The power of negative thinking is often overlooked in self-help literature, media, and coaching. Although positive thinking is emphasized, negative thoughts can be beneficial in motivating positive changes in people. This article explores the idea that humans are hardwired for negativity because it is a form of self-protection, and how negative thinking can be used as a motivator to drive people to work harder and achieve their goals. The article also provides examples of famous individuals who have used negative thoughts to motivate themselves to create positive outcomes. The effectiveness of both positive and negative motivation depends on the individual, and the article suggests that clinicians should determine what language style motivates each person to tap into their motivation effectively.
Being positive is often emphasized in the media and self-help literature as the only way to think and be motivated. However, there are times when negative thoughts can be very beneficial, where negative thinking can be a tremendous motivator for positive changes. You hear and read so much about staying positive that many coaches don’t realize the power of negative motivation. Consequently, if you’re not aware and keep trying to motivate someone with positive feedback only, you might miss that they wouldn’t be motivated the way you want them to be, and you might be working with someone who thrives more on negative feedback.
Humans are hardwired for negativity because it is a form of self-protection. From an evolutionary perspective, looking for potential threats and prioritizing negative information is advantageous to making quick decisions that may help us avoid that threat. The brain is designed to pay more attention to negative news, as it can be more helpful in helping us identify danger and make decisions that could save our lives. In the past, being aware of potential threats and ready to respond quickly and effectively was essential.
Negative thinking can be a great motivator if used in the right way. Negative thinking can drive you to want to do better and work harder to prove the negative thoughts wrong. For example, if you grew up poor, you can reframe that negative experience into a positive outcome by focusing on making money with a more profound commitment. Negative thoughts can also give you an added sense of urgency and importance to accomplish your goals. For example, you might take the same purpose of avoiding poverty by putting pressure on yourself by stating that you will have a million dollars by the time you’re 30 years old. And negative thoughts can be used as a form of self-reflection and help you identify areas of improvement and focus on achieving success. You can use negative thoughts like, “I’ll show them,” to take action and be driven to work hard to earn and acquire things that prove to others they were wrong about you after teasing you for being poor. This has often been the root of many people’s desire to improve themselves.
A great example of this is the overweight kid that was teased relentlessly. A behavior shift can occur when someone figures out how to use that negative experience to prove everyone else wrong. They lose all their weight, dress better, and relish it when their tormentors notice and compliment them. Instead of allowing negative thinking to bring you down, use it to remind you why you strive to succeed. Ask yourself what you are working towards and what achieving success means. Use the answers to those questions to motivate you. And this is where negative thoughts can benefit us and help improve our situations.
I almost exclusively used negative-positive motivation successfully as a young bodybuilder. A negative-positive motivator is when you reframe a negative thought or feeling so that it creates a positive outcome for yourself. I hated being skinny more than anything. No matter how big I became after lifting weights, I never allowed myself to feel big, so I kept pushing harder and harder to achieve more. And by seeing myself as too skinny, I barely missed a workout in 40 years. I never wanted to allow myself to feel big because I feared that I would lose my motivation the moment I felt big enough. Using your negative thoughts to create a positive outcome can be a great source of long-lasting motivation. Wanting to live long enough to see your kid’s kids, wanting to avoid an early death from a curable disease your parents died from, or even telling yourself that you don’t want to be the cause of your own death are all examples of motivation originating from negative thinking.
Many examples of famous people have used negative thoughts as motivation to create positive outcomes. Here are a few examples:
J.K. Rowling: The author of Harry Potter experienced a ton of rejections before finding success. She has spoken about how her negative thoughts, such as feeling like a failure, motivated her to keep writing and pursuing her dreams of being published.
Michael Jordan: Widely considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time, Jordan has used his negative thoughts, such as feeling like he wasn’t good enough, to motivate himself to work harder, practice more and improve.
Oprah Winfrey: As a child, Winfrey experienced abuse and poverty. She has spoken about how her negative experiences motivated her to work hard and create a better life. Today, she is one of the most successful and influential people in the world. She is ranked as the ninth-richest woman in the world, with a net worth of approximately $2.7 billion.
As a clinician, I needed to determine what language style motivated each individual. Praise and words of affirmation inspired some. Others were motivated by negativity and fear. To tap into those motivated by fear, I suggest things to generate it and support their fear-based motivation. For example, after weighing a person who expressed a desire to lose weight as they stepped off the scale, I might say something like, “so, how much heavier than this do you want to get?” When they responded with, “I don’t,” I’d say, “well, if you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you will be.” That worked well because their fear of weighing more was greater than the energy it would take to eat right.
Or, while reviewing their blood work, saying something like, “Wow, I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and your blood lipids are some of the worst I’ve ever seen! I’m surprised you haven’t had a heart attack yet.” I only used that technique when it was clear they would be motivated by it. But it worked well because their fear of dying from a heart attack was more significant than doing the work to avoid it.
Ultimately, the effectiveness of positive versus negative motivation depends on the specific context and individual. Both types of motivation can be effective in different situations, and it’s up to each person to determine what motivation works best for them.