I once loved inspirational and motivational quotes. I read them, shared them, read them some more, and maybe wrote one or two of my own. But I have noticed a less motivational side of these quotes. I’m not talking about the roll-your-eyes kind of quote, though my eyes have rolled after reading plenty of them. I am talking about quotes that could do more harm than good.
“Your limitation — It’s only your imagination.”
On the surface, it seems innocuous. Many of us have limiting beliefs and sometimes they hold us back. For a long time, I thought I would never make money as a writer. I didn’t believe I was good enough.
I didn’t give myself the opportunity to try because if I didn’t try, I couldn’t fail. I would sit at my computer and type out some words. Maybe do a little scribbling in my notebook, but these words would never be seen by eyes other than mine. I couldn’t take the chance of confirming my belief that I wasn’t a good writer. If I wasn’t a good writer, who was I? My entire identity was wrapped up into writing. If I put my writing out there and I didn’t succeed, how, then, could I continue to call myself a writer?
But here I am, making money as a writer. I can attribute at least a little of my ability to overcome my limiting beliefs to reading and re-reading quotes like the one above. I put them on my vision board (yep, I have one of those, too), and I wrote them in notebooks. I kept reading and writing them until I finally got the courage to share my writing. I’ve failed, but I’ve also had success.
My limiting belief was my imagination and it did keep me from doing what I wanted, but our limitations are not restricted to internal work. We aren’t just overcoming limiting beliefs. Sometimes, we have an entire external obstacle course in our way that we must navigate through.
Obstacles aren’t limited to the mind
The quote above doesn’t mention internal or external limitations. Though it is generally understood as an internal struggle with self-worth and the like, it doesn’t exclude limiting external factors. Since this quote doesn’t differentiate between internal and external limitations, I started questioning its value.
I fully believed in the spirit of these inspirational and motivational quotes. They encourage you to live your best life and share your passion with the world. Then, I began feeling myself rebel against the simplicity of these quotes. The assumption that the only thing stopping someone from following their heart is fear, which is all in their head.
“Your limitation is your imagination” is not true. Limitations come in many forms. When someone says they do not have the time or energy to go after their desire, we can’t fault them for it. We cannot keep throwing stitched pillowed platitudes at them and tell them they just don’t believe in themselves enough.
There are only so many hours in a day. When a lot of those hours are spent caring for another person, like a sick child or an aging parent, how can we expect someone to also have time for themselves?
How can we expect people who must constantly fight for their seat at the table, and then continue to fight for their legitimacy at the table, to still have the emotional energy to do more?
If people must work three jobs just to put food on the table and keep the electricity on, how can they also go to school to get a degree or learn a trade?
When you are faced with external obstacles that constantly pull you in the opposite direction of anything that remotely resembles a dedication to self, these simple quotes feel like a slap in the face. I know because I have felt the sting.
Thankfully, my situation was temporary, so the hand print faded quickly, but others are not as lucky, not as privileged. Yet, we keep telling people they simply must work harder and believe in themselves and better things will come, and that is simply not reality.
I want to be clear here: I know there are people who overcome their obstacles to make their life what they want it to be. There are people who fight every day for seats in chairs at tables they have worked hard to claim and keep. I do not want my words to discount their success. The purpose of writing this is to tell the people who are struggling with obstacles outside of their control that I see you. Maybe I cannot fully understand what you are going through, but I see you.
Learning to love again
As the hand print and sting faded, I reclaimed my love of these motivational quotes, while remembering the pain. My disillusionment with these statements left me with a different appreciation for the words. I tend to read and share quotes that specifically deal with mindset because I believe positivity begets positivity, but I am not naïve enough to say that positive thinking will help every situation. I’ve never been a particularly good Pollyanna.
Some circumstances require you to point out the negative, sit in it, maybe even wallow in it, and feel the uncomfortable feelings that surround it. It is not healthy to always be positive or react to all situations with a smile.
Think about how a quote will affect others
At best, motivational quotes help us to be better and do better. At worst, they drip with privilege and create resentment — not only for the words themselves, but for a situation.
These quotes can be helpful, but also harmful. If you are motivated by them, great! But if you are sharing them with a wider audience, maybe take a minute to think about what the quote means and how it could affect others. It could have the opposite effect than what you’re trying to provide.