At one extreme are the people with little or no self esteem who take every criticism to heart. At the other extreme are the narcissists who reject any negative feedback. Sanity lies between the extremes, but how to find it? How do we decide when we’ve got it wrong? If we can’t identify our mistakes, we can’t learn, grow or change. Mistakes can be wonderful teachers, and permission to make mistakes is key to breaking into new things. The person who takes every failure to heart and the person who can’t bear criticism may find it equally difficult to take risks around getting things wrong.
It wasn’t what I intended! This is a very common way of resisting negative feedback. Intentions matter, but they don’t reliably define outcomes. What we meant and how someone else experienced it don’t necessarily align. If you meant well and got it wrong, this is often a good opportunity to find out how someone sees the world differently to you.
It’s not my fault! Maybe it was an accident, and if that’s true, it’s worth flagging up. It’s also worth paying attention to blaming and shaming, because in cultures where the buck is passed, no one can get to the bottom of a problem to prevent it reoccurring. If it’s all about punishment then people can’t be honest about mistakes. We all make mistakes – lack of knowledge, inability to predict all the variables – these are the usual causes. Some leeway for mistakes is essential. That said, the idea of it being a mistake is not a get out clause for all shortcomings. Perhaps we could have done more, tried harder, researched better…
You’re just making a fuss! This can be the classic way of negating someone else’s experience when their response isn’t convenient to you. And sometimes of course it is true, and the person complaining is just someone who likes to nit pick and find fault. Check the power balance between the person complaining and the person on the receiving end if you aren’t sure how to respond, and be most careful with the person who has least power.
On the other side of the issue, people with poor self esteem are easily persuaded that it was their shortcoming, poor judgement, lack of care etc that caused the problem, even when there’s no evidence to support the idea. The sort of person who can end up apologising because they said ‘ow’ when their foot was trodden on, and it wasn’t like the other person meant to stomp on their toes… A low self esteem sufferer who is in a blame culture will likely just keep internalising the blame and never builds self esteem as a consequence. This is a hard thing to unpick, but it calls for recognition of your limits – you can’t magically know everything, you aren’t so psychic that everyone else’s preferences and needs are visible to you, and you aren’t, ever, the only person who could have done something differently.
People who wish to blame others are often quick to draw extra people in. They don’t deal with a problem by trying to solve it, instead they make accusations and point fingers and enlist support. Their main aim is to prove it isn’t their fault and this matters more to them than sorting things out. The person who wants to sort things out may shoulder more responsibility than is fairly theirs because that way they can change something, fix something. From the outside, this can look like one righteous person – the accuser – and one guilty person – the fixer. Blame and bullying often go together. Blaming someone and making them responsible for things beyond their control is a standard abuse tactic. Enlisting everyone else to confirm the blame and uphold the position of the bully is also a standard abuse tactic. When we focus on who was wrong, and who to blame, any of us can be drawn into supporting an abuser, not necessarily with any awareness that this is what’s happening.
It takes a certain amount of courage to face down a mistake. To look at it, own it, make sense of it and sort it out. It’s a vulnerable thing to do. We may look bad. We may pay a cost. But, I’d rather take that road any day than blame someone else for the sake of covering my own arse. I’d rather deal with the consequences of my errors than pretend there isn’t a problem. What I need to stop doing is co-operating with buck passers, people who always want more, and people who can’t take any responsibility for their share of the problem.