I had a classic parenting moment this weekend. My ten-year-old came to me with a problem – mean girls – and I spent about half an hour with her explaining the phenomenon. We covered everything from the art of recognizing knuckleheads in the wild to rooting herself in the knowledge of how God sees her. I was firm, I was eloquent; we ended the session laughing and I was excited for the new strength I was sure she would carry with her for the rest of her life. Problem solved.
Later, I set myself up for a writing session…and I completely froze. The reason: a bad opinion some one had expressed about me a couple of days earlier. I became fixated on the insult and utterly failed to produce so much as a single sentence, all because I knew that somewhere out there, at least one person would call B.S. on anything I had to say. Defeated, I found some other diversions to pass my time staring at the screen, then closed down for the night. Negativity wins.
It is disappointingly easier for me to talk than to walk. Convicted on this point, I decided to cope in my typically nerdy fashion: research! Here’s what I learned about negative feedback, and how I am planning to beat it next time.
1. The most common image I associate with the word feedback is the horrible, spine-decalcifying squeal that sound systems emit by accident in a concert or speech setting. This type of feedback occurs when sound waves from speakers pass into a microphone and are re-amplified and cycled through the speakers again. I’m not sure that this is a perfectly technical application, but to me, it is a reminder that allowing my thoughts to loop and process around the opinions and words of others only creates increasing dissonance.
The solution is so simple: Move away from the source! Put some distance and intelligent boundaries between myself and destructive voices around me. Of course, simple is not the same as easy, and it takes practice. Until I get good at it, I can always try the time-honored tradition modeled for me by the girls of Friends: get the words out of my head and onto paper…and then burn them.
2. In medical terms, negative feedback is one of the control systems used by an organism to regulate internal functions regardless of external conditions or circumstances. In this system, the organism will automatically make changes in order to reduce something it is producing. For example, if my body is producing too much heat, it knows to excrete sweat to try and reduce the temperature.
Similarly, I can develop a set of pre-determined responses to negativity. Good examples include reading the Bible, calling a friend, creating a music playlist around the theme (not to include only revenge-based hits like “You Oughta’ Know” or almost anything by Linkin Park), etc. If I am prepared ahead of time, I’m less likely to lapse into bad habits or succumb to paralysis – no matter what is going on around me.
3. Feedback has become a popular concept in the workplace, indicating a form of ongoing training that helps employees learn what to do and how. Positive feedback involves praising the person for her strengths; negative feedback focuses on what the person is doing wrong, and then creating a strategy for how to change it.
This reminds me of a former pastor of mine, Rev. Tracy Saletta, who taught me to view difficult people as “life coaches.” By their very existence, antagonists create boot camp-level real-world experience in practicing the example of Jesus. Loathe as I am to give any credit to them, I know that there is value in this training, for character development if nothing else. I do not, of course, mean to indicate in any way that the life of a believer is best served as a doormat, because that’s not the model Jesus laid out at all. But can I pray for the ones who hurt me even as they are jeering and beating me up?
Or rather, will I?