There is a point of learning, a process of “turning the corner” that is evident after receiving negative feedback. For some, defensive reactions wall out learning, but for others who are willing to step forward — something not necessarily very easy — connection, learning and growth open a way to renewal. How does this positive turn happen?
It would be easy to chock this one up to self-esteem or necessity. A person who is strong can make the turn more easily or someone who is forced to by the fear of negative consequences, such as losing a job. But I believe there is more to it than that. It is a mystery of something that happens in the moment and that represents a definitive human capacity. Eventhough, for example, the brain may hold an excess of cortisol, which works against an open response, an option of deeper learning can begin to awaken. This is much more than the old homily: “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going.” It represents a charged spiritual capacity, something that is a product and co-creator of identity, meaning, inner connection and awareness. Imagine two managers who have each received negative feedback about their styles. The first moves into denial and blames others as fight/flight reflexes are triggered. The second notices the fight/flight reflexes at the outset but also quickly sees how neither is appropriate and chooses a different response. This is commonly called, emotional intelligence.
There are countless ways this shift out of fight/flight happen. But thinking about it is rarely enough. It’s not, after all, only one or two moments in our lives at work — it’s many of them, thousands of them happening mostly in very small bits. A person must become adept at noticing these subtle grades of “negative feedback” not just the obvious ones, such as a critical annual review, and not just through the words or actions of others but also through self-induced stressors, such as a habit of making negative comparisons to others’ accomplishments or talents. How then is the cortisol forestalled, especially in those situations where the stakes are high or the sources are so subtle and personal?
From an experiential perspective, I think the inner process looks something like what is described in this diagram:
You move initially from feedback to defense, for a moment or longer — or you may get stopped there, shuttling between avoidance and blame, or the multitude of other individual strategies designed to keep self-concept in tact. But if you learn to interrupt these patterns of defense, then you will find you also naturally begin to go deeper, to reflect first hand. It’s this capacity, to allow and even enable a crisis (big or small) that is essential to moving out of the cycles of confining self-protection. In spiritual literature, this is a move into the desert, where emptiness, not knowing, and confusion are the inevitable habitat of inner chimera and pressing realities. The job of the desert is to help us separate the two, and deal with them both, but it takes time. With practice the desert gradually becomes a kind of garden where growth constantly pushes beyond old forms.
At its best, the process is one of insight leading to new choices — to which we are drawn as the right ones, and within which we also sense a personal path that “has been given to us” and that touches the ground of being. Each time we touch this ground we are transformed a little more, awakened a little more. This process I call a personal transformation in the capacity to lead.
A critical question, if you are following this path, is how to do better holding on and waiting during the crisis, because we may feel scraped to the bone. It can be an intense experience of loneliness, separation, and difference from others. And this is precisely where the mystery is, I think: holding and sustaining yourself in the midst of discomfort. That has to be done in a certain way. It can’t be forced. It’s not just about control. Instead, you actively choose to unfold. You actively choose something intuitively better and different. And lo and behold, at the right moment, the doors do open and new choices appear. Circumstances and people welcome you. The season changes and at the moment of solstice when the darkness goes on longest, there is suddenly a celebration. You reach out and connect with a new honesty and greater respect. Your capacity to think improves. Serotonin kicks in. There’s synergy. There’s innovation.
In part, I believe the turn comes from practice. Once you’ve been to the desert a few times, it begins to not look so scary. In fact, true self-esteem does have at least part of its genesis, I believe, in becoming an experienced explorer. But the turn also is born from a very simple and honorable faith in the path, knowing that path really does touch the ground of being itself. It’s a path that has no name on it, or to be more exact, it has your name on it. And in this sense it is just the path called “I am.”