Since we live around people, we get all kinds of direct and indirect feedback from them. This feedback is about how we act, what we feel, and what we think in relation to their own values and worldview.
Now, because human beings’ perception of the world is subjective and limited, sometimes some aspects of our worldview and some of our values can be skewed or invalid when compared to reality. As a result, the feedback that we give and receive can be meaningful, helpful, and honest, or pointless, manipulative, and damaging—and everything in between.
So when does people’s feedback matter and when shouldn’t we take it to heart?
1. Positive with good intentions
This one is simple. You are doing well or you are helpful to others, people notice it, are glad for you, and let you know about it. For example, people who are close to you have noticed that you are taking good care of yourself, and so they tell you that they are really happy for you. Or, you helped your friend when they were not doing well, and they are truly grateful for it. This is positive feedback delivered with good intentions.
2. Negative with good intentions
This one is a little bit more complicated because plenty of people don’t like receiving negative feedback. Mainly, it stems from being overly criticized, controlled and otherwise abused in one’s formative years. So sometimes, anything that is not positive may seem as an attack. And sometimes it definitely is, but not necessarily.
For instance, your significant other honestly and calmly brings up that sometimes you don’t listen very well or that you forget things, and that it would be more beneficial for everyone—including you—if you were more aware of it. If it’s true, then it is a useful piece of feedback that you can use to improve your social and personal life.
If you are relatively introspective and have a fairly strong sense of self, you are likely capable of exploring your flaws and shortcomings when faced with either positive or negative feedback that is delivered appropriately. Both of those categories are what we usually call constructive feedback.
Useless or harmful feedback:
1. Negative with no empathy
Depending on many factors, this category can be both useless or somewhat useful. Sometimes you can take something from harsh feedback too, however, even well intentioned feedback can become negative, upsetting, and unhelpful when delivered without empathy or out of place.
A lot of people believe that giving negative or otherwise painful feedback is always helpful or even necessary. However, very often people who provide such feedback do it not so much because they want to help but rather out of their own insecurity or anxiety. Many are not even aware of that or deny it.
There is a proper and improper time, place, and method when offering a potentially unpleasant piece of feedback. The ability to empathize with the other person’s situation and where they emotionally and intellectually are in life mitigates unpleasant business in a respectful manner.
Oftentimes, feedback without empathy, and that with good intentions too, is either ineffective or even harmful, and can even be considered a violation of boundaries. But, if you are a mentally strong and more resolved person, you can sort parts of the feedback out and find some value even in the harshest feedback. You will be able to decide if it is valid, invalid, true, partially true, or completely false. You will ignore the form, evaluate what is being said, and accept what seems to be true and dismiss what is not.
So, for instance, if someone yells at you in frustration that you are a really bad listener, uses some expletives, breaks a vase, and runs out, you can still evaluate the part suggesting that, perhaps, sometimes you are not being an effective listener. However, many people are put off or distracted by the method by which this feedback was delivered, so that they never even consider it.
2. Negative with bad intentions and no empathy
Here, there is usually nothing of value as the feedback offered or thrown against you (or behind your back) is inconsiderate, completely untrue, twisted, manipulative, narcissistic, or overtly malevolent. Its purpose is to cause you harm.
When you recognize it as such, you can dismiss it without even considering it further.
The only value of such a feedback is that you see the other person for who they are, and then you are free to make a decision regarding how much of them you want in your life, if at all.
3. Negative with bad intentions and empathy
This category is interesting. After all, empathy seems like a nice thing. However, sometimes when people understand how you feel and what you are going through—i.e., empathize with you—they use it against you. This empathy is not used to help but to cause damage. And so if they have bad intentions and see or make up something about you, they will use it to hurt you. They often lie about their intentions being good, too.
Just like with the category above, you can dismiss such feedback and stay away from people like that.
4. Positive with bad intentions
This is the most intricate category. One may think, “Wait, how can positive feedback be bad for me?” Well, there are two general situations where positive feedback mixed with bad intentions and poor delivery—wittingly or unwittingly—can be malicious.
One, the person is condescending or patronizing to you. In this situation, the person is seemingly being kind, helpful, complimenting, yet actually they are infantilizing you, or trying to make you feel worse, or making themselves feel better.
And two, the person is simply manipulative. Here, they want something from you or to use you to get something from others and use “positive feedback” to get it. In such a situation, the feedback is insincere, over the top, or simply not true.
In many ways this type of feedback can be even more harmful than, for example, overt insulting, because it’s sleazy and insidious, which makes it hardly identifiable for what it really is. Or, if you believe it and delude yourself that you are something better than you actually are just because somebody told you, then it is harmful to your healthy sense of self-esteem, just like it is when you underestimate yourself.