“I want to give you some feedback,” a senior co-worker said to me recently. Ugh, I thought as I leaned back in my chair, draping my left arm draped over its top, the casual posture attempting to convey (almost defiantly), “Oh yeah? I can take your feedback. See how relaxed and nonchalant I am?”
I took a deep breath, bracing myself as my co-worker proceeded to proffer the feedback. Then he told me that he appreciated me, that he liked the way I think, and that he trusted me. And he thought I should know.
When I returned to my desk, hot tears pooled behind my eyes, and then, to my horror, began to run down my cheeks. And it was only 10 o’clock. Even as the emotions erupted, another saner part of me was watching all of it, simultaneously fascinated and baffled by the train-wreck who sat sniffling at my desk.
“What’s wrong?” I asked myself.
“Someone was nice to me— really, really nice to me,” I replied pitifully.
The absurdity of that conversation echoed in my head. Clearly I was missing something important, but what exactly? Had the feedback triggered some deep, unhealed place, purposely buried in my psyche?
My ragged and fragile emotions tempted me to go down the rabbit hole of self-doubt and self-criticism. But both felt glib and false. Something else was going on here. Why had I become so unsettled by someone’s heartfelt appreciation?
Having no idea what to do with the raw energy, scrambled thoughts, and tears (tears!) that seemed to leak out of every nerve ending, I did nothing. Since I couldn’t contain or make sense of them, I just let them come. The intense emotions continued to unfurl through lunch, a very long afternoon, and my drive home. Unbeknownst to busy co-workers in cubes next to me, I was having a meltdown on any old Thursday at work…while sitting at my desk.
In the days following this uncomfortable incident, I began to notice something subtle, yet astonishing. Things that could have tweaked or offended me simply didn’t. Critical comments went right past me. I wasn’t pretending they didn’t affect me. They didn’t even register. Only much later as I replayed events in my mind would I realize (with awe) I hadn’t been bothered. I wasn’t filtering every relationship, conversation, and casual comment through my prickly defenses. My mid-week meltdown had dismantled them.
These defenses have fundamental weaknesses, allowing criticism to not only enter, but to ricochet violently, simultaneously blocking basic kindness – or appreciation – from reaching us. The advice that we shouldn’t care so much about what people think about us is wise indeed. But that doesn’t mean we can’t care. In between the two extremes of caring too much and caring too little, we miss a simple truth: only an open heart has the space big enough to absorb any criticism and the depth to recognize another person’s kindness.
Because old habits continue to tempt me to fortify my defenses, I appreciate the occasional meltdown as a quick route to re-opening my heart. That said, I’m starting to consider a simpler option: why not just leave it open?