Nurturing Healthy Self-Feedback

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I had thought about this moment for years.

I visualized every possible part of it.

Except this part.

I was sitting on the toilet five minutes before I entered the octagon for my first mixed martial arts fight.

For those who know this sport: elbows and soccer kicks were fair game.

I had prepared in every possible way.

But self-doubt rose to the surface and I hadn’t yet built the mental tools to counter it.

In training, when a moment of self-doubt would arise, I would work harder. Here, I couldn’t. The work was done. The stage (and cage) was set.

In my mind, I ridiculed myself and those I trained with. Seemingly every thought propelled me further down a spiral of negativity.

The thinking disappeared when they called my name and I walked down the aisle toward the cage. At that point I was in full gladiator mode. To me, it felt like life or death.

Years later, it all happened again. Only this time I was about to be a featured speaker at an industry event I’d been dreaming about attending for years.

Again, there I was sitting nervously on the toilet, ridiculing myself, judging my opening lines, thinking about how everyone in the audience already knew what I was about to share.

It was rough.

This time, the thinking did not disappear. I took the stage and completely lost control.

For every sentence I shared with the audience, there was another internal sentence shaming and belittling me.

I stumbled over my words, and despite what some folks said afterward, I felt like I’d delivered zero value.

It was crushing. More than anything, I valued this audience’s time and wanted to exceed their expectations.

I chalked up those 5 minutes before the fight performance as “the way it goes.” It was easier to do this since I’d won the fight and moved on to prepare for the next one.

But the speaking engagement stung. I couldn’t shake what happened. Even years later, the experience would enter my mind and cause my stomach to sink.

Since then, I’ve deepened into various practices and built far healthier, more reality-based self-feedback mechanisms.

Self-Feedback Definition. Although informal feedback is often referred to as the most common, in all likelihood, self-feedback takes the crown. Self-feedback refers to the feedback in our minds as we critique, praise, and compare our performance. We may compare the speech we just gave next to an excellent TED Talk or the app functionality we’re building next to how our competitor did it.
Self-feedback definition from the What is feedback video

If my life were chapters, Chapter 1 was mostly about masking inner suffering by brutally building my body into a self-defense machine. In hindsight, I thought this masking was healing. Chapter 2 has been about understanding my inner suffering and learning to non-judgmentally observe my mind so I can let go of what no longer serves me and build habits that do.

I’ll now use words to express what has worked for me, though the more I’ve developed, the more I’ve come to see how words, while usually our best method, are inevitably imprecise and lacking.

When it comes to nurturing healthy self-feedback, I’ve been on a journey that includes thousands of hours of mindfulness practice, thousands of hours of deep content consumption (not reading, for example, to tick the box on finishing X number of books), and hundreds of hours of various types of therapy—including psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. I’ll touch on mindfulness and therapy below.

Disclaimer. What follows is not advice. It is simply sharing what has helped me deal with childhood trauma and the many defenses I built to live in the world with such trauma, imposter syndrome, anxiety, a harsh inner critic, negativity bias, and related challenges. Additionally, possession and use of various psychedelic substances remain illegal in most of the U.S. and various areas of the world. I am not advising their use here.


How mindfulness is often marketed: an example of a person sitting in meditation but running away from truth and reality and toward a lollipop and butterflies. The is next to another image of a person meditating directly in the center of truth and reality.

My mindfulness practice took on a new dimension in 2013 when, while living in Thailand, I had the life-changing experience of attending a week-long meditation retreat with Thích Nhất Hạnh.

For me, mindfulness is the best method I’ve found for consciously understanding how my mind works through direct observation of its ways. Over time, this practice has allowed me to incrementally move my thoughts closer to truth and reality, which to me means:

  • learning from rather than dwelling on the past
  • cutting through narrative fallacies to see situations and experiences for what they are
  • not avoiding all thoughts of the future, but being intentional about when I think about the future
  • making the present moment my default state
  • examining my life to wring as much wisdom as possible from what I experience

Note: while understanding some of the basics of neuroscience has been helpful, I’ve also experienced how alluring it can be to think the intellectual study of neuroscience (or related fields) equals studying our own mind. One is of the intellect; the other is direct experience. As the Buddha advised, do not rely upon established tradition, abstract reasoning, and charismatic gurus. Only those who try the practice and experience it for themselves can determine whether it works or not.

