Reality Check: Mottoes, Slogans, and Sayings

“Live your dream!” “Take pride in your work” “Be true to yourself!” “Have a great day!” We’ve all heard them, and maybe even used them. These are the slogans, mottoes, and sayings that we sometimes use to replace thoughtful conversation.

Companies use them to try to motivate their workforce. Coaches use them to inspire their charges to do their best. Inspirational speakers use them to encourage their audiences to reach for greater possibilities.

Are these sayings just another means for someone to tell us what to do?

External control, briefly expressed in a reality therapy context, is where someone says, “I know what’s best for you and I am prepared to tell you what you should be doing.”

Let’s take the example of Brittany, who has trouble with math. Her work is sloppy and disorganized, which could give her teacher the impression that she simply doesn’t care about it.

Now, if her teacher tells Brittany, “You should take pride in your work,” what effect might that have?

If Brittany hasn’t the knowledge she needs to do her work properly, then how can she possibly take pride in it? If she doesn’t know that writing on the lines on her looseleaf, rather than writing haphazardly all over the page is very helpful when doing math, why would she do it?

When you ask somebody to do something that is impossible for them to do, and then imply that they “should” be able to do it, your “encouragement” could easily turn out to have a negative effect, not the hoped-for positive one.

Telling Brittany, “Take pride in your work,” will make no sense to her if she doesn’t know how to create work that she can be proud of.

Brittany has choices in how she responds to this “command.” She might choose to be angry, to frustrate, or to give up. It’s unlikely that she will choose to be proud just because she’s been told to do so. And it’s very doubtful that Brittany will suddenly choose to produce the kind of neat, orderly work that her teacher thinks she is motivating her to do.

However, we can all offer information to each other, and that information can be helpful. Demonstrating to Brittany how writing on the lines can make her math activities more successful would be one example of offering information, rather than attempting to exert external control.

If you use slogans or mottoes as a way to cheer you, to motivate you, to remind you of what’s important, that’s great. Exhorting others using slogans, however, may not result in the hoped-for positive effect.

So, from me to you, “Live your dreams and have a great day!” That is, if you want to. It’s just a suggestion. I’m not telling you what to do.

Do you have a favourite saying that you tell other people? That you use to keep yourself motivated? That reminds you of what’s important?

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