I received an interesting question via email the other day. Here it is:
"I have a quick question about your book that came up during our book study last week, regarding the fact that we get many painful limiting messages during childhood. A man said one of his professors in college said “you will never become an engineer.” He used that message as motivation, “I’ll show you, he thought!” (He became a VERY successful Engineer.)
So the question this gentleman posed (in our group) was: “if we never received any negative messages, how would we motivate ourselves to succeed?” Or, another way to phrase that would be: Can we also use negative messages as motivation?"
An excellent question! Thank you.
There is a deeply held belief in our culture that negative messaging is necessary to the point of being essential for each of us to function successfully as individuals, and for our society to operate cohesively as a whole. I spend a lot of time attempting to persuade people to relinquish their "self-hatred" (that's the name I use to categorize the various forms of judgment and criticism, both internal and external, that people subject themselves to on a moment-by-moment basis), and there is often a great unwillingness to do it. The belief is so pervasive and so violently reinforced, especially with children, that many, possibly most, are unwilling to let it go.
The question you ask, from my point of view, boils down to this: is self-hatred useful as a motivator? I would say it depends upon what you're going for.
As children we are punished for being who we are. That's how we are controlled by the people raising us and forced to conform to the norms of society. Beginning at an early age we are taught that there is something wrong with us, that who we are authentically is not okay, and we need to become someone different than who we are--to be "good", "the right person", etc., instead--and we are punished if we do not set ourselves earnestly to this task. Eventually we acquire the unfortunate ability to punish ourselves whenever we are authentic. This is the birth of self-hatred. Gradually as we work to identify ourselves as the person our world requires us to be we lose track of our authentic nature, and eventually forget who we are all-together.
This process of our socialization is remarkably effective. If what we're going for is people who will conform, who will follow the rules, who will not question the selfishness and the violence embedded in our society, and so on, then the negative messaging of self-hatred is useful indeed. The trouble, of course, is that this process does not produce people who are happy, or a society that nurtures justice, peace, and other good things. If what we want is people who are deeply contented, who naturally respond with generosity and love, who have the courage to put the good of the whole above self-interest, and who live in peace, then criticism and judgment are not useful at all, and in fact are woefully counter-productive.
I would love to know what truly went on in the heart and mind of your friend the engineer. When the professor said, "You will never be an engineer", what really happened? One possibility, certainly, is that our friend responded from his conditioning. I've done this myself more times than I can count. Over and over through my life I've interpreted things people have said according to my childhood programming, assuming that they mean to communicate that there is something wrong with me, that I am inadequate or incompetent in some way, and other things I was taught to believe. And this sort of interpretation has indeed been motivating, as it compelled me to try and overcome the thing that was wrong with me, whatever that was, and to do outward things I might not otherwise have done. It never led me to success, however--not in any real sense. As long as I believed the self-hatred and accepted the assumption that there was something wrong with me I could not allow myself to truly succeed. I needed to try to succeed and fail, because this was best calculated to reinforce self-hatred.
The fact that our friend the engineer has actually succeeded suggests that there has been something else going on over time than a purely self-hating process. Self-hatred almost certainly has had a role, but I have a hunch that something better and more powerful actually produced the success he has experienced. There is another form of motivation available, one that may call true greatness out of a person and lead towards real joy and happiness. The thing is, in our authentic nature we are creative, energetic, determined, focused, and motivated beyond anything self-hatred can produce. When I look at the great things that humans have accomplished, whether that be in art, science, service, or even in the everyday business of the world, it seems clear that these things came out of the inherent passion for life and the love of learning, growth, and self-expression that we all possess naturally in our authentic nature. When we are in touch with who we truly are we can accomplish wonderful things, and we do so naturally and without self-consciousness. Perhaps the professor's remark woke our friend up to what he needed to do, but I'm betting it was his inherent intelligence and vitality that actually got the job done. I'd love to know how he sees this if he doesn't mind and you feel like telling me.
Thanks for the great question! If my response misses the mark in some way let me know and I'll try again.