Until recently, I thought I was a bit odd for finding ‘Inspirational Quotes’ so irritating. After accepting a little oddness in myself, I starting thinking about why they’re so irritating…and now I find them irritating AND heartbreaking, because most inspirational quotes are actually inherently critical, so watch out!

Most ‘inspirational’ quotes mimic a particularly subtle kind of inner criticism, where we think we are being gracefully nudged along to our higher destiny, but actually we are being blamed for not being there yet.

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 EXHIBIT A

On first reading this sounds like a great wake-up message, empowering you to become infinitely free (whatever that means)…but then it also points out that the reason I’m not quite there yet, is actually all my fault (ouch). I feel confined in life because…I’m not focused enough, or maybe I’m not trying hard enough, oh maybe I’m dwelling on the past too much, yes that could be it.

Oh please!! 

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What about our socio-economic background; what about keeping a roof over our head and food on the table; what about dysfunctional families of origin; what about the homogenising culture we are immersed in; what about wounded psyches; what about a lack of physical wellness; what about market-driven capitalism; what about carer responsibilities…?

There are so many ways in which life can be challenging to our sense of freedom (however you define it), that to blame ourselves, to think that we are flawed or lacking in some way is not OK!

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EXHIBIT B

This one really gets my blood boiling. Pretty much everyone who comes to therapy comes partly because things happened to them in the past that makes their life difficult in the present. Crappy stuff, not fun stuff, and not stuff that is easy to forget, or should be forgotten.

And what’s this thing about forgiving yourself? Most people I’ve met who had pasts they’d like to forget didn’t do anything that they need forgiving for. I get that this is more about forgiving yourself for past mistakes and that’s cool, but don’t forget and begin again or you’ll probably make the same boo-boo.

It’s just trite. Forget. Forgive. Start again. None of it’s easy, often not possible, and when we (surprise surprise) don’t succeed at any of it, who do we blame? Ourselves. Thanks but no thanks inspirational quote!

How about: Hold yourself with kindness as you learn from the past, and share your new wisdom with your future.

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EXHIBIT C

Yeah, no. I can’t always do my best. Sometimes I do my average, other times I do my crappy. Heck there are even times I just don’t do at all.

Do I need to threatened myself that I’ll pay for such slovenliness in the future? That I’ll get what I deserve?

No, no I don’t. But thanks for the offer inspirational quote.

Enough exhibits, you get the point. There are literally millions of these stinky statements online, clogging up our social media feeds, poisoning our self worth, and encouraging us to aspire to a unrealistic pseudo-spiritual reality. Which leads me to the other big issue I have with inspirational quotes…

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SPIRITUAL BYPASSING

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A lot of inspirational quotes feed into the psychological defense mechanism that is spiritual bypassing:

It is spiritual practice in the service of repression, usually because we can not tolerate what we are feeling, or think that we shouldn’t be experiencing what we are feeling.

Ingrid Mathieu, Beware Spiritual Bypassing

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In his great article (Spiritual Bypassing: Avoidance in Holy Drag), Robert Masters describes some of the symptoms/aspects of spiritual bypassing, including “exaggerated detachment, emotional numbing and repression, overemphasis on the positive, anger-phobia, blind or overly tolerant compassion, weak or too porous boundaries, lopsided development (cognitive intelligence often being far ahead of emotional and moral intelligence), debilitating judgment about one’s negativity or shadow elements, devaluation of the personal relative to the spiritual, and delusions of having arrived at a higher level of being”.

Masters goes on to point out though that we shouldn’t turn against the part in ourselves that seeks the comfort gleaned from spiritual bypassing, being aware that we are doing it is important.

And being aware that most inspirational quotes are promoting spiritual bypassing is important too. They’re not only sneakily critical, they encourage us to marginalise so called ‘unsavoury’ aspects of our humanity.

This parody video on being Ultra Spiritual hits the nail right on the head (especially at 2.50min):

THE GOOD ONES

Before I completely throw the baby out with the bathwater though, there are some safe, perhaps even helpful, inspirational quotes. Except that I wouldn’t call them inspirational quotes, instead they are self-compassionate quotes. I particularly like these little gems from Brene’ Brown:

AND OF COURSE THERE’S A DEEPER MEANING IN ALL THIS

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The kind of inner criticism represented in inspirational quotes of course has an essential function in our psyche.

The kind of critic is an incomplete/unskilled emissary of our deepest calling in life; that which gives our lives meaning. It represents our inherent striving for wholeness and a transcendent experience of life. It pushes us to connect to a sense of why we are here, which is not a bad thing.

Connection to meaning is an antidote for many ills in the human psyche – having a path to follow means we don’t sweat the small stuff so much, we tend to take better care of our bodies, and we find motivation from within.

But when we have an inner voice that tells us to hurry up and ‘get there’, that doesn’t see how far we’ve come already or acknowledge how difficult the journey is, we can lose heart and hope.  This part of us is so keen to ‘get there’ that it forgets that this is actually one of those ‘its-not-the-destination-but-the-journey-that-counts’ gigs.

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So let this figure inspire you through its excitement about the journey and the dream, let it motivate you to take care of yourself along the way; but don’t let it turn a blind eye to the awesomeness you’ve already achieved!

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