Every 90’s girl can easily quote the line from Legally Blonde where Elle Woods responds to her ex-boyfriend’s dismissal of her by declaring “I’ll show you how valuable Elle Woods can be!” before going on to do exactly what he claimed she wasn’t capable of. Or when Han Solo memorably said, “Never tell me the odds” while navigating the supposedly impassable asteroid field. More recently, Khloe Kardashian turned her post-breakup makeover into an entire television series called Revenge Bodies.
While these sorts of prove-them-wrong stories are empowering and inspiring, they promote a dangerous idea. By embarking on a quest for revenge, you’re putting your value squarely in the hands of someone who has already wronged you. Since you’ve already been hurt and diminished by this person, you inadvertently give them the power to determine how you feel about yourself. Elle Woods became a great lawyer to prove her ex-boyfriend wrong about her intelligence. Khloe Kardashian overhauled her body to make her boyfriend regret cheating on her.
Motivation is, in most cases, a very positive thing that can help build the behaviors that will lead you to your goals. It’s not a bad thing to want to get in shape after a breakup or to take extra classes when you get passed up for a promotion. What determines if your motivation is going to have a positive or negative effect on your life comes down to what your intention is. If you want to hit the gym after a breakup because you want to regain your confidence, that’s healthy. If you want a new body to make your ex jealous or regretful, that’s unhealthy. Basically, your litmus test should be whether or not your motivation is intended to create a reaction in someone else.
The Costs of Revenge
When you use revenge as a motivation, you’re setting yourself up to fail. First, you’re gift-wrapping all of your power and handing it over to someone else who has already diminished you. They become the arbiter of your worth, and you become Gepetto’s little wooden puppet boy. Second, you can easily lose sight of what really matters to you. This happened to me early in my career when an executive told me I’d never achieve my goal of getting to a certain position by my 30th birthday. My wounded pride wanted to prove him wrong, so I worked my tail off for nearly a decade and I achieved my goal with six months to spare. Unfortunately, it was only then that I realized that the executive who’d hurt my feelings in the first place wasn’t as important and influential as I’d thought. And worse, I realized I didn’t even like the job. I was so blinded by this vision of triumph that I unwittingly made decisions and sacrifices based on what that one person would think. In hindsight, the executive in question probably forgot what he’d said to me shortly after he said it. Mine was a hollow victory, and yours will be too if proving someone wrong is your objective.
Check Your Motivation
Make it a practice to routinely review your goals and the motivation behind your desire to achieve them. Journaling works great for me, but you may find talking to a spouse or trusted friend works better for you. Whatever the method, be honest with yourself. It might sting for a moment to realize you’ve given your power away and potentially wasted time and effort, but you give yourself the opportunity to course-correct and realign your life with the things that matter to you.
And really, living a happy and fulfilled life by your own standards is the best revenge anyway.