A Trained Eye

Message Received? Nah.

Why Negative Feedback Fails to Register

By Patricia Dalton
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 18, 2008; Page HE01

A patient in my office complains about how unfairly he is being treated at work. He admits that he has been out a fair amount and has used up all his sick time and personal days. And yes, he reluctantly continues, he also comes in late. He has lots of reasons, but his boss tells him they are sounding more and more like excuses and puts him on probation. The problems improve, and then gradually reappear. My patient gets fired -- and reacts indignantly.

He never thought it would come to this, he says.

We human beings have a lot of difficulty with feedback -- with facing reality rather than denying or distorting it. And dismayed givers of feedback -- from husbands and wives to voters and political constituents -- have a common refrain: "I can't get through to him [or her]."

When the predictable occurs (a spouse leaves; a business associate ends the partnership), the reaction, more often than not, is "Why didn't you tell me?"

To which the response is: "I told you over and over. But you didn't listen."

Feedback is our prime corrective mechanism. But my colleagues and I are recognizing a disquieting pattern in our psychotherapy offices: In our increasingly self-absorbed culture -- perhaps because of our increasingly self-absorbed culture -- distortions of and disconnects from feedback are becoming more common.

Here are a few examples I've witnessed: One of the many D.C. professionals who routinely work late into the evenings at high-pressure jobs has trouble sleeping, frequent headaches and marital tension, but he makes no career changes; a wife tells her husband that it humiliates her when he makes teasing comments about her in front of their friends, but he keeps on doing so; a place of business that was stable for many years suddenly hemorrhages employees, but management ignores the implicit message.

Mistakes Were Made

There are infinite ways in which we prevent, discourage or nullify feedback. One is to shoot the messenger. Another is to tear apart the content of the feedback, distorting or ridiculing it. The person giving feedback can be attacked directly, publicly embarrassed, marginalized, threatened or even fired -- or divorced. (Think Cordelia in "King Lear," whom the king disowns because she is the only one who will tell him the truth.)

If the recipient of the feedback becomes flustered, he or she will sometimes become defensive. But those with an entrenched version of what Carl Jung called the "power shadow" -- an internal darkness that often goes unrecognized -- never admit to a mistake. Not even a small one. (Doesn't that bring the tormented Healthcliff of "Wuthering Heights" to mind?)

Of course, in cases where the feedback involves an accusation, and especially when accompanied by legal charges, we often see an additional set of maneuvers. The accused can shift the blame -- often to somebody lower in the hierarchy -- or resort to baldfaced lies. (Lying sets the stage for Ian McEwan's "Atonement.")

Another response to negative feedback is to lie to oneself. I can remember watching Kenneth Lay and his wife being interviewed about the Enron debacle, and thinking incredulously that they have somehow convinced themselves of his innocence. Both talked about him as if he were a choirboy, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson presented a rogues' gallery of such offenders in their wittily titled new book, "Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)." It explores the phenomenon that Stanford psychologist Leon Festinger termed "cognitive dissonance," which occurs when a person is faced with two conflicting "truths."

One is the factual feedback: "You did a bad (mean/stupid/illegal, self-serving) thing." The other is the belief, "I am a good person." Guess which one typically gets a makeover? Of course, it's the facts that have to be rewritten. And the authors point out that the more ambivalent or uncomfortable the accused person is, the greater their need to alter history.

When it comes to receiving feedback poorly, there is a shorthand way to identify some of the worst offenders. They never -- and I mean never -- apologize. I hear this complaint over and over in my office, from wronged spouses, children, parents, employees, friends. Getting a feedback-resister to apologize is a therapeutic feat in itself. And it can't be what I have come to call the un-apology ("I'm sorry, but . . .").

Individuals who wield power in this way are usually strong-willed but miserable. Not even during childhood did they meet their match.

Defiance Needs Limits

Parents of such children need to be on their toes to stay a step ahead of their offspring. This responsibility is not for the faint of heart. While a dose of rebelliousness helps children know what it is that they want in life, today's parents tend to amplify that defiance by treading too carefully around their children's transgressions, giving them the message that it's okay to break rules at the expense of others or of the family's moral code.

Sometimes the family doesn't really have code, nor does it have a surrounding culture as its guide. One father I saw hired a lawyer to get his son out of a DUI on a technicality. His biggest worry was that if the son were found guilty, the family's insurance premium would go up!

Of course there are adults and children who develop the opposite problem: They unreasonably blame themselves when something goes wrong, becoming dispirited or depressed in the process. Often they were raised with rigid expectations and encouraged to have perfectionist expectations of themselves. Or they developed an overly scrupulous conscience, sometimes in connection with strict religious training.

While Freud may have seen an abundance of such problems, they are rare today.

Making Strides

Experience has taught me to make the following assessment in every initial therapy consultation: Is this person willing to consider that he or she plays a part in the problem?

If the patient clings to a well-entrenched habit of blaming others (parents, spouse, child, boss, "the system"), I've come to expect that there will be little therapeutic progress. I've seen couples who refuse to budge from an "attack/defend" mode of interaction, no matter how wretched they become. In contrast, people who are willing to take a hard look at themselves can make great strides in psychotherapy.

As Tavris and Aronson point out, when people misbehave then ignore the negative feedback and let themselves off the hook, they feel better, at least in the short run. But they are exchanging short-term gain for long-term pain.

Some people come to see these players for what they are and will have nothing to do with them. Others who join in the pretense or reluctantly tolerate this nonsense enter into a false relationship.

The perpetrators almost always wonder what it is that's missing: They dimly perceive that other people hold them at a distance, and they feel a distance from their inner selves. But rarely do they stop to investigate this precious piece of self-feedback.

James Baldwin captured this phenomenon well: "People pay for what they do, and still more for what they allow themselves to become. And they pay for it simply, by the lives they lead." ¿

Patricia Dalton is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Washington. Comments:health@washpost.com.

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