I remember when “memes” became a thing. It’s a painful memory, because the first time I dared to utter the word out loud, in front of a group of college swimmers, I pronounced it “may-may”. I stared around in confusion as the group contorted in laughter. Later, a friendly athlete taught me how to say “meeeeeem”.
Memes are popular because they can convey ideas in a simply digestible form. I find they’re very good for comedy, combining a good one liner and an image. But for conveying psychology, especially around something that people are very passionate about, I think most of them are just not good.
Here’s one that flashed across my feed yesterday:
Let me break down the problems I have with this step by step. Like anything, it’s not that the meme itself is entirely “wrong”. There are kernels of truth here. But there is a lot of problematic language here that can be counter productive to the message that I think the meme is trying to convey.
Let’s start with the first line. Losers are negative. What does this mean? What makes someone a “loser”? Is it losing an athletic context? Don’t extremely optimistic, hard working people lose in athletic contests all the time?
If its not about the actual act of losing, is it somehow a category that I should be seeing. Like, if I coach a team of 18 athletes, should I categorize six of them as “losers” and the other twelve as “winners” based on their attitude? And how would that help either the “winners” or “losers”
Moving on, the middle of this meme contains a message I see in psychologically themed memes all the time. That theme is choice. “You choose the attitude”. I think it’s always helpful to reverse engineer these kind of statements, because it is not only important how your message is delivered but how it is received.
What if I recognize that I have a bad attitude? Now I am equipped with the knowledge that I “chose” it. So, I should choose a better one. How do I go about doing that? Often this is presented as an easy choice. It’s not.
Do people suffering from depression choose their “negative attitude”. And should we tell them to just choose to be happier? I think most people would agree that would be a pretty stupid thing to do, and completely lacking in empathy.
Telling someone they choose their attitude is right up there in the category of dumb advice like telling an anxious person to “relax” or an angry person to “calm down”. Not helpful bro.
Finally, the meme concludes by telling the reader that attitude creates results. Again, lets reverse engineer this with someone who is struggling. Let’s say I am very disappointed in my results- now I’ve found out its a result of the bad attitude that I chose. I still don’t know how to choose a better attitude- the outlook is starting to look pretty hopeless.
I don’t even want to get into it, as it deserves its own blog, but negativity is a natural human instinct, and any message that suggests that people to deny this instinct will be highly likely to fail. There are also many very specific situations where negativity, or pessimism are actually essential. One thing I always tell people is that I want a very pessimistic mechanic inspecting the airplane that I’m about to fly on.
Now I know some of you are hate reading this at this point and very fired up. Chris, it’s a meme, and you’re saying I can’t even be inspired by this or share it to my team? I’m not saying that. Do with it what you will- do what you believe in! I’m telling you what I believe, that simple messages like this can be received very destructively.
The path I choose is one that can’t be put in a few lines. You have to be able to listen to people’s negativity, and sit with it and accept it. Only then, when people feel like you truly see them, can you move on the hard work of building optimism, painstaking step by step, just as you might teach somebody to swim who’s never set foot in water.