Of the many things that in our culture that really grind my gears (people braking before putting on their blinker, Nutella ads targeting uninformed parents, grapes with seeds in them), there are a few “motivational” sayings out there that hover at the top of my list. Chances are, you’ve come across these sayings before. They’re  littered throughout our home pages, deemed “inspirational,” and usually accompanied by a stock photo of a person on top of a mountain, or waves on a beach (you’ve done well, Waves). But what pisses me off most about these sayings is that often they actually end up leaving people feeling worse!  Here are my top 5 offenders (and their similar versions) and why :

1) “Reach/Meet/Live Up to Your Potential”

As I’ve said numerous times, society does a terrific job of telling us we’re not good enough the way that we are. Industries tell us we need to be better, smarter, fitter, wealthier, more self-aware–that we need to “reach [our] potential.” Basically, believing you need to strive to reach your potential is another way of telling yourself that you’re not good enough. As if that weren’t enough, it prevents you from living in the present (because you’re focused on what you need to do to get closer to this elusive potential) and being grateful for where you’re at currently, and it leads to constantly judging oneself and feeling pressured (which generally gets in the way of forming strong relationships).

Who even decides what it looks like to “meet your potential?” What does that even mean? What happens when you do? Does confetti fall from the sky? Is a bronzed cast made of your body? Does time stop, and you then never have to put effort into anything ever again?

We don’t live in sterile, controlled conditions that are conducive to achieving one’s “potential,” if that were even a tangible thing. Life is in a constant state of flow, filled with periods where you might feel on top of your life in some areas and complete chaos in others, and striving to “reach potential” is really just a euphemism for “don’t ever screw up again and don’t even think about being happy with your current self.”

Remind yourself that, even if you do reach this ambiguous potential, you’re not going to reach it and stay stagnant. You’re just one small part of a much bigger equation, much of which is out of your control. Let go of the idea of striving to meet your potential–we don’t get to “the top” and stay there. You can still have goals and want to make changes in your life, but I just ask that you be skeptical of this whole “potential” idea.

How many times can I say “potential” in a paragraph? There’s always the potential for more…har…har…

2) “Be Positive/Strive to Be Happy/Practise Gratitude”

The pressure on our society as a whole to be reach a state of fixed happiness is ridiculous. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, anything other than happiness is pathologized. If you feel/show any other emotion, you’re totally emotionally unstable or not trying hard enough. As a result, when you (naturally) feel anything else, because, you know, you’re a HUMAN, you feel anxiety or shame and try to “snap out of it” for fear of being “negative” or “a downer.”

Try instead to acknowledge that there is certainly merit in finding the positive in situations and practising gratitude, but doing so is most helpful when it happens alongside acknowledging the negative feelings you’re experiencing as well, and giving yourself permission to feel those, too. It’s OK to be unhappy, it’s OK to feel shortchanged, and it’s OK to act negatively during the complex the process of acceptance. You’re likely going to have multiple times of struggle and multiple times of ease throughout your life, and both are natural and expected. 

3) “Never Quit/Never Give Up/Finish What You Started/If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again”

This one drives me particularly batty. Oftentimes, quitting is the smartest thing you can do! I speak to many people who hate their programs, are in destructive relationships, or are being completely undervalued in their workplaces, and they masochistically continue along for fear of being a “quitter.” Would you continue running a marathon if you sprained your ankle and knew running on it would quadruple its healing time? Would you stay in an abusive relationship because you didn’t want to be “a quitter?” I sure hope not. Is it really worth it to put yourself through torture just so you can say “I did it?” Try to use your wisdom here…are you wanting to quit because it feels uncomfortable or because it’s no longer relevant? Would “sticking it out” ultimately benefit you? Go deeper than the idea that quitting and succeeding are mutually exclusive, and decide which option will likely serve you best. That “Quitters never win” business is poppycock, I tell you. Poppycock!!!

4) “The Outcome Doesn’t Matter, As Long as You Did/Tried Your Best”

I get where this one is coming from–focus on the process, not the product. There are good intentions, there. But unfortunately, we tend to interpret it differently. Instead of the journey/destination, stuff, it’s interpreted as: 1) YOU MUST ALWAYS TRY AS HARD AS POSSIBLE NO MATTER WHAT (hey, sometimes, I just wanna chill. Not trying so damn hard can actually be quite liberating.); and 2) If your result is sub-par, it can leave you thinking your “best” is sub-par, and therefore you are sub-par. So, give yourself permission to aim for “good enough” rather than “your best.” You might find the whole experience a heck of a lot more enjoyable.

5) “Be strong/Keep Moving Forward/Get Up If You Fall Down/Move on/keep moving forward/get up if you fall down/put on a brave face”

This is similar to #2, but applies more to how we react to situations than our life-course or mood in general. How many times have you been told to “Be strong” when you’re going through a rough time? That shit is Hallmark. But how we often interpret this is by believing we should feel and act like we’re OK, and not be affected–that there is no room for falling apart, for weakness, for sadness, for vulnerability. It leaves us filled with shame if we do, and convinces us to rationalize and intellectualize our way out of painful emotions (generally unsuccessfully).

The only time I might encourage a client to “Be strong” is when they’re seriously considering taking their own life, and in that case the strength is directed at tolerating their unbearable emotions for one more hour/day/week to help them save their life. Because, the irony here is that the real strength in vulnerability. Distracting ourselves and putting on a “brave face” is often easier than acknowledging and sitting in our pain or discomfort. So if you’re feeling shame for being “weak,” remind yourself that you’re actually taking the more painful route by acknowledging your feelings, and give yourself some empathy for what you’re feeling.

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Now, as always, of course there are times when these sayings might genuinely help you feel better. For example, if your goal is well-within your reach and all you need is a bit of encouragement to refocus. Or if you get a surge of energy and positive emotion from a picture of a jacked dudette squatting six plates. If that’s the case, then awesome. Don’t let me get in the way. But, if you find yourself feeling conflict, shame, anxiety, defeat, or any other uncomfortable emotion in response to reading, hearing, or telling yourself one of these sayings, it might be for one of the reasons I mentioned above. Ask yourself if abiding by the mantra really provides healthy motivation and inspiration, or if there might be a more balanced, self-serving way of tweaking it (e.g. Try, but if you don’t succeed, it’s OK to not try again” or “It’s helpful to find the positive in a negative situation, but it’s also OK to feel down.”).

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