This is the first sentence of the rest of your life! All that you desire is yours! It’s all happening perfectly!
How do you feel about these lines? Do these lines make you want to conquer every day? Go ahead and climb a mountain. . . or at the very least, the steps to clear out a cabinet. After all, as the Dalai Lama, or Einstein, or maybe Mother Teresa tells us: ‘The journey of a thousand miles starts with just one step . . . and a good declutter.’
Or do you feel like this motivational guff makes you want to punch someone?
I have been a fan for years of the inspiring messages that are popping up all over the place. On pavements, written in colourful chalk. Whiteboards at the entrance to train stations. On chirpy A-boards outside coffee shops. I would read them, smile, and feel a little brighter.
Marianne Power (pictured), began to notice that motivational quotations were making her miserable during this pandemic.
I read dozens of self-help books that offered an abundance of similar messages — usually written in capital letters with exclamation marks. But just to ram the point home I’d underline sentences and write ‘This!’ in the margin. I was so obsessed that I lived by the self-help advice books for a whole year and wrote my book about it.
During the pandemic, however, I noticed something: Motivational quotes, far from uplifting me, were making me miserable.
It started as a slight irritation at the smug, all knowing tone and Hallmark platitudes. It felt like these messages were taunting me, highlighting the difference between where I was and where I felt I ‘should’ be.
Yes, I knew I should ‘stop focusing on how stressed you are and remember how blessed you are’, but what if I just wanted to stay in bed and cry?
I felt like I was in a coma after receiving messages telling me what to do. Should I ‘live, laugh, love’? Or should I ‘get rid of the toxic people’ in my life?
My frustration has turned into rage over the past few months. ‘I become something, then nothing, then everything, but always remain myself,’ says one quote on my Instagram feed. I want to shout at my phone: ‘What does that even mean?’
‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,’ says another. Are we really changing the world by sharing motivational quotes on social networks?
Even quotes from The Boy, The Mole, The Fox And The Horse, by Charlie Mackesy — which I adore — became grating.
Psychologist Dr Meg Arroll said affirmations often just paper over the cracks if that’s all someone relies on for their mental health (file image)
This book is filled with charming illustrations and inspirational messages about life and friendship between boys and their animal friends. It remains one of the top five bestsellers hardbacks two years after it was released. It used to bring out my emotions. It makes me laugh.
And it’s not just me who has had enough. The beloved book has been parodied many times. The Panda, The Cat And The Dreadful Teddy tells the story of a swearing panda driven mad by a teddy bear that keeps repeating inspirational quotes.
One features Teddy telling Panda: ‘“I think it’s so important to be kind.” “Do you Teddy?” asked Panda, just before he pushed him out of the tree.’ That made me laugh.
Another parody — The Woman, The Mink, The Cod And The Donkey, by Margerie Swash — is about a woman’s desperate journey to find a pub post-pandemic.
Are we done with motivational quotes? Is this the beginning of a backlash against motivational quotes? Are these quotes worth the effort?
Psychologist Dr Meg Arroll says: ‘There is some evidence that affirmations can help when they actively challenge negative thought patterns, but these very quick techniques often just paper over the cracks if that’s all someone relies on for their mental health. The danger is that when these quotes don’t magically make you feel better, it’s easy to blame ourselves because everyone else online seems to be transformed. This leads to a disconnect between reality and expectations.
‘We know that gratitude is beneficial to mental health, for example. But it’s possible to be grateful and still feel that we’re struggling a bit. Motivational quotes do not allow for this complexity.’
What’s more, reading these quotes can make us feel alone.
Dr Arroll adds: ‘When you see a post getting thousands of likes, you believe it’s working for everyone else, so why not you? This can make you feel like an outsider and isolated, when we are already isolated.’
This is something I’ve felt. I imagine that the person sharing the quote has their act together in a way I don’t; that everyone else has managed to make lemonade from the lemon this virus has been while I was limping through.
But is that really true? Is that the person telling me to enjoy the day, while also wearing my pyjamas? As my friend jokes: ‘It’s never your successful friends who are posting inspiring quotes.’ Maybe it’s the opposite. I know that when I share a motivational quote — which I do, often! — it is not because I think I have mastered the message. It’s because I need more than ever to remember it.
Marital therapist Andrew G. Marshall said if you are using a quote as tool for growth, you can think about one quote and contemplate it all day (file image)
This leads me to a second problem. I don’t remember these nuggets of wisdom. I read them, think: ‘Oh yes! That’s it! The answer to everything!’ Then they go right out of my head.
And that’s what happens when we take these quotes out of context. It takes time for the message and impact to sink in if we read them in a book, poem, or in a book. Read online or on chalk boards, however, and it’s like a quick sugar high instead of a nutritious meal.
Andrew G. Marshall is a marital therapist, and host of The Meaningful Life podcast. He believes it’s not the quotes that are the problem, but how we consume them.
He says: ‘You can use them as a comfort blanket or a learning tool. It can become addictive if you use it as a comfort blanket. You are stuffing as many in your mouth as you can get — and online there are lots on offer.
‘If, however, you are using them as a tool for growth, you can think about one quote and contemplate it all day. You can turn quotes into a question. I’ve spent six months pondering a line in a Robert Frost poem — ‘The best way out is always through’. I wonder what that means. How do I avoid doing that?’
He suggests that you think deeply about any quote that you find meaningful. In this way, even a quote like ‘find your bliss’ can be unpacked over days or weeks. What’s stopping you from finding your happiness? What is your bliss?
Marianne is ditching online quotes for old-fashioned books where the wisdom is dispensed slowly and with nuance (file image)
He explains that it’s part of human nature to contemplate life and seek solace. Think about aphorisms stitched to your grandmother’s cushions, or nuns and monks going into retreat to ponder lines from the Bible. For centuries, we have turned to the wisdom and insights of philosophers.
You might be able to have too many good things.
I may go cold turkey for now. I’m switching to old-fashioned books that offer wisdom slowly and with nuance, rather than online quotes. Books that acknowledge that life is hard and there are no easy answers — certainly none that can be put in one sentence printed on top of a photo of a mountain.
I am a poet and have been surprised by my discovery. After years of trying my best to be a Pollyanna, it is now that I embrace the power and wisdom of pessimism. There has been a lot of research into it. Pessimists, it’s been suggested, are more motivated to take action than positive thinkers, while those who face the worst-case scenario actually find consolation and freedom.
To that end, a friend has just sent me a list of demotivational quotes: ‘Everyone has a purpose in life. Perhaps yours is watching television,’ he tells me.
‘You can’t do anything wrong if you don’t do anything at all.’ Good point.
‘Today will be a day like every other day.’
Finally: ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy reading inspirational quotes.’
That is my favourite. Maybe I should make it a shared one? It could be printed on a tea towel.