The Surprising Truth About Negativity and Motivation

negativityI’m supposed to tell you that negativity is bad.

Think positive.

Don’t let fear control you.

Envision the good you want in 2014.

But vision boards and positive thinking are only half of the motivation story.

What you’re moving towards tells you which road to take. What you’re moving away from is the fuel that keeps you going.

At least, it is for me.

I learned this from my friend Tim Brownson. He taught me that some people are motivated by what they want and others are more easily motivated by what they don’t want. And, more importantly, he taught me that both are completely OK.

Negativity helped me quit smoking.

After several attempts, I finally quit smoking for good about three years ago. I wrote down my reasons for quitting and my plan of action. I used all the exercises offered by the quit smoking website, and I used a prescription medication for one month.

But what really made the difference for me was negativity.

I quit smoking because I didn’t want to keep telling my daughter she couldn’t sit on my lap.

I had a very clear picture in my mind of my little girl trying to snuggle up to me… and me pushing her away because I didn’t want her to be affected by the cigarette I was holding.

emma's faceThat vision of me shooing away my affectionate child twisted my stomach.

Every time I thought about lighting up, I remembered that gut wrench. To this day, I can call it to mind easily if I’m ever tempted to pair a bottle of wine with a box of cigarettes.

Negativity motivated me to fix my marriage.

Jared and I needed marriage counseling for probably five years before we ever walked into a counselor’s office. It’s obvious to me now when I go back and read really old blog posts and diary entries, but back then it was something we should do someday.

We talked about it. We said we’d look into it after particularly nasty fights.

And then we spent our money and time elsewhere.

Things weren’t that bad.

I couldn’t imagine how much better they could be.

And then things were as bad as they could get. Then there was no other choice but to ask for help to fix it.

Putting the pieces of our marriage back together was hard. There were moments when I wanted to stop trying so hard, to stop listening and to stop apologizing. But the memory of our darkest days – and of how twisted I’d let my soul become in the process – kept me pushing forward, just as much as any hope of what we might become.

There are times even now when I don’t want to listen or apologize. I want to fight easily instead of fairly. I want to be right.

And then I remember how bad things can get… and I push forward (or, in my case, stop pushing so damn hard.)

Negativity motivates me to work harder.

I was not always a writer and speaker. I spent a lot of years selling stuff, and I was good at it. It is easy for me, and my mind goes there quickly when I am tired of learning new skills, pitching new ideas, and stretching outside my comfort zone.

But I hated working in sales. I hate the never-ending treadmill and the crash that comes from realizing you just sold a product that will never be as good as you want it to be.

I never want to do that again. I never want to spend my days trading my integrity for an income, coming home angry with my life and taking it out on my husband and kids.

And so, I push forward on the hard days.

remember what you're running from

Negativity can make your life better.

It’s OK to admit that there are things in your life you want to change.

It’s OK to let yourself really feel anger, disappointment, guilt, sadness, or disillusionment sometimes. Give it a face and legs and let it walk around in your gut for a little bit so you can finally admit to yourself that something needs to change.

And then imagine your life without that blackness.

Imagine that ugly thing got up and walked right out of you, out of your life, and left something good in it’s place. What would that look like?

That’s when positive thinking can help you fill in the gaps, tell you what steps to take.

When those steps get hard – and they will – remember what you’re running from. You’ll keep running. You’ll run far enough that what you’re running towards won’t be so hard to see anymore. You’ll get so close that it would be foolish to stop.


Until then, a little bit of negativity can do a lot of good.

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  1. Ms. Are says:

    Remembering what I’m running WITH (alcoholism) keeps me away from it. I’m in a race, and I’m always just barely ahead of the old alcoholic in me. I keep moving forward and that means it will never catch up with me again. If I pause, it’ll be right behind me scaring the shit out of me. I’ve got to keep moving forward.
    Ms. Are’s most recent post: Feelings for 2014

    • Britt Reints says:

      That was another mental shift that made a difference when I quit smoking, I think. I had to accept that for me smoking is and always will be an addiction. I can’t have just one or I’ll be back to two packs a day instantly.

      My Nana was a recovering alcoholic for about 30 years. Then, in her 70s, she thought she should *be able to* have one beer on a plane ride home from Italy.

      She never recovered again.

  2. Carrie says:

    I agree.
    Have you seen Saving Mr Banks? I’m totally working on a blog post in my head called “What I Learned About Happiness From Saving Mr. Banks”. (Would you like it for a guest post?!)

    Anyway, Walt Disney and PL Travers both had successes built on a major pain point: Disney’s abusive father and Travers’ alcoholic dad and his early death.

    I can think of lots of examples of this!
    Carrie’s most recent post: How I Did With December’s Goals

    • Britt Reints says:

      Unfortunately, I haven’t seen it and have already read a bunch of “this isn’t how it was in real life!” articles to be able to just sit back and enjoy the dang thing now!!

      • Carrie says:

        Sticking fingers in ears like a little kid… “I can’t hear you! I can’t hear you!”

        Carrie’s most recent post: Favorite Books of 2013

      • Megan says:

        I’m completely ignoring those articles and going to see it this afternoon so I can enjoy it as a movie, not a documentary.

        Living with a cop made me realize that creative license is essential when producing entertainment. Real life often isn’t as interesting (although in this case that might not be so).
        Megan’s most recent post: Sun Day

  3. Megan says:

    I think it’s how you use your emotions that count. Negative feelings are bad only if they keep you stuck rather than keep you moving forward.
    Megan’s most recent post: Sun Day

    • Britt Reints says:

      TRUTH! And not just your emotions, but your judgment.

      I can imagine a scenario as a good observer, taking note of my physiological responses, etc. without having to cross into “AND THEREFORE YOU SUCK AS A PERSON!!” territory.

      That’s a crucial line for me.

  4. Melissa says:

    This makes so much sense. We tend to wait until things get bad enough to make changes that we really need to make. I wish it weren’t that way but it is what it is. The beautiful thing is we are amazing beings, capable of almost any kind of change once we put our hearts and minds into it. Then of course finding the right tools to help us along can be key in hitting it all into a home run.
    Melissa’s most recent post: It’s Time For You To Heal

  5. I often use both in conjunction with each other to keep me motivated. Some days I dream of a future in which I’m in control of my time and projects and have what I want for my life. And other days, I’m thinking about the countless events and hangouts with friends I miss because I have to tutor at times that are convenient for others and not myself. Both thoughts work to keep me motivated, but it depends on how I’m feeling that day.

    I’ve never put it in terms of positive or negative, probably because of the bad connotation to negative thoughts, but I think that’s a very useful way of looking at it.
    Ryan Bonaparte’s most recent post: Shattering The Perception of Passion

  6. Great post Brit – I really believe we need to find that balance between what motivates us – negativity, sorrow are always the flip side of positivity, joy.
    Kathy – yinyangmother’s most recent post: Unresolved – done with resolutions!

  7. I walk a fine line with using negativity as a motivator. I tend to bully myself, so am often fighting myself. I’d like to try to convert that negativity into a more productive image, like what you’re describing here!
    Elizabeth Barone’s most recent post: My Goals for 2014

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