What are thought-terminating clichés?
The term “thought-terminating cliché” was coined by Robert Jay Lifton in his 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, which outlined his theories about the ego formation. “The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché,” writes Lifton. “The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.”
In less academic language, Lifton is pointing out the human tendency to take complex feelings, concepts, and politics, and shrink them into short, clever phrases that aren’t necessarily untruthful, but don’t tell the full story. A great example is when political parties say something like, “this is all part of the liberal agenda…” or “this is all part of the Republican strategy to…” While these dismissals aren’t totally false, they bring conversation to a grinding halt and keep people from thinking more deeply about important issues.
12 Common Though-Terminating Clichés
Below, find a few thought-terminating clichés specifically targeted at mental health. And remember, if you’re struggling to care for the well-being of your brain or finding yourself relying on these clichés often, it’s worth talking to a professional who can help you develop more sustainable self-talk skills.
- “It is what it is.”
- “So it goes.”
- “It could be worse.”
- “Time heals all.”
- “Someone out there has it worse than you.”
- “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
- “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”
- “This too shall pass.”
- “It’s all about balance.”
- “Try to look on the bright side.”
- “The sun will come out tomorrow.”
- “The only way out is through.”
How To Avoid Thought-Terminating Clichés
Once you start listening in for thought-terminating clichés, you will hear them everywhere (often disguised as toxic positivity). Even commonly held pieces of folk wisdom, like “everything happens for a reason” technically fall prey to this human need to simplify, simplify, simplify. Some of the most harmful, reductive ones can be found in the realm of mental health. For example, if you’re feeling depressed or anxious, and someone says something like, “just hang in there,” you’ll probably feel worse, not better.
That said, now that you know the terminology, you can identify when you (or someone around you) is using this tactic. Then you can decide to reframe your own thoughts, or consider if you can communicate to your companion why these sort of phrases just aren’t helpful. At the very least, you’ll have a better understanding of why people feel the urge to boil things down to basic, pithy phrases. And hey, at the risk of using my own thought-terminating cliché, that’s better than nothing.