“Doubters will never achieve; skeptics do not contribute; cynics do not create.” — Calvin Coolidge
What are the most hurtful criticisms you’ve ever received? Was it from a teacher, coach, or old boy/girlfriend? You were sharing a goal, dream, or just a part of yourself, and before you knew it, you were met with some type of rebuke, spanning from a raised eyebrow to a sharp critique: “You think you can do that?” “That’ll never work.” “Really, you?!?” These comments cut deep, deflating our hopes, and lodging themselves in our minds.
When we get hurt like these, many of us go into “I’m going to prove them wrong” mode. These negative memories accumulate, and by our twenties we each have a list of people who have doubted, discouraged, or put down either our ideas or who we were. While the other person often doesn’t even know the hurt they’ve caused, these brief moments sear themselves into our mind. We’re each tempted to hold tight to these slights, and to use them as fuel to prove them all wrong.
I received my fair share of critiques in my twenties. “You’re a danger to the church,” one pastor told me as I was finishing seminary. “You don’t seem to have any direction in life,” one girlfriend told me as she broke up with me. “You think that will actually work?” more than one “friend” responded when I told them about an idea. These words cut deep, creating wounds that I didn’t soon forget. And so, when I moved to New York City, I used these memories to motivate myself, telling myself I was going to prove all of these doubters wrong.
why you remember the doubters
Why do we all struggle with past slights and critiques? One major reason is because we all have something called a negativity bias, an inherent ability to remember negative situations so much more vividly than positive ones. We all quickly forget most compliments, praise, and situations that go well, but latch onto any criticism, hurtful comments, or rejection that we experience, remembering these negative situations much longer than the positive ones.
But since we’re ‘nice’ people, we never mention anything out loud, and instead try to get back at them indirectly by doing the things they said we couldn’t. Society tells us, and we quickly believe, that the best revenge is a life well lived. So we use the negative comments from our past to motivate ourselves, both to show them how wrong they were, and to punish them for the hurt we feel.
This desire for “achievement revenge” can create incredible motivation, which is why everyone, from pro athletes to Taylor Swift, use it. For me, these past slights fueled my desire to make it in New York, causing me to push myself towards dreams. After a few years, my hard work started to pay off, as my cleaning business took off and I got a job at a big church. “See,” I lectured my past doubters in my mind, “You were wrong; I can do everything you said I couldn’t.” But something still wasn’t right.
a broken solution
I had accomplished what they said I couldn’t, but the pain and hurt of their words still didn’t leave. I felt like I still needed to do more, to punish them for criticizing and rejecting me. At this moment, I realized no amount of achievement could make the hurt go away. For years I thought that if I showed their critique was wrong my hurt would disappear, but now it seemed more entrenched than ever.
And then it struck me: no amount of achievement could ever solve the real problem, which was the anger and bitterness in my heart. Trying to prove my past doubters wrong was only pushing my hurt deeper into my life, not freeing me from it. They all now lived thousands of miles away, and I didn’t have contact with any of them, even through social media.
a better way
Eventually, I realized that instead of trying to get achievement revenge, I needed to forgive them for the hurt they’d caused me. Forgiveness! you may be thinking, there’s no way I can forgive that person. We all naturally hate forgiveness, and want justice for how other people have hurt us. To forgive them, we think, is to let them off the hook without fair punishment. And so we “punish” them indirectly, hoping they’ll get word of how well we’re doing and feel bad.
But Jesus tells a story for people like us. He said there was a manager who owed millions of dollars to the king. When the king came to put him in jail for his debts, he begged for forgiveness, and the king had mercy on him, wiping his debt off the books. Immediately after leaving, though, the manager ran into someone who owed him a small amount, and demanded that this man pay him back immediately. The manager ignored the man’s pleas, and threw him into prison until he could repay.
This is what we do, Jesus says, when we refuse to forgive people from our past. We’re like this manager, punishing everyone else for the tiniest of sins, while expecting Jesus to forgive us for the major ways we’ve rejected him, critiqued him, and wanted nothing to do with him and his way. When you remember how much grace Jesus has shown you, by taking your punishment on the cross and constantly extending forgiveness, it will soften your self-righteous heart and allow you to forgive people from your past.
a positive path forward
Do you have people from your past that you’re trying to ‘punish’ through your achievement, even if you'd never use that word. The forgiveness we’ve been shown in Jesus allows us to quit trying to prove our doubters wrong, and instead compels us to forgive them for the pain they’ve caused. This is the only way to be released from any hatred and bitterness that you still carry in your heart.
And when you stop trying to prove your doubters wrong, it frees you to instead work to prove your encouragers right. Whenever I’m tempted to use past hurts for inspiration, I remind myself to focus on all of the people who have supported me, believed in me, and encouraged me through life. Working to prove your encouragers right gives me so much motivation, as I use my gifts to reach my potential and honor their investment in me.
This shift is so life-giving, as your old wounds melt away and you shift your thoughts to all of the people who want to see you do well. While forgiveness will alway be harder than nursing past bitterness, we experience true freedom when we understand how much Jesus has forgiven us, and extend this forgiveness to the people in our pasts.