Bringing Out Our Best
Relationships are mirrors.
I’ve read this a thousand different times and it always sort of bothered me. It seemed true but abstract, like I needed an advanced degree or an Edgar Cayce guide to interpret the meaning. It was an occult study that I would never really understand. I didn’t always try. There were many relationships I was careful not to spend much time analyzing. What did their reflection on me matter anyway? They were usually temporary and I’d eventually be back on my own.
Which didn’t bother me much, I’ve always been a bit of an introvert. I truly enjoy time alone and the ability to think and act solely on my own behalf. Considering women's history, that act itself is revolutionary. But as I get older, I realize some of my solitary nature has been a way to insulate myself from the profound discomfort of relationships. For a long time, relationships haven’t felt nourishing to me. They’ve been emotionally draining and complicated. Unconscious. Compulsive. Too much, not enough. Obligatory. It’s been hard to find a healthy balance where it seems like everyone is getting their needs met. It doesn’t help that most of us don’t know what our needs are.
When others are dismissive or needy, overbearing or closed off, unconscious or inconsiderate, it‘s hard for me to see value in staying connected. Have you been there? I’m no glutton for toxic cycles, I’ve ended relationships over all of these symptoms or just the feeling that repairing it is too much work.
It wasn’t until I started cultivating relationships with one key quality that I began to recognize that yes, finally, this was healthy for everyone. Invite this into your relationships and they will deepen and sweeten and come alive. You will begin to grow and stretch beyond what you thought possible. It’s consistent water and sunlight to an olive tree. The magic stuff is, drumroll please, feedback.
Feedback is a bit of a rarity in our culture, or at least good feedback is. I’m not talking about the armchair critics, hot takes, or an exercise in semantics. It’s not overly critical, unsolicited, distracted or fawning.
Good feedback is generous, assuming a positive intent and building on it. It’s curious, inquisitively peeling back layers and digging deeper. It’s honest, it doesn’t pull punches or sugar coat things. And it’s empathetic, understanding that sharing ourselves and our work is vulnerable and legitimately terrifying.
I got a crash course in good feedback from Seth Godin’s altMBA, a month-long intensive I took last year that involved giving and receiving feedback with my cohort over 130 times. “This was really good” didn’t cut it. Instead, it was sitting with people’s work, letting them know what parts resonated, what parts left you wondering. Reframing their work back to them to see if you understood. Asking deeper questions of them, calling them out if they slipped into defensive or rote behaviors, or the ever-looming problem of thinking small.
It was life-changing. Suddenly people were reading my work and deeply inquiring into it, into me. What was I really trying to say? Why did I choose the topics or arguments I chose? Was I thinking big enough? Where was I going with all this?
And I got to go behind the curtain with others, participating as people synthesized their points and made realizations, delighting in how we open up when we feel safe and seen. It revealed people’s goodness, our ripest, juiciest fruits, bringing out our best. It was amazing. I learned just as much from giving feedback as receiving it.
It wasn’t a new age space, we didn’t gaze into each other’s eyes for minutes on end. It was sort of billed as a business course. There were tough questions and research-backed techniques to improve our cognitive abilities. There were CEOs, middle managers, even Republicans! But it was the most connected I’ve ever felt to a group of complicated humans. It isn’t that these people were unlike anyone else (although they are most certainly wonderful). Simply, the feedback loops fostered an environment of trust, of support, of community and courage.
Six months later, I continue to grow through the feedback connections I now make a point to cultivate. Everything I’ve published on Medium has gone through a ringer and I can assure you, is much, much better for it. I have a newfound appreciation for editors and the acknowledgment pages of books. People who read drafts of manuscripts deserve to have their names printed in them. It’s an incredibly generous act to give your time and energy to others in the form of meaningful feedback.
I’ve been able to reflect that the underlying reasons why I’ve written off relationships in the past were because the feedback process was missing or dysfunctional. It’s now something I look for and is a “must have” for whoever becomes my next partner — in crime or otherwise. We need to learn how to give and receive generous feedback in order to keep our relationships healthy and evolving. We need it to reflect upon ourselves in order to become our best.
Slowly relationships are mirrors, but not in a complicated and mystifying way. They’re direct, honest, they reflect my best back to me, as well as my blind spots. The qualities I feed the system are mirrored back to me, changing my world in large and small ways. The courage I cultivate clears the cloudy film from the surface. I don’t have to spend a lot of energy interpreting signs. I just have to look.