Madonna's Tenacity: Naysayers Can Be a Source of Motivation

Lessons from Madonna's poignant "2016 Woman of the Year" Billboard speech.

Posted Dec 15, 2016

Gary Heery/Warner Bros.
Source: Gary Heery/Warner Bros.

A few days ago, Madonna was given Billboard magazine's 2016 "Woman of the Year" award. In her empowering, tear-filled acceptance speech, Madonna expressed deep gratitude while simultaneously exposing her vulnerability and displaying incredible strength. She also revealed many clues for how she was able to convert the bullying, misogyny, and skepticism of naysayers into rocket fuel that launched her to superstardom. 

Madonna has been a role model for me since I was 17 years old. In 1983, I used my fake ID to see her perform for a small crowd at a rundown gay nightclub on Landsdowne Street next to Fenway Park in Boston. It was a rainy Sunday night and she wasn't famous yet. Seeing her perform in this venue changed the trajectory of my life.

In the book acknowledgments of The Athlete's Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss, I thank Madonna saying, “Thank you for laying the brain chips of excellence and fearlessness in my head when I was seventeen and for being rocket fuel during every workout ever since.”

Regardless of whether or not you like Madonna's music or public persona...nobody can deny that her resilience, chutzpah, and ability to keep going in the face of potentially paralyzing public antipathy is awe inspiring. Madonna's wholehearted and emotional speech from the 2016 Billboard Women in Music awards reminds us what a trailblazer and maverick Madonna has been since the early 1980s. And why she is a survivor.In the final remarks of this powerful speech, Madonna offers valuable insights that anyone can use to reframe the disdain and negativity of naysayers into a source of motivation that can inspire you to be voracious, fight harder, and become stronger. Madonna said,  

“It’s not so much about receiving this award as it is having this opportunity to stand before you and say thank you. Not only to the people who have loved and supported me along the way, you have no idea…you have no idea how much your support means.

But to the doubters and naysayers. And everyone who gave me hell and said I could not, that I would not, or I must not—your resistance made me stronger, made me push harder, and made me the fighter that I am today. It made me the woman that I am today. So, thank you.”

Hearing Madonna speak these words made me verklempt and brought bittersweet tears to my eyes for a variety of reasons. First, because I'm so grateful to have had Madonna as a mentor and beacon of light who helped pull me out of my suicidal despair as a gay teenager. Second, because I was reminded, yet again, of how difficult it was being gay and coming out in the mid-1980s when fear of the AIDS epidemic triggered a nationwide wave of homophobia.

To this day, I still have to block out the pain caused by my dean at a stodgy boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut who tormented me for being a sissy and did his best to make me feel like an outsider who would never be a member of the 'old boys club' because I was gay. For the record: My boarding school experience gave me a minor case of PTSD

My 'prep school' dean was on a mission to groom his students and my fellow classmates to become future "Masters of the Universe" who would uphold the status quo. It was part of his DNA. The more I rebelled against the rules of the establishment, the more he bullied me. When I finally had the courage to voice how traumatic his bullying had been years later, the administration suggested that I probably didn't "understand his dry sense of humor."

Regardless of his intentions, the way my dean publicly maligned me when I was at the most vulnerable period of my life almost caused me to self-destruct. Even though it was decades ago, my resentment towards him still takes up some brain space in my psyche, and probably always will. But, like Madonna, I thanked him in my book acknowledgments. As the ultimate naysayer, he inadvertently made me aim higher, push harder, and break a Guinness World Record. On p. 338 I wrote,

"To my dean in high school: Thank you for trying to convince me that I would amount to nothing. Whether it was reverse psychology or not, you forced me to make something of my life just to prove you wrong. I needed to succeed at first just to spite you. I didn't ever want you to be able to say, "I told you so." My resentment toward you was the seed that sparked my athletic conversion. At the end of the day, I am grateful to you for being so hard on me even though it really sucked at the time. Thank you." 

Using Naysayers as a Source of Inspiration Can Fortify Resilience

While watching Madonna's Billboard acceptance speech this afternoon, I had an aha! moment when I realized that she had also used naysayers as a prime source of motivation. Maybe this is a universal phenomenon? Is there someone in your life who tried to make you feel 'less than' or doubted your abilities to succeed, but, in doing so unintentionally gave you the extra oomph to hit it out of the park?

People often speak about the importance of role models, mentors, and coaches to help boost someone's confidence and resilience. But, the motivational power of naysayers doesn't get much air time. I have a hunch that having someone try to convince a teenager that he or she will suffer from "failure to launch" syndrome could become an unanticipated source of inspiration for many young people. Of course, positive reinforcement is invaluable. That said, if you readjust your point of view, doubters and saboteurs can also be used as rocket fuel to help propel yourself off the launching pad.

Hopefully, if there is someone in your life who tries to make you feel inferior or undermines your self-belief, you'll draw inspiration from Madonna's acceptance speech at the 2016 Billboard Women in Music awards. Her words of wisdom serve as a reminder that naysayers can actually be a blessing in disguise when consciously reframed to fortify your inner strength and determination to prevail. 

Over the years, I've written a wide range of Psychology Today blog posts that were inspired by Madonna. Check these out, if you have time or interest:

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