Are the labels you’re giving yourself helping you?

Summary: Beware of labels – they can trick you into becoming convenient excuses and can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies.



I really dislike labels. Our brains are not able to consciously process all of the information coming their way, so they crave to simplify, compare to the known & label, just to effectively categorise incoming data and