

Sensitive or Stone-Cold Stoic? How Your Wiring Affects Your Well-Being

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Your emotional wiring plays a critical role in how you react to feedback -- both good and bad -- from others. But you can override those instincts by learning how to frame the input you receive.

We swim in an ocean of feedback. It’s not just those performance reviews at work. It’s your reflection in the mirror, the comment your spouse made at breakfast, or the accusatory note you just found in your mailbox from your neighbor.

Recent research that suggests that how you react to that feedback — whether you take it in stride or get flattened by it — is due at least in part to your wiring. When it comes to sensitivity to feedback, individuals can vary up to three thousand percent in terms of how far they swing, emotionally, and how long it takes them to recover. And that has profound implications for their ability to hear the feedback they get, and to learn anything from it.

Take Alita. She has been highly sensitive to criticism since she was a child. Now an accomplished obstetrician, her skills and confidence have matured, yet her sensitivity to feedback is just as strong as it was when she was young. “Three years ago we did patient satisfaction surveys,” Alita explains. “My patients love the attention I give them, and my reviews were largely positive. Yet there were a few comments from patients frustrated that I sometimes run late.” She adds, “I haven’t felt the same way about my practice since.”

While Alita knows intellectually that these are a few negative comments among many, and that, in fact, it’s the attention that she gives each patient that causes her to run late, this doesn’t change her emotional reaction to the feedback itself.

Sound familiar? If you’re like Alita, you’ve probably been hearing the same advice for much of your life: “Don’t be so sensitive,” “You’re overreacting.” “You need to get a thicker skin.” Yet new research suggests that this is far harder for some than others.

Three factors can be used to measure our sensitivity to feedback. The first is Baseline, which measures your general state of happiness or contentment. In the wake of positive or negative events (or feedback), we all tend to gravitate back toward our baseline. Some people have a relatively high baseline – like Elaine in the next cubicle who always seems so (gratingly) cheerful no matter how much pressure the team is under. Others — like Mortimer down in purchasing — may have a relatively low happiness baseline, perpetually dissatisfied with their lives (and with you), regardless of how well things may be going.

The second variable is Swing — how far up or down you go as a result of positive or negative feedback. Someone with small swing is “even keeled”: Nothing excites them much, and few things really get them too upset. If you swing wider emotionally, your ups and downs will be more intense and you’ll require less stimulation to move you off your baseline.

And finally, Sustain or Recovery, which measures how long it takes you to return to your baseline. How long do you sustain a bounce in your step in the wake of an appreciative email from an important customer? How long does it take you to recover from the public dressing down you got from your boss on the newsroom floor? Recent findings from neuro-imaging show that positive and negative swing and recovery can operate independently. If you have small swing and short sustain on positive feedback, and wide swing and long recovery on the negatives, that’s a tough combination. Positive feedback disappears quickly, while negative feedback hits you hard and keeps you down for a good long while.

This is Alita’s profile, and it’s why she finds critical feedback – even well-intended “suggestions” from patients about how to better manage her time – so upsetting. Rather than prompting her to improve service or better manage her appointments, it paralyzes and demotivates her. Her head delivery nurse, Toni, has the opposite profile; she’s unflappable in the face of stressful events, and she can shrug off even angry attacks within minutes.

The good news for Alita is that wiring is only part of the equation. Researchers estimate that it accounts for about 40% of how we react, and whether it’s a little more or a little less doesn’t matter. The bigger point is that a significant part of how we react to negative feedback is not from wiring, but rather, results from the story we tell ourselves about what the feedback means.

In other words, our own upset can cause us to distort the feedback we receive. For example, say someone tells you that you were singing off-key — it’s about your singing, of this song, this time. But through the lens of upset, the feedback is supersized: “I must always sing off key and no one tells me. I can never do anything right. I’m a loser and everyone knows it.”

Alita is doing a version of this when she dwells on the one or two complaints about keeping patients waiting and ignores all the comments from patients who adore her. Given her wiring, she is easily upset, but she’s compounding the problem by telling a story that incapacitates her. Her reaction to the feedback is blocking her ability to learn from it.

We can all learn to manage feedback more skillfully by learning how to see the feedback at “actual size.” Feedback should be bound in time (feedback about right now is not about the future) and by specificity (feedback about one thing is not about everything) and by size (needing to improve by 10% is different from needing to improve by 80%).

Understanding our own triggered reactions to feedback can help us all regain our footing, and turn even upsetting feedback into something we can work with, and use to grow.

For more on how we all react to the feedback we get at work and at home, and how to turn even annoying or unhelpful feedback into something valuable to you, check out Doug and Sheila’s new book,Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Even When It’s Off Base, Unfair, Poorly Delivered, and Frankly, You’re Not in the Mood), out March 4, 2014 from Viking.

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