Brendon Towle Coaching

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The Problem with Inspirational Quotes

A while back, someone I follow on social media liked an inspirational quote from a coach, who said:

The secret to self confidence is to care more about what you think than what others think.

To me, this quote neatly sums up many of the problems with inspirational quotes in general. It’s not that it’s wrong, exactly—I absolutely believe that we should (usually) value our own opinions of ourselves more than other peoples’ opinions of us. So, it’s not a bad idea, as such.

But. I’ve talked elsewhere about the problems with the “one simple trick” mentality. There is no one simple secret to self-confidence. And, although many of the steps to gain self-confidence can seem simple at first glance, often, upon close examination, they’re not.

Take the suggestion above. Taken to an extreme, not caring about what others think turns into sociopathy or narcissism. Clearly the coach who posted the quote wasn’t advocating either of those things, but how much more should I care about what I think? How much less should I care about what others think? Are there situations in which I should care significantly about what others think? (Yes.) Okay, what are those situations? How do I compromise when what I think and what someone important to me thinks are completely different?

None of the questions above have simple answers, because all of the answers look a lot like “It depends.” It depends on you—your situation, your values, and your goals. It might depend on your history with the people involved, or what kind of future relationship you want or expect to have with them.

Further, even when the steps to gain self-confidence are simple (as in, “easy to describe or explain”), most of them are difficult (as in, “not easy to do”). One of the reasons that the things are difficult is that the way to do them is often unclear. I spent a long time caring more about what other people thought than about what I thought, and (obviously) had very low self confidence during that time.

During that time, had you told me “Oh, just value what you think more than what other people think, and you’ll be fine,” my reaction would have been something like, “How the hell do I do that? What can I do that will allow me to value my opinions more?”

Another example: One of the bits of recovery wisdom that gets shared often is that one of the best things to do in a stressful situation is to let go of the outcome. 1 I spent years hearing that suggestion and wondering just what exactly I needed to do in order to make that happen. My thinking was something like, “Don’t tell me to let it go. Tell me how to let it go.”

And, let’s be clear: Those reactions (“Tell me how”) are entirely justified. If you’ve spent any significant amount of time valuing other people’s opinions over your own, the suggestion to “just stop doing that” is completely unhelpful. It’s not wrong, in that if you can manage to stop doing that the results will almost certainly be beneficial to your self-confidence. But, nobody should expect that just telling you that will allow you to make any sort of change whatsoever.

As I suggested above, the way to actually make that change will usually depend on what the situation is, and whose opinion I’m valuing over my own. If the opinion I’m overvaluing comes from my family of origin, for example, the work to value my opinion more is challenging and involves digging into the messages I received as a child. If I only overvalue opinions from women, or about school, or regarding my role as an employee, valuing my own opinion more is going to require that I dig into my belief about those things. I can find out where that belief came from, see how that belief is serving me, and whether it’s really consistent with the evidence in my life.

Also, as I think about my experience with growing self-confidence and helping many others grow their self-confidence, it’s not at all clear to me which direction the cause and effect goes here. I rather suspect, truthfully, that it goes both directions; caring more about what I think than about what others think is both a cause and a result of greater self-confidence.

The next time you see an inspirational quote like the one above, even if it seems obviously right, give some serious thought to how you might actually incorporate it in your life. You might find that there’s not as much value to the quote as it first seemed. Alternatively, you might find that the exercise of figuring out how to apply it in your life is where the real value is. And, if you’re not sure exactly how to figure that out, help is available.

  1. Zootopia fans in the audience should imagine the scene where Chief Bogo tells Judy to “Let. It. Go.” 😊

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