How to Understand Negativity and Let It Fuel Your Fire
Updated: Oct 8
Before I applied to become a health administrator in the Air Force, a complete stranger warned me, “It’s really hard to get. You don’t have the right degree, there’s a tough interview and you need really high scores on the GRE or GMAT. You probably won’t get it.” Then he shared several examples of other people who had been successfully accepted into the program, as if to show me how much better than me they were. They had masters degrees in health administration or undergraduate business degrees. They had real world work experience in the field of health administration.
He was right. I didn’t have a qualifying degree or any related work experience. Maybe he was trying to save me the heartache of being disappointed.
But I didn't take it that way. I was offended. He didn't know me. All he saw was a college kid working on an undergraduate degree in Chinese. So in the words of Barney Stinson, I said, "Challenge accepted," and moved forward with an application.
If it had been anyone else who tried to help manage my expectations, like someone I actually knew, I don’t know if I would have applied.
He may not have meant it negatively, but I took it that way.
People often face negativity about their hopes, dreams and goals. Negativity is very discouraging and can come from one of several places:
Peers, friends and coworkers
Society or culture
Negativity from Self
In my opinion, this is likely the most common form of negativity that we encounter.
We talk ourselves out of pursuing a dream or goal by convincing ourselves we’re not good enough. We look for evidence to support this. We try once and give up after the first failure. We tell ourselves we don’t have time, that we have other priorities or that now isn’t the time.
We compare ourselves to other people. We look at the things friends, acquaintances and strangers post on social media and tell ourselves, I will never be that good. But as Lauren M. Hug points out in her book Digital Kindness, people post things that show the best versions of themselves.
And we let it hold ourselves back.
Negativity from Loved Ones
I’d like to think the people who love us want to support us the most. But sometimes that support comes in the form of what some consider realism or expectation management. And it can be construed as negativity.
It’s one thing to hear someone say, "Yes, I believe you can do it, but just be prepared to work hard to get it." And it's a totally different thing to hear, "You’re so lazy, what makes you think you can do it?"
Getting feedback like that from someone you love is extra difficult because you value their opinion. And because you value their opinion, you have a high chance of believing they’re right. No matter how much you try to put their words out of your head, their comments have a way to come back and haunt you and let you second guess yourself.
But what if it’s culturally acceptable? It’s not abnormal for Chinese parents to say what they want and expect their children to heed what they say. So yes, full grown adults are expected to accept what their parents have to say. And sometimes, what they have to say is quite harsh! In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua says, “Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, ‘Hey fatty - lose some weight.’” But the comment comes from a place of love. Allegedly.
Even if feedback comes from a place of love, it doesn’t make it any easier to hear. But it does make it very easy to internalize.
Negativity from Peers, Friends or Coworkers
I shared a story about a Cadet who was discouraged from applying to the Air Force Academy because “people like us don’t go to schools like that.” This story is so disheartening because I’m sure she would have appreciated support from her community.
Why do people get so negative about other peoples’ hopes, dreams and goals?
They could be jealous, fearful or threatened. Perhaps they don’t like change, or the idea of you doing something different means they are falling behind. And if they can't have a certain success, neither should you. This has been described as a crab in a bucket mentality.
Whatever the reasons, their negativity is about them, not you. However, much like with loved ones, it’s easy for you to internalize the negativity and believe they’re right.
Similarly, supervisors or bosses who are negative about your plans for success are often coming from a place of fear or jealousy.
Supervisors who are threatened by ambitious or more talented subordinates find ways to put them down. They are afraid to be outshined by the brilliance of a subordinate and have their inadequacies unveiled, so they refuse to support new ideas or tell them their work is not good enough. Or they refuse to let the subordinate pursue a promotion because they fear losing a talented teammate.
Because they are in a position of authority over you, it's easy to believe what they have to say. In these situations, understand that it's about them and not you.
