I have a conflicted relationship with motivational quotes…I both hate them and love them.

Firstly, and in the spirit of openness which I hope permeates all my work, let’s try and be honest about how effective inspirational or motivation quotes are solely on their own…which is probably not much! By this I mean, we’re unlikely to magically change our lives just because we read one. But what if they help remind us of a therapeutic tool we’ve learnt or a perspective that we now aspire towards? Can these quotes act as a ‘post it note’ or an aide memoire to summarise a more detailed and useful concept? Maybe they can.

Whilst on one hand it drives me up the bloody wall to see social media posts filled with inane and misleading ‘life coaching’ (whatever the hell that means) inspirational quotes, which seem to have no basis in modern, evidence-based practice. Quite the opposite in fact, as many quotes seem to be based on self-perpetuating pop-psychology, out-of-date practice, gross simplification, or at worst just entirely made up. I can’t tell you how many times I scroll Instagram and come across something and think ‘what bulls**t is this?’! You have probably already seen that I am very vocal about my dislike for toxic positivity and productivity and I find many of the conventional inspirational quotes I see online fall firmly in this category.

But, on the other hand, I actually also really love finding cool, fun or insightful snippets of meaningful text and dialogue from genuinely knowledgeable people or insightful fiction and sharing these with people who I think would enjoy and benefit from them. Perhaps it might give them just a moment of comfort or laughter, or bring a quick smile to their face.

So then, the question remains, are they actually ‘useful’? ‘Useful’ is undoubtedly incredibly subjective distinction here but I’ll try and outline what I personally consider ‘useful’ below –

1. Is it particularly eloquent, funny or memorable in its phrasing?

– Has this person said something in a way that I couldn’t say any better?

– Will this way of phrasing make it easier for me or someone else to remember when they need it?

– Does this quote summarise and/or simplify a detailed concept, technique or approach into more manageable chunks?

2. Is it based on, or is it complimentary to, evidence-based practice in mental or physical health, or related fields?

– Or at the very least is not contradictory to evidence-based practice? For me, this criteria applies whether we are talking about modern, historical or even fictional quotes.

3. Is it “workable”?

That is, do I think it will, on balance, help people to hear it? For example, could it (or part of it) work as a coping statement for someone who is currently struggling?

4. Does it avoid encouraging behaviours and practices that might actually be counter-productive?

For example, does it avoid toxic positivity, “gas-lighting”, gross simplification or otherwise diminishing the pain and struggle someone might actually be going though?

Point #4 is probably the thing that gets a heated reaction out of me and so is one of the reasons I really dislike and avoid trite and unnuanced phrases like “think positive” or “manifest abundance/postivity etc.etc.”. There’s probably a huge amount to talk about with this subject alone and I’ll discuss this in more detail in a future article.

There are a couple of specific reasons when I think having a readily memorable phrase at hand can be particularly important for a client in therapeutic or coaching practice.

i. Normalisation

Understanding that, whatever we’re going through, no matter how hard, someone else has felt something similar to how we feel right now. We’re not abnormal, just reacting in an understandable manner to a difficult circumstances. We’re not as alone in our struggle as it is often so easy to believe. And as such, it can provide hope that things can be different, better, or easier. For many people this alone this can provide tremendous relief, and eliciting hope is a core task of good psychotherapist. As Alan Bennet says in The History Boys, it can be as if someone reaches out and takes us by the hand, and so through this, tells us we’re no-longer alone.

For example, I recently posted a quote on my Instagram page from the awesome Russ Harris, medical doctor and ACT therapist, who very neatly summarises, and assures us that its totally common, human and ok to sometimes wobble or stray from our good intentions.

Commitment isn’t about being perfect, always following through, or never going astray. Commitment means that when you (inevitably) stumble or get off track, you pick yourself up, find your bearings, and carry on in the direction you want to go.

Everyone of us does this! Even if we struggle to implement the changes we want immediately, or we forget to do our regular practice or make some ‘away moves’ (to us some ACT terminology), then it certainly doesn’t mean all is lost or a waste of time. We can just continue to pursue our values-based living despite these little wobbles and humps in the road. Seeing a quote like this from Russ Harris (or even remembering a small part of it), might help us stay the course rather than feeling like we should give up.

ii. Memorable coping statements

In the cognitive behavioural approach, we often observe and take note of the maladaptive thoughts we’re having. When we feel difficult situations or experiences brewing, we can tend to fuse to inflexible, overly-generalised, negatively-orientated and sometimes downright untrue, thoughts and judgements about ourselves, the situation, and other people.

In therapy therefore, we frequently employ alternative coping statements to remind ourselves about different, more flexible and accurate ways of viewing our experiences and thoughts so we don’t get caught in these mental traps. Perhaps then, the more memorable these alternative coping statements are, the easier it will be to employ them when my mind starts to give me those screwy thoughts and judgements? And so, if it helps to borrow this coping statement from someone else who I like, admire or trust, well, then so much the better.

For example, a guilty pleasure of mine is the film The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise. In one just beautiful scene, one of the Samurai first introduces Cruise to the idea of Zen during sword practice:

Too many mind… Mind the Sword, mind the people watch[ing], mind the enemy. Too many mind: [you must have] no mind.

I sometimes jokingly remind myself “too many mind” when I start to feel a sense of overwhelm and my attention being pulled in different directions, and it’s then a reminder to step back and do a little mindfulness or defusion practice (like dropping anchor). And of course, humour and playfulness are useful tools in our arsenal, and can really help press pause on a negatively-oriented outlook. This is such a clever and brilliant scene, so I intend to discuss it in more detail in another article.

With these things in mind, I’ll post a few more quotes I enjoy and find useful from both fiction and evidence-based practitioners over the next few weeks.

What do you think? Are you a big fan of inspirational or motivational quotes? And if so what type do you like the most?