Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Contradictions of Cliches

Clichés guide us through life, but should they?

“Thinking It Over,” by Thomas Waterman Wood, 1884, FP - XIX - W8792, no. 2, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
Source: “Thinking It Over,” by Thomas Waterman Wood, 1884, FP - XIX - W8792, no. 2, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Much of the advice we receive consists of clichés.

Some are trite, such as “Follow your heart.” Or banal, like “Life isn’t fair” or “No pain, no gain.”

Others are corny. For example, “Choose your parents with care.”

Some clichés are shrewd and sensible, like “A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures for anything.”

But many are cynical and sardonic, such as “Flattery will get you everywhere” or more pointedly, “Better a shrew than a sheep.”

Then there are the overused hoary chestnuts and hollow phrases, like “Always look at the bright side of life” or “Everything happens for a reason.”

Hackneyed formulas for success abound, including: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” or “Successful people make their own luck.”

Some clichés, of course, contain grains of truth or practical wisdom: “It’s not what you have, it’s what you overcome.” Or: “It's not what happens to you in life that matters, but how you react to it.”

But clichés are platitudes: By definition, they are simplistic, stale, unsophisticated, and unoriginal.

Often, they are contradictory. That’s a point that Shakespeare makes in one of the most famous passages in Hamlet, where the sanctimonious, scheming Lord Chamberlain, Polonius, offers pithy but pompous advice to his son Laertes. He tells him to be friendly but not overly friendly, and to dress nicely but not overdress. Despite his famous last phrase – “To thine own self be true” -- Polonius’s advice focuses largely on surface appearances.

Clichés are not simply tired bromides. They are the instruments through which a “common-sense” view of life is disseminated. Pithy aphorisms play a central role in the transmission of beliefs. They serve as conduits through which psychological concepts flow into the broader culture.

The clichés we live by shift over time. Whereas fortitude, stoicism, and reticence were once regarded as virtues, self-disclosure and emotional expressiveness are much more highly valued today. Thus, “Express your anger,” Indeed, reticence is now equated not with restraint or discretion, but with uncommunicativeness, caginess, or emotional numbness.

Many of today’s most common clichés reflect the triumph of a “therapeutic” mentality – that is, the application of psycho-therapeutic concepts, precepts, and language to everyday life. Psycho-therapeutic bromides abound, largely reflecting the influence of positive psychology and the human potential movement. “Nurture your inner child,” we are told. Or “Pursue your passion.” Or “Never lose hope.”

At the heart of these precepts are certain therapeutic assumptions: That a negative attitude is unhealthy and counter-productive, and leads to fears that are self-fulfilling, while positive thinking reduces stress, promotes psychological well-being, and leads individuals to regard negative events as transitory and unusual. The injunction to “Move forward” is an example of positive thinking, and reflects the now commonplace view that the solution to life’s problems lies in adopting the correct psychological attitude.

Nowhere is the rise of the therapeutic more evident than in the realm of interpersonal relationships. Take, for example, this cliché about marriage: “It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” The epitome of romantic love is likened to friendship. A lover is someone who is a confidante, a sounding board, an intimate, and a soulmate.

Or take this cliché about friendship: “Friends are like walls. Sometimes you lean on them, and sometimes it’s just enough to know they’re there.” The ideal friend is much more than a pal or buddy, but must be supportive, empathetic, and reassuring. A “feminine” conception of love and friendship is ascendant, involving intimacy, not simply companionship and camaraderie.

Or take the cliché that “Life is a journey.” In a highly mobile society, in which relationships frequently end and few persist in a job with a single company, life is now imagined in terms of an episodic, discontinuous series of chapters. We ourselves define the meaning of these segments, since they are rarely shared with by others.

Though often overused, clichés serve as guides to life that reflect assumptions deeply embedded in popular culture. Yet much as writers need to steer clear clichés and invent images that are fresh and original, so, too, in our personal lives we need to break free from shopworn banalities and truisms and recognize that life does not conform to simplistic formulas.

More from Steven Mintz Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today