The crazy thing about life (one of many) is that very few things are certainties, and very few things are all good or all bad, and yet we label ourselves, label others, judge situations and try to create order in doing so. This process often leads to detrimental negative self-beliefs that keep us stuck in unhealthy patterns and often derail motivation.
Research has shown that labels create a sense of immobility, a felt belief that once labeled, nothing can change. Labeling is often defined as when someone ascribes a descriptor to person or group of people that they themselves did not choose. In a study done by T. Garcia in 2013, on what is known as “labeling theory,” it was determined that when someone sees themselves as being labeled, it becomes a deeply held belief about one’s inherent worth or one’s identity, and often ends up becoming a “self fulfilling prophecy” as they live up to the beliefs they or others hold of them .
When we look at society as a whole, there are many labels based on race, skin color, sexual identity, politics, socio-economic status, and even psychiatric diagnoses or personality traits. Many of these labels are advertised in some form or another across social media platforms, media in general, and are rampant in the halls of schools throughout the nation. The problem is that ultimately these labels become can become negative self-beliefs that are restrictive and detrimental to the very nature of what life is all about: change and growth.
We are designed to grow and change. In fact, we are always, always in a state of “becoming.” Neurologically, we are constantly taking in new information, firing new neuronal pathways, and as a result, evolving in our perceptions and perspectives about life and how we fit into the world around us. Whether we consciously choose to modify our behavior or not, our responses to things change.
Take for example, a person who has been traumatized by a tragic event that they experienced, and is triggered by reminders of that event, resulting in a knee jerk reaction such as feeling a reflexive defense response or feeling a wave of sadness come over them. Those automatic responses shape behavior and change a person. So if change is able to happen so automatically, why do so many people feel that they cannot change from the way in which they believe they have been labeled, even if the label is self imposed?
In the world of psychology, therapists are invested in the belief that people can change. We believe that children who have been physically or emotionally abused or told that they were “bad” are able to work through those experiences and shed the label that for years may have plagued them as a closely held negative self-belief. We believe that the human spirit can transcend the challenges, tragedies, labels and hurdles that are manmade and errantly formed. We believe in the power of relationship and that through good attunement, psycho-education, and other strategies, people can shed their labels, or at least start to hold those labels as states that are forever in flux and evolving. No one needs to be prisoner to a label (or a negative self-belief!)
The very act of labeling overlooks the fact that there is very little in life that is finite. Every good quality has it’s shadow side, every negative quality has the potential to change, every tragedy experienced has the potential for being overcome by triumph and resilience, and every moment comes with another moment that follows. Labels take on the quality of “or.” Someone is this OR that. Can someone not be a little of this AND a little of that? Can they not enjoy one thing in this moment and something else in the next?
Consider for yourself how you have been impacted by labels. Consider the labels you have created for the world around you and how those beliefs have impacted the way you interact with the world. We obviously require words to describe things. But, ask yourself, have you automatically adopted those descriptors as finite? If you really feel stuck and can’t seem to move forward, there is a good chance it has to do with a negatively held belief you have about yourself. Ask yourself some of the following questions:
What are the labels you have placed on yourself?
Are there descriptors you prefer? Are there some that you like?
What have others told you that you have adopted as fact?
What are the labels you have placed on others?
What do you believe about yourself that holds you back?
What labels do you fear and what do you aspire to?
When in your life to you first recall having heard or adopted that label or negative self-belief?
What are the thoughts that can challenge those labels/ negative self-beliefs?
Growth and change involve looking at the narrative we hold of our experiences and the way we define the world and others around us. Consider the possibilities! As you adopt a flexible mindset with the world around you, it may change the way you believe about yourself and help you to foster a more adaptive and mindful mindset.
1 Garcia, T. D. , 2013-03-21 “Labels and its effects on Deviance” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Pacific Sociological Association Annual Meeting, Nugget Casino, Reno/Sparks, Nevada