There are many “mental tricks” out there, some of which seek to replace all negative thoughts with positive thoughts. They undoubtedly work for some, but they haven’t been more than cheap tricks for me. Such tricks ultimately felt like running away from something and hoping that the quick and continuous application of a Band-Aid would help.

Instead, when it feels safe to do so, I gently investigate negative or challenging thoughts as they arise. I stay with them for a period, letting my breath serve as an anchor and a reminder that I am here now, not there then. This is similar to the “letting it run through my body and mind” strategy I wrote about here at Harvard Business Review.

If time permits, and especially if I’m on the meditation cushion, I’ll close my eyes and do the following, in no particular order:

  1. Feel the thoughts run through my body, building the habit of being with it and watching it pass rather than running away.
  2. Asking: Is this negative thought true? How do I know? Is the negative thought something that happened or a projection into the future? If a projection, I let it go and return to the breath. What might this negative thought be trying to protect? How might it be trying to serve a previous me that no longer needs it?

In my experience with unhealthy self-feedback loops, I find that the more I investigate what’s happening, the more I discover that it’s not only unhealthy, it’s untrue.

My mindfulness practice has been shaped by a few of the following programs and people:

Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). I participated in the MBSR training provided by Brown University. UMass Memorial Medical Center also offers fantastic mindfulness programming, including a virtual 3-day silent retreat.

There are too many folks to name, but here are a few with LinkedIn profiles:

  1. Rick Hanson
  2. Trudy Goodman
  3. Sharon Salzberg
  4. Joan Halifax
  5. Mark Coleman


The gratitude I have here nearly brings me to tears as I type. I feel so blessed to have worked with incredible therapists in a diverse array of styles, each of which has helped me break through mental challenges and heal from severe trauma.

Some of the styles I’ve worked with include:

  • traditional talk therapy
  • mindfulness-based cognitive therapy
  • somatic experiencing therapy
  • psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy
  • indigenous healing (Shipibo curanderos)

Various types of talk therapy helped me uncover negative thought patterns that I’d rationalized as being helpful. They then helped me form new and healthier mental habits. Many of the negative habits I had (and still have) were helpful to protect myself when I was a child.

For example, due to various traumas I’ve experienced, I’ve developed extreme sensitivity to emotions and vibes in the room. Part of this sensitivity meant creating narratives about what I did wrong, what I should do next time, or generally how I could enter spaces as small and unassuming as possible so as not to create conflict. There was a time, as a vulnerable little boy, when these habits served me and perhaps saved me from further abuse.

As an adult, I’ve discovered that my sensitivity and empathy are superpowers—but only if they’re decoupled from dwelling in untrue projections and narratives. I’ve learned to be with healthy conflict.

Other types of therapy allowed me to explore and heal from childhood trauma whose origin and memory were so buried in my subconscious that I could not access it (let alone heal it) but with the assistance of plants, fungi, and other medicines.

This trauma manifested as extreme angst and anxiety, and led to unhealthy behaviors.

While I don’t believe we always can or always need to get to the root of our trauma to heal from it, I was able to do so in this particular example.

The journey continues

It’s a journey, team. While I now have much healthier internal feedback systems and mental habits, the unhelpful habits have been running on autopilot for decades. So, while I’m proud of and grateful for what I’ve achieved, I see this (and myself) as a lifelong work in progress.


FTW Questions:

  1. Did anything resonate or otherwise interest you about this post?
  2. Do you have any questions about anything I shared here?
  3. What has helped you create and nurture healthier self-feedback mechanisms?