Feedback and Trauma

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Trauma of various types has caused me a tremendous amount of suffering over the years, and I’m far from alone in that. Over 70% of respondents in a 24-country survey from the World Mental Health Survey Consortium, a survey across 24 countries, reported having a traumatic event in their lives. According to the VA, 6 out of every 100 people in the United States (6% of the population) will have PTSD at some point.

As many of those with trauma can attest, it can have a ripple effect that impacts many areas of our lives. Feedback communication is one of those areas.

In speaking about this topic, Patrick Teahan, a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker and childhood trauma specialist, said such trauma can cause us to have:

“…reactions to people, places and things that don’t seem right sized. We can become numb and shut down or reactive in some way when someone gives us feedback – like a boss. Reactions can involve the following responses: feel the need to fight, experience shame, experience a big feeling of needing immediate action, experience the need for inaction (avoidance), loss of our ability to communicate, experience a strong need for escape.”

Trauma and receiving negative feedback

As we’ve discussed here, negative feedback, often called constructive feedback, can be a powerful mechanism for performance improvement. It can also serve as a trauma trigger. Although I’ve worked to improve this over the years, receiving negative feedback can cause my heart to race and my palms to sweat. In those moments, it’s as though my adult self has left the room and been replaced by the small boy I once was, the one who was physically abused and mentally ridiculed.

Trauma and receiving positive feedback

You might think that positive feedback, so critically important and underutilized in the workplace, couldn’t possibly be impacted by trauma. But, get this. Many people who have experienced trauma, particularly during childhood, experienced that trauma and then received praise or other positive comments from their abuser. For some, receiving glowing positive feedback at work can take them back to that time in their life when this type of positive communication was used as psychological manipulation.

Trauma and giving feedback

Speaking from experience again, many of the most stressful moments of my professional career have been when I’ve had to give constructive feedback. Many studies show this is quite a common experience for managers. For me, a big reason for this stress has to do with my trauma.

Due to events that happened to me in childhood, I developed an immense sensitivity to the energies around me. I learned to walk on eggshells exceptionally well, to be small, to be wary of and to avoid conflict whenever I could. As such, I’ve had to work exceptionally hard not to let these qualities – defenses I built to protect myself as a child — prevent me from giving negative feedback that may cause a bit of tension.

A way forward

Disclaimer: I am not a licensed therapist or a trauma expert. I can, however, say from experience that working with licensed therapists, trauma experts, and various alternative healing modalities has improved my ability to enter into feedback conversations. If anything I shared here resonated with you, I highly recommend working with a licensed therapist who has a specialty in the areas of trauma you experienced.