No, Not Everything Happens for a Reason: How Well-Meaning Platitudes Keep You Feeling Stuck

No, Not Everything Happens for a Reason: How Well-Meaning Platitudes Keep You Feeling Stuck

It’s weird what messages sink into your subconscious over the years — “We’re living in unprecedented times”, “Vegemite puts a rose in every cheek”, and “Get tough! Get Blockout tough!”.

And then there are other, more ephemeral messages— those big but subtle statements floating around in the cultural ether. Things like, “Slow and steady wins the race”, “Let’s agree to disagree”, “No pain, no gain”, “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life”, “Everything happens for a reason”, “Follow your dreams”, and other nice-sounding platitudes like these.

We often bump into these platitudes early on in life, in various guises, and latch on to the ones that make the most sense to us, or help us through our formative years. They may come from and be reinforced by well-intentioned caregivers, parents, teachers, or Instagram feeds. And the evidence of our lives seems to support their truth. Over time they become so ingrained, they’re nearly invisible.

But what if one or two of the platitudes you’ve come to subconsciously live by, are also the exact ideas keeping you stuck in a certain psychological space?

Since 2020, I’ve been running a project called ‘Thoughts For The Dark’, which collects the small but powerful thoughts that have helped people out of mentally dark places or challenging periods.

In that time, I’ve collected thoughts from very different people — grandparents and new parents, creatives and corporates, cancer survivors and marathon runners. But what’s surprised me is a recurring theme in a significant number of people’s submissions — and that’s the simple inversion of a commonly heard, seemingly harmless platitude.

platitudes happiness mental health
Can inverting rosy platitudes help inject a little more happiness into your life? Getty.

Take Cliff for example (name changed for privacy). Cliff had an enviable position at a top design agency. There was prestige to his role — but also pressure to win awards, unforgivably long hours, and toxicity between colleagues. To get by, Cliff would tell himself “It is what it is” each night to help him sleep. For him, this socially-accepted soundbite was a reminder to suck it up and soldier on.

But after months of being pushed to his mental health limits, and needing to repeat “It is what it is” later and later into the night, one thing changed — one word changed.

“It ISN’T what it is,” said Cliff.

“It isn’t worth the pressure, the toxicity, the long hours.”

Cliff reoriented his career. “I’ve never looked back,” he said.

Another, more telling example comes from Anna (name changed for privacy), whose parents often said to her throughout her childhood “Always do your best”. Harmless, right?

But later in life, Anna found herself putting immense pressure on herself, to do her best in every aspect of her career, relationships — even her hobbies.

“I stopped and thought, ‘You aren’t the best.’ You aren’t feeling your best by trying to do your best,” Anna said.

“You aren’t the best manager or lover or friend or cake-baker in the world. No one’s looking at you as the world’s best anything. And that’s great. That means you can mess up and it doesn’t matter. That’s freeing.”

There’s something deeper going on with these inversions of long-held platitudes, and it has to do with schemas.

“Schemas are personality traits that drive patterns of behaviour throughout our lifetime,” said Dr. Rita Younan, Director and principal psychologist at Schema Therapy Institute Australia. “They shape our perception and determine what we pay attention to.”

“Some schemas are positive, but others are maladaptive,” Younan elaborated. According to Jeffrey Young, the founder of Schema Therapy, there are 18 Early Maladaptive Schemas, including Hypercriticalness/Unrelenting Standards, Shame, and Dependence/Incompetence.

“These are theorised to form when our core emotional needs are not met in our early care-giving environment. Typically, this results in ways of thinking and feeling about ourselves, others and the world that may feel accurate at the time, but become inaccurate as adults and create problems like low self-esteem, dysfunctional relationships, depression, anxiety or negativity.”

“For example,” explained Younan, “Someone who was frequently abandoned by a care-giver in their childhood, may develop a strong belief that people will ultimately leave them. This results in behaviour that inadvertently recreates experiences of abandonment in adult life.”

In this sense, maladaptive schemas become self-fulfilling prophesies, and unfortunately the mind works in a way to constantly reinforce them. Younan shared that, “Schemas fight for survival. They discount information that is contrary to what they suggest.”

But can the well-intentioned platitudes we latch on to early on in life, to adapt and make sense of our confusing (or even rather well-adjusted) childhoods, become maladaptive in the same way? Younan said yes.

“These platitudes, over time — a drip drip effect — result in the formation of schemas. They become overall themes in how we think, feel and behave.”

The good news is that, while difficult, schemas are not impossible to change, or at least counteract. “Healing through therapy can change schemas, as does lots of anecdotes that are contra to what our schemas believe,” comforted Younan. “Think of the presence of a constant and stable friend or partner who does not abandon us. That heals our schemas.”

It’ll take time. A lot of unlearning and relearning. But the fact that many people, like Cliff and Anna and others who’ve shared their thoughts for the dark, have been able to overcome deeply ingrained self-beliefs should be cause for hope. It can be done, and it starts with a small but decisive break from the psychologically familiar. Long-held platitudes could be a place to start.

So perhaps it’s time to go fast and loose rather than slow and steady, to disagree until you agree, to make gain without pain, and to follow something more pragmatic than your dreams. Perhaps the way to move forward is to embrace the inverse of what got you this far.

Find out more about the therapy offered by STIA, or submit your thought to @thoughtsforthedark on Instagram.

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