Six degrees of platitude: on “inspirational” quotes

I often wonder if the developers of Facebook and Twitter ever foresaw just how much of their traffic would be made up of inspirational quotes. Day in day out, social media users are bombarded with quotes attributed to the Dalai Lama, twelve step recovery aphorisms and ersatz Native American wisdom. Of course there’s a special market in mental health maxims about how we are strong at our broken places, about how the darkest hour is always before the dawn, about how pain is going to teach us patience. I know from Twitter conversations that I’m not alone in finding many of these little bundles of advice irksome rather than supportive but now I’m in crisis I’m finding them unbearably trite. There are so many I could have chosen, but since I imagine you’ve better things to do that read a dissertation on inspiration, here are my top peeves.

1) This too shall pass. Well, yeah, because like everything passes, you know? WWI passed, it’s just that an estimated 10 million soldiers and a further seven million ordinary civilians died in the process. And then of course in case you were thinking that this was one of those dark, dark hours before the dawn, in 1918 possibly as many as 100 million people – five per cent of the global population – died from Spanish flu. Of course my days pass, my weeks pass, my episodes pass, but not without untold trauma. I might survive a very, very bad bit, yet my 29 years of living with bipolar teach me that there may still be worse to come. So unless you can tell me when my pain will ease, and for how long, I’m not tremendously interested.

2) We all have mental health. I get where this is coming from. I really do. We don’t want the general population to think that there are two groups of people, nice “us” over here with normal brains and then “them!” over there, another, much more sinister group of people with mental health difficulties. And I know many consider it problematic that “mental health” has actually become shorthand for “mental illness” (as in “mental health services” that only treat mental ill-health). But I have major, major issues with this phrase because there is an implication that if “we all have mental health”, if we are all “on the spectrum”, then all points on the spectrum are equal. Stress is as important as schizophrenia. Exam anxiety is as deserving of attention as eating disorders. In an attempt not to exclude, we gloss over the massive differences in diagnosis, duration and severity. It would seem disrespectful in the extreme for the physically well to assert that “we all have physical health” to patients whose physical wellbeing is so compromised by organ failure, by cancer, by motor neurone disease. Yes, they all have a degree of physical health, but it is so diminished that they have vastly reduced quality of life. So why do we not extend this same respect to people with severe and enduring mental health conditions?

3) You are more than your illness. Well, you see, this relates to point two. Someone with a mild condition may well feel that their condition is just one aspect of their life and identity. But me? Well, I am not more than my illness, actually. My condition and I are so intertwined I literally have no idea where it ends and I begin. My personality has been shaped by living with bipolar symptoms throughout my childhood and adolescence; I just don’t know who I am without it. And now that I am in crisis again there is nothing to me but my bipolar. My thoughts are consumed by it. My emotions are dominated by it. It dictates what I can and can’t do. I am it. It is me. Please don’t tell me otherwise.

4) No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. This line is generally attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt around 1935. Interestingly there seems to be little evidence of this being a direct quote (the Quote Investigator site suggests a possible origin) but I’m going to deal with the phrase as it’s generally circulated. It certainly seems a rather glib statement for someone born into a family of wealthy New York fin de siècle socialites and politicians, including the serving President, who went to finishing school in Europe, was then presented as a debutante at the Waldorf-Astoria and eventually became First Lady. Given her life, I’m going to take a wild guess here that Eleanor was in few situations where she was required to “withhold her consent” to being oppressed (unlike, for example, those across the Atlantic at the time who were presumably displaying their active consent to fascism). What this quote is saying is that systems and services can only be oppressive if you allow them to oppress you. Society can only stigmatise you if you consent to being stigmatised. It is a denial of power structures that suggests that part of your suffering is your own fault – ironically, a message which is likely to make you feel pretty inferior for feeling inferior.

5) It’s OK not to be OK. Hmm. That depends on what “not OK” means to someone. Context is everything. It strikes me as phrase very much geared to the less serious end of the mental health spectrum, where it may have considerable merit. Telling someone who is becoming depressed, becoming anxious or stressed, perhaps developing insomnia, that it is OK to admit to not being OK, that it is OK to take time out and regain equilibrium is a really useful preventative measure. However, when I say that I am “not OK” I am starting from a position of having a serious, lifelong, incurable mental illness. My “not OK” is shorthand for being suicidal, sometimes in agitated way, sometimes as a result of a deep depression. My “not OK” may mean having frightening “unusual” beliefs. My “not OK” usually means losing my ability to work, losing my ability to parent. It means resorting to ever higher doses of drugs to retain a tenuous hold on what it means to be human. And that is not OK with me. OK?

6) Illness is not a choice – recovery is. This is a particularly irritating meme that has been doing the rounds lately and appears to suggest there are two states of being in mental health: illness (BAD and NOT A CHOICE) and recovery (GOOD and A CHOICE). You have no power over whether you are ill, but you have power over whether you are choosing to be well. There are so many incorrect assumptions in this, I hardly know where to start, but you know me, I’ll have a go.

Recovery is not a “state of being” you can choose to enter into. You may get better despite doing nothing. You may fail to improve or even get worse despite having actively attempted to try to get better. There are many people who do not wish to participate in a formalised process of “recovery” for a variety of reasons. They may not trust services. There may not be any effective services in their area. They may have tried everything on offer with no beneficial effect. They may disagree with the medical profession that there is anything “wrong” with them. They may feel that the recovery model itself is offensive with its emphasis on “functionality” and economic output.

I hope to experience remission, but I won’t ever get to choose to be in a state of “recovery” because bipolar never really goes away. And if we could choose recovery from our mental or physical illnesses, wouldn’t the medical professional alongside the pharmaceutical industry have disappeared by now?

