I used to think inspirational quotes were super lame.
They were easy to ignore when cross-stitched on pillows and hand-painted in curly font on boards of wood that hung from little wire triangles on hooks in kitchens. These I could chalk up to different tastes in decor, maybe a little bit of irony depending on the setting. But when they started appearing on Instagram in the feeds of people I at least once-upon-a-time knew as friends, I quickly became suspicious of their hyper-cheery quips, their pseudo-wise statements made to seem even wiser with the addition of an overly-intimate greeting (“Oh, but my darling…”), and the intentions — or what I assumed to be the intentions — behind those who created them. Were these quotes, whether real or misattributed or cliché or freshly created, pasted over photos of waterfalls and sunflower fields and girls jumping into the ocean while holding hands because someone assumed that I, as a member of the human race, could not wrap my tiny little brain around how to cope with life if I didn’t have these inspirational sayings to soothe me?
I suppose I also judged those in my age bracket (although moms on Facebook got a free pass) who posted them. Who knows why. Insecurity, probably. That’s usually the root of judgement. Do these quotes really make you feel better, I’d wonder. Or are you posting this because you think you have all the answers? I knew I didn’t have all the answers, but at least I wasn’t so naïve as to really think that my problems, fears and anxieties could be solved with upbeat affirmations.
When Nora Taylor described the possessive nature of her attachment to melancholia as “just a symptom of being a sensitive artist; that only one such as I who keenly understands the human condition and is in tune with human suffering could find solace in a sad song or need a retreat from the sun’s unrelenting cheeriness,” I immediately recalled my own distaste toward inspirational quotes, my own cynical attitude toward this Pin-able medium of positivity. At the time, I believed my cynicism, plus my fears and anxieties — which these quotes most certainly could not solve — were the fuel that drove me forward as a creative person.
In early 2016, I was sent a galley proof of a book by advice columnist Heather Havrilesky, How to Be a Person in the World. Her online work helped to guide my own empathic and self-compassionate compass for at least two years before receiving it. To be honest, if any of her sage words came layered over a mountain range back then, I probably would have posted that without thinking.
The book was (is) set up in the same format as her columns: first, a wind-y, soul-bearing question from a pseudonym’d truth-seeker, followed by Heather’s even windier, soul-exposing, heart-puncturing, gut-punching answer. She often manages to speak to me directly even when I can’t relate to the immediate question, and in one particular case of a self-proclaimed “Weird Girl,” she said something that I’ve never forgotten.
“Weird Girl” had spent her life feeling weirder than everyone else. She went through a college phase where she tried to hide this by blending in (like her peers, she straightened her hair, took shots at parties, entertained shallow gossip as the main form of communication, you get it). She felt like a fake and hated it, thought everyone around her was vapid, too Paris Hilton-y, too into the Jersey Shore aesthetic, and she decided that she would rather be weird and real and deep than do all it took to fit in. But she was worried that now, she might be too weird for true love, which is why she wrote to Heather.
“Dear Weird Girl,” Heather responded:
Your assertion that you are categorically ‘weird’ while others are categorically ‘normal,’ and that these are static qualities that can be broadcast easily … strikes me as a little bit childish. Plenty of those Paris Hilton look-alikes and Jersey Shore wannabes were — like you — trying to figure out how to fit in (or not).
You assume that you are complex where others are exactly what meets the eye. … My guess is that at least some of the shit you’re taking for being out of step with the mainstream is related to your (perfectly understandable!) urge to shove all of humanity into two clean categories — odd and normal, vibrant and dulls-ville, unique and average. But first, you’re going to need to relax your grip on your worldview a little and accept yourself for who you are once and for all. And while you’re at it, accept that the so-called ultra-normals out there are far more complex than you give them credit for.
Well, this really kicked me in the shins. It made me reconsider all the times that I, too, secretly assumed I was more complex than someone who posted something as obvious as, “It all works out in the end. If it hasn’t worked out yet, it’s not the end.” It made me think about times I’ve rolled my eyes at overheard conversations, or caught my own conversations with friends and subsequently chastised us: “We’re being those people we can’t stand.” I have used Heather’s letter to check myself over and over since I first read it. I’ve had about two solid years of working on this.
Now, call it karma or just the way life works, but my anxiety spiked pretty drastically earlier this year in a way I hadn’t really experienced since college, and then, as anxiety so often does, it refused to let go. Two things happened as a result:
One, as a way to self-protect (to borrow my therapist’s lowered eyeglasses), I sought out lighter emotional fare — I needed happier, fluffier things on the TV, in the movies I watched, the stories I read. I wanted distractions. With my friends, I was most at ease when talking about all the stuff that happened last weekend. Small talk was practically meditative because it held my wrists in the present.
And two, much to my surprise, I found that inspirational quotes made me feel better.
My mom posted the above Instagram a month ago. She’s big into (sometimes literal) signs from the universe. Apparently, I am, too. I can’t tell you how badly I needed that stupid blue sign on the day I scrolled past it. I took a screen shot and kept it on my phone as a reminder, a new habit I have every time I see a quote that speaks to me.
Because of my mom, I also started following an account called The Moon Tarot who, in addition to daily energy readings, posts affirmations, mantras, and says things like: “Even when you need take a step backward, you’re still moving, and that is still growth.”
But I found that concept very comforting.
I started to store and save all sorts of things I would have previously found unbearably cheesy or obvious. Sometimes they relaxed me, sometimes they centered me. Sometimes they reminded me of things I have a hard time remembering.
My friend Mikki Halpin posted this* two weeks ago, I think a bit ironically, but mostly because she’s dead serious about this particular affirmation (and she’s since posted more with that same ironic-but-not-hashtag). She’s not exactly who I’d peg as an inspirational quotes kind of person, either, which was another necessary reminder for me beyond the quote itself. There can’t possibly be one “kind” of person looking for the occasional thumbs up or personal permission slip. You’re not a “type” of human being if a few strung-together words allow you to take a deep breath.
*Neither of us have been able to determine the origin of the quote. Drop leads in the comments below if you know.
I’m currently working my way through The Artist’s Way, a self-help-y workshop of a book from the 1970s, written for anyone who wants to tap deeper into their creativity. I’m a slow reader, but one thing that’s really stood out so far is the author’s insistence that you do not need to be tortured to be an artist, that nothing productive comes from negativity or beating yourself up.
One way she suggests you work through this is by finding a common refrain of your brain’s angry self-talk or self-doubt, write it out, and then: write down the opposite.
I thought the exercise was stupid at first — that same old curmudgeon came back. Still, I did it, and what I ended up with was a list of my own homemade inspirational quotes. They’re embarrassing and personal; I would rather lose my contacts while driving than post them anywhere public. But I swear to god they helped. I felt better during, I felt better after, and I feel better each time I recite them to myself.
All of which is to say, I get the inspirational quotes thing now. You’re lucky if you caught on before I did. They absolutely do not “solve” any problems, nor did they “cure” my anxiety, but they can act as a salve where I ache. When in the right mindset, they offer me some or a lot of relief.
If you’re on the other end of the spectrum reading this, and you can’t believe you’d ever possibly be the kind of person who enjoys an affirmation across a sunset, just try writing one of your own. Do it on a tiny scrap of paper and chew it up after if you have to. It feels like a big exhale.
Collage by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.