When I think of negativity, I am always reminded of a man I'll call Joe. It was the late 80's, my husband was fresh out of college and working at a tech startup. We were attending his first official holiday party and visiting with several of his colleagues when Joe joined our group.
Joe had an empty wine glass in one hand, and by the volume of his voice, I was pretty sure it wasn't his first drink of the night. He thrust his other hand out at me and said, "Hi. I'm Joe."
I shook his hand, and, making polite small talk, asked him what he did for the company.
"Not a damn thing," he replied, loud enough for two of the company's founders to turn around and take note.
After some nervous laughter on my part, Joe continued, "I haven't done a damn thing here since 1986."
We quickly made our escape, but I listened to Joe as he moved from group to group complaining about the projects he was being assigned and just how underused his many talents were in his current position. Joe was obviously not satisfied in his job, but it was also obvious that he enjoyed the attention he gained from complaining and making shocking statements about his plight. He'd found just enough pleasure in complaining that it kept him from taking action to change his situation.
Whether or not we're like Joe -- making just enough bluster to avoid facing difficult change -- here are two more types of negativity that will hold us back from realizing our dreams.
The Fault Finder
One of the easiest ways to avoid facing the scary parts of ourselves is to focus on the faults of others. When we feel inadequate, it can be a lot easier to tear someone else down to our level than to acknowledge our own insecurities and figure out how to move forward. In the best-selling book Wonder Women: How Western Women Will Save the World, we find this advice: "If you feel jealous or envious, examine the reasons why you are experiencing that emotion instead of projecting your negative feelings onto her choices."
Listen to yourself the next time you're sitting with a group of your peers. Do you gossip about someone who isn't there? Do you find reasons why someone else's success, award, or promotion isn't due to their hard work? Are you the one with a quick quip, a snarky joke about others? If so, you may be using negativity to cover up feelings of inadequacy or envy, and when we're focusing on why someone else shouldn't be getting ahead, we're preventing ourselves from moving forward. What is it that you're afraid will happen if you go for an opportunity? What's the worst that can happen? We can live through humiliation, defeat, or losing -- and we usually find that we are the better for it. But it is really hard to live with the disappointment we feel when we hold back from taking risks that could move us ahead.
The Problem Solver
One of the most effective ways to mask negativity is to wrap it in the guise of solving problems. We all need to have the voice of reason as part of what we listen to, but if you find yourself continually offering advice on why something won't work, you might need to take a step back. If your voice of reason usually results in not taking a step forward, not trying something before all of the wrinkles are ironed out, then you might want to ask yourself if fear of failure is behind the litany of negativity. While we must be willing to see the pitfalls that we might not have considered, we should also embrace Thomas Edison's attitude when he said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Despite the trend among some in startup culture who celebrate failure as some kind of badge honor, it shouldn't be celebrated. It can make us cavalier about the costs associated with failing. But neither should failure be so feared that it paralyzes us. Failure is part of the process, and we have to be prepared to get back up and find a different way around a problem if we want to find success. When we focus on the ways something hasn't worked, it is so much more difficult to see the possibility of success. If we find a better balance between hopefulness and negativity when solving problems, we'll be better equipped to move forward with the appropriate preparation to find success.
I well remember a moment in my own journey when negativity just about derailed not only my own happiness but also my family's. Despite flourishing as a wife, stay-at-home mom, and writer, the regret of quitting college -- especially the regret of wasting what my father had worked so hard to pay for -- it ate at me. When my youngest enrolled in school, I decided it was time to go back to school and finish my degree. But it soon became clear that our little family needed me to be more present. Although I knew it was the best choice, it didn't keep me from spending a great deal of energy feeling sorry for myself.
And then I remembered the words of my great-grandmother, "Your pity party will never make you happy, and it won't make anyone else feel sorry for you. It's your job to find your own gumption, so figure out to be happy with what you have." I made the conscious choice to see this change in my plans as a new opportunity to spend more time with my children. Not only was my family happier, but I was, too. And I found that when I finally started pursuing my own career a few years later, I had absolutely no regrets. A couple of years before my father passed away, he told me how proud he was of me. I learned that his approval didn't depend on a piece of paper but in finding a way to let go of the negativity of regret and fear and in finding courage to pursue a different path to success.