I understand the sentiment behind “inspiration”. Humans like to try to comfort other humans, to give them a degree of hope and a reason to survive. That’s a laudable aim. But surely we can do better than platitudes?

About purplepersuasion

40 something service user, activist, writer and mother living with bipolar disorder. Proud winner of the Mark Hanson Prize for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards #VMGMindAwards
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15 Responses to Six degrees of platitude: on “inspirational” quotes

  1. tigtigs says:

    HI Charlotte…..I agree with so much you have written I don’t know where to start…..or stop!! I absolutely hate these platitudes that people come out with and “positive thinking”…go away!! I wish you well and hope you will soon feel a bit better. Jenny

  2. BipolarChile says:

    Hi Charlotte! I agree with you on a few of these and disagree with other few lol. I do want to point out though that coming from someone who knows how hard it is to suffer in silence, it’s kind of unfair to judge the life of someone you didn’t get to meet (Eleanor Roosevelt). What if she suffered some kind of mental illness as well? I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, it’s all with the utmost respect 🙂 I hope you feel better soon. xxxxx

    • Hi, if you follow the link you’ll see her comment (if it is hers!) is nothing at all to do with mental health whatsoever and all about social snobbery. It’s just been co-opted into mental health speak. Which is exactly my objection.

  3. Michael Tobias says:

    Bravo Bravo. You are so gifted at putting difficult “thoughts”/”feelings” into words. I can’t imagine it could be done any better. I have often been rubbed the wrong way by those nifty “inspirational” quotes myself. Keep on sharing!

  4. Mary says:

    Some what concerning Charlotte that in this piece you displayed a complete misunderstanding for what the term mental health actually means. Especially as a mental health trainer and activist. ..

    • I really, really don’t think I have, Mary – although I think you may have misunderstood my logic.

    • J says:

      I googled ‘what is mental health’ I like this definition
      “Mental health is about physical, emotional and social wellbeing. If people are mentally healthy they are able to cope with the ups and downs of day to day living, they have the energy to lead active lives, they achieve personal goals and they interact with other people in ways that are respectful and just.”

      Re point 2 in the blog. – don’t think there is any misunderstanding with the term

    • Mary: To my mind Charlotte went out of her way to express her take on the term “mental health”, which makes sense to me. Care to share why you feel she got it so wrong? A different opinion can be healthy and useful, but you don’t give her — or me as one of her readers — anywhere to go with your comment.

  5. csh says:

    Nailed it!

  6. Leni White says:

    As you know I agree with all of these, BUT I have used number 2 – purely because due to the fact that MH is still wallowing in the mud somewhere around the bottom rung of a long ladder to ‘acceptable’ status, and because people use ‘mental health’ to denote ‘mental illness’. I feel it’s important to put them straight, even though it annoys the heck out of me.

  7. anon says:

    Hi Charlotte,
    Great article. I was particularly interested by your comment on the Roosevelt ‘quotation’ because it is a quote that I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about precisely because, as you say, it is almost perfectly designed to make you feel inferior for feeling inferior. It used to be the quotation that irritated me most, but I have become more positive about it partly as a result of following you and @sectioned_ . You have both shown me ways in which I self-stigmatise. I have seen you both make comments and stand up for yourself against casual stigma in situations where I would previously have not even realised I was being stigmatised. As a result I’ve developed greater self-respect which has extended to many different situations where I would have accepted inferior treatment. At times, especially with paternalism from psychiatric system, it has been difficult because life can be more peaceful when you accept unwarranted treatment as an inferior. However, even when I cannot stop myself being treated as an inferior, the new self-respect I have does help me not to feel inferior. Instead of feeling that I deserve the way I am treated – or not even noticing I’m being treated badly – I am know able to identify that a system or a person treats me badly, and be clear that it is their responsibility that they do so; plus I can also take steps to extricate myself from the situation or improve it, things I didn’t do effectively when I blamed myself. Even if there is nothing I can do, I feel very different being in a situation where I acknowledge myself as trapped in a bullying system or social order, than I did when I saw the systems poor treatment of me as a normal. Going back to the quotation, I now agree with it to a much greater extent. I don’t think it suggests you can stop people treating you as an inferior but simply that you do not need to feel inferior just because they treat you as inferior. I do think it simplifies things: you need to realise you are consenting/agreeing to others evaluation of you before you can form your own opinion – I think that children or people with low self-esteem for whatever reason (hate the phrase self-esteem but can’t think of another way to describe it) need to be shown how to ‘withhold consent’ before they can protect themselves ( your example has done that for me). However, although it simplifies things, I do now agree with the quotation.

  8. Cat says:

    I absolutely love this post. Those quotes may be well-meant, but can easily come across as trite and/or victim-blaming, especially to someone already feeling low. The one I dislike most is “Your happiness is your responsibility. Therefore your unhappiness is also your responsibility.” I understand what it means, but the tone feels so cold and self-righteousness. And no, the rainbow pictures don’t help .. 😉

  9. Marilyn says:

    I absolutely love this article and have been expressing these opinions for some time. Mine doesn’t have to do with mental health, but a physical disability and also my ‘sensitive’ nature (which, when others don’t agree use these platitudes). I don’t care for the word ‘inspirational’ either. I had been in a wheelchair for a while. When I was viewed as ‘inspirational’, since my friends stayed away but I lived a productive life in spite of it and also ‘appeared’ upbeat, was really offended. I had this condition for so long, but finally had been diagnosed. I felt as though (which was right on) that if I finally was able to use walking aids and not a wheelchair all the time, those same individuals that thought I was ‘inspirational’ wasn’t around anymore.

    I find many times the platitudes end up causing hurt, anger, and pitting individuals against each other. No one like to be compared or their suffering minimized (no matter what they may say outwardly).

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