I love label makers. Give me a “Brother P-Touch” and I’ll gladly organize your home. Labeling things makes me feel in control, allowing me to find order in chaos. It lets me know what to expect when I open a file, a drawer, or the unknown. And while most people don’t share my enthusiasm for home organization, they label things nonetheless for the exact same reason.
Labeling ourselves and others helps us to feel safe, to feel protected, and feel like we know what to expect when we “open that drawer.” And while I’m sure a blog post about judging others would be helpful, I’d rather put the focus on you. How do you label yourself? Maybe you think you’re “the nerd”, “the quitter”, or as I often called myself, “the black sheep.” Whatever you think you are, you’re probably wrong. And that’s a good thing.
Most of us have slapped some names on ourselves based on past experiences or circumstances (usually negative). We then expand on that experience and make generalizations about our identity. Over time, we go from “I made a mistake” to “I always make mistakes” to “I am a mistake.”
Labeling ourselves is natural. It helps us to organize our social interactions. For example, when I think of myself as a “daughter,” I have a distinct set of behaviors that govern my relationship with my parents. When I’m in “friend mode,” I am easy going and swear like a truck driver. And when I think of myself as a “girlfriend,” I am loving, supportive, and adorably neurotic (my labels = my definitions!) These labels aren’t just accessories, they dictate how we speak, what we say, and even the actions we take.
While it doesn’t take much for us to adopt a negative role based on limited evidence, it often takes a great deal of “proof” to embrace a positive label. For example, as a kid, I was compared to my remarkable older brother. He was and is the “ideal son.” Harvard grad, doctor, can reach things on high shelves, etc. After a few comparisons by teachers, I decided I was the stupid one.
Was it true? Absolutely not.
Did it take years of evidence to the contrary before I believed it. Hell yeah!
Even positive labels have a downside. Defining ourselves as only one thing is not only inaccurate, but limiting. And any evidence that challenges this label (such as a perceived failure) will throw us into a tailspin. Ultimately, no matter what role you’re playing in this moment, your values and core self remain constant.
So how do you break free of the labels?
Question it. When you or someone else labels you, ask yourself:
- Is what this person is saying true?
- Do I want to define myself by this circumstance alone?
- What’s a realistic and empowering lesson that can guide me in the future?
Labels limit your actions, self-concept, and potential. Embrace that your true self is a combination of multiple parts that contradict and complement each other in a dynamic, exciting, and unique way.
Of course, you could also continue to believe the false negative labels. But then you’d be the guy who’s still trying to prove that the earth is flat.
The choice is yours.