Society or Culture
In a previous career, my husband was an instructor pilot and taught young aviators the basics of being a fighter pilot. Every once in a while, his squadron would teach people from other countries. One of his students was from Saudi Arabia. When the student pilot informed his mother that he once flew with a female instructor pilot, his mother gasped and said, “But you didn’t let her actually fly the plane, did you?”
This comment may seem absurd to someone from a Western culture, because how else would an instructor pilot teach if she didn’t actually fly the plane? Yet, Saudi Arabian culture does not permit women to drive cars, let alone fly airplanes. It was a logical question when viewed in terms of her culture.
In a fictional example, Elizabeth is the main character in the novel Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmut. She’s a chemist and the only female scientist in her research organization. Her story takes place in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Elizabeth is told in a million different ways that women shouldn’t be scientists. She’s expected to make coffee when none of her male counterparts are. She’s paid much less than her male counterparts. She doesn’t get credit for the work she does. She’s told to stay quiet about her opinions because they didn’t fit the cultural expectations. She may be a fictional character but her experiences aren’t unique to her.
We get a lot of signs and signals from culture and society about what we can and cannot achieve. There may be cultural consequences to challenging the norms and it certainly wasn’t easy for Elizabeth. It’s up to you to decide whether it’s worth pushing the boundaries.
How to Overcome Negativity
1. Do Your Research and Develop a Plan
People might tell you your dreams need to be realistic, but how does one define realistic? When the Wright brothers dreamed of finding a way to fly a heavier-than-air, powered machine, people scoffed and thought this was unrealistic. Yet they proved everyone wrong. But they didn’t go to sleep one day and wake up with the idea to create an airplane. They had a methodical plan and they kept trying again and again until they were successful. You must have a plan for how you will achieve that dream.
2. Visualize Yourself Achieving Your Dream
If you can’t see yourself achieving your dream, why should anyone else? You must believe in yourself and be willing to put in the work to get there. Visualizing your success will also keep you focused on your goals.
3. Focus on the Goal but Learn from the Journey
Your journey may be a long and difficult one, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. If you’ve developed a solid plan, then you have a road map to your goal. Sometimes you’ll have detours or setbacks, but as long as you remain focused and committed, you will find your way back to the road. Most of the time, the journey is just as, if not more, important than the goal itself. Remember to learn from your detours and setbacks and value the experience of your journey.
4. Scrutinize the Feedback
There are many reasons why people might discourage you. Take a look at the feedback you receive from others and understand where it’s coming from. If you believe you have what it takes to succeed at what you’re trying to achieve, then tell yourself it’s just one person’s opinion and take it with a grain of salt. Then keep pushing.
5. Examine the Evidence
Just as you can find evidence to support why you can’t, you can just as easily find evidence to support why you can. Keep this in mind as you try. Don’t talk yourself out of doing something. Your chances of getting something is always zero if you don’t try.
Just think of the wonderful feeling you’ll get when you achieve something you’ve worked very hard to get. And let's be real here. That sense of satisfaction when you prove your naysayers wrong is an even better feeling.
I applied to be an Air Force health administrator and was accepted. I guess my interview and test scores were good enough after all.
Minutes before I signed my paperwork with my ROTC commander to make it official, someone at the Air Force Personnel Center called my ROTC Detachment with concerns. This person had scrutinized my record again and questioned whether the five business classes I took were going to be sufficient for me as a future health administrator. (Fun fact, I haven't used any of the skills I learned in those classes at any point during my career.) We talked through this and he relented. Then he told me I submitted the incorrect GRE test scores. We talked through this as well, and I helped him understand that I had indeed submitted the correct scores. With no further objections, he allowed us to sign the papers. We faxed them over as quickly as possible, before he could change his mind!
Here I am, twenty years later. I may not be the most talented health administrator the Air Force has ever seen, but I've held my own. I still smile to myself when I think of anyone who underestimated me. Yes, it feels damn good to have proven them wrong.
Comment below: Have you ever been told you’re not good enough and what did you do about it?