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One of my vivid childhood memories is of the day I learned the importance of knowing and understanding what you’re saying/singing. I was roughly ten years old and singing the infamous chorus of Lady Marmalade (remix with Missy, Mya, Pink, etc. of course) when my uncle nearly knocked down the bathroom door demanding I come outside and sing those raunchy lyrics to his face. As I did, I realized I didn’t quite know what I was singing. The song just sounded nice. Since then, I’ve been a stickler for comprehending and appreciating the lyrics as much – if not more- than the melody.
Years later, I’m beginning to apply that same idea to the seemingly ‘motivational’ or ‘didactic’ quotes we were raised with and continue to throw around these days – especially framed in graphics and shared on social media. I have found that too many of these statements that ‘sound nice’ are products of bias, instruments of harmful socialization that reinforce unhealthy thinking and lie at the root of a lot of toxic behaviour.
In this post, I’ll be flipping the script on five common adages and offering an antithesis of them.
- It’s fine if you cannot say something nice, but do be honest.
If you’re like me, you were raised on the adage, “if you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all”. This indoctrination may sound like a good one on the surface, but as we grow older we realize just how hypocritical forced and momentary niceness really is. Please note, as others have, the difference between niceness and kindness. While being ‘nice’ [which is defined as “pleasing, agreeable, delightful”] may require one to be silent in if one cannot be polite and agreeable; being kind [which comes from the heart] will require that one be honest rather than silent. Niceness is something we’ve been taught we owe society with the indoctrination of such an adage; adhering to such indoctrination speaks of a level of social conformity, and people-pleasing. As we grow to understand that temporarily pleasing people, acting agreeable, going against ourselves and being dishonest about what we think and feel is not ‘moral’ at all, such statements are exposed as harmful.
- Do not be addicted to bettering yourself
Some year ago, I came across one of those ‘inspirational’ memes that said “Be addicted to bettering yourself”. I loved it. I made it my header on Facebook. It reflected what I believed; that I should be striving to know better, do better, be better… because in so many ways I am not enough. And therein lies the problem with this adage. The perpetual question for improvement is rooted in discontent. This is not to say, we shouldn’t strive for better versions of ourselves- of course, we should. But “addicted”? Addiction refers to control, something else controlling you. Your idealized version- the idea you have of what “a better you” would be; that is what is controlling you when you’re addicted to bettering yourself. Your fear of not being enough, your inability to love yourself in a ‘less than ideal’ state. That is what ‘being addicted to bettering yourself’ speaks of. It has taken me therapy and a lot of self-work to recognize this, it’s not an adage which can be rejected as harmful socialization easily, because ‘bettering’ oneself is a good thing right? Yet, we must ask: what exactly is the ‘better version’ we’re addicted to achieving, and for what reason is it ‘better’ who declared it so? We must ask this to be sure that we’re not addicted to a version of us we feel will be more acceptable, welcomed and pleasing to others… See how this phrase ends up feeding behaviour that is toxic to ourselves?
- What doesn’t kill you can weaken your spirit?
If you’re a fan of Kelly Clarkson’s music, you’ve most definitely sang along to the popular adage “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” from her hit song Stronger. I tend to hear this phrase used in response to someone narrating how they barely survived something, or how they are not sure they will survive what is to come. The phrase comes from an aphorism of the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and is generally used as an affirmation of resilience. So why do we need to drop it? Because resilience doesn’t always equate to strength. Having survived doesn’t always mean you won, survival is not living and we want to live. Fully live. What doesn’t kill us and what we survive often takes a piece of us, such as; our innocence and/or faith, our immunity to further infection, and even our capacity to feel/care. What doesn’t kill you, can still kill a vital part of your being. In fact, the strongest people are killed by the constant survival of what is thrown at them, they die by the process of weathering- whittled down with every battle survived. Let us not gloss over and abet their slow death with affirmations of resilience.
- Who they are at their worse is not more valid than who they are at their best.
I only recently came to understand how problematic it is when we believe that who/what our friends and loved ones are/do under the worst circumstances represents who they really are. The idea that the version of people you see in the worst of circumstances is their ‘true self’ is passed on through adages like “a drunken man’s words are a sober man’s thoughts” or another that goes “what is said in anger is truth”. These statements make sense at first thought. After all, a drunk person is less inhibited as a result of alcohol and thus drunk people do tend to speak their minds more liberally whether that means being more vulnerably or with less indoctrinated ‘niceness’.
Yet, what people fail to factor in is that we humans can lie to ourselves as well; under the influence of alcohol and anger not only are our inhibitions lifted but also our ability for rational thinking is also affected. Things we say/feel/think might be lies we want to tell ourselves, things we would be able to refute when more sober and able to think rationally. In this way, that version of ourselves is not even the complete truth in our own minds.
Likewise, the notion that who people are at their worse is their true self makes us guilty of painting people as one thing or the other. I think this is the most unhealthy behaviour built on this thinking- that is, the inability to accept people are multilayered and complex. That inability will leave us unable to build intimacy with people over time because the more we get to know them, the more we realize few humans can be painted as all black or all white.
- Strong women, may we ease their burdens…
The final antithesis I propose is one which responds to what has become a pithy phrase passed in the name of feminism- but which really isn’t that feminist. The original phrase goes “Strong women: may we know them, may we be them, and may we raise them”.
Let me admit that I have loved this statement and shared it several times in the past. Fortunately, I know better now.
What we’re glorifying with this statement is women’s resilience in the face of pervasive sexism. Rather than declaring that we want to raise strong women in future, why not declare that we would address the oppression so women to come do not need to be strong.
An Asian proverb goes “strong bamboo is not made with ease, the stronger the wind the stronger the tree”. I wish for a bit more ease. For all of us.
For the sake of blog length, I’ll end here for today. But the list of what is passed as motivational and moral is endless. Let me know what popular adage you’ve learned to question in the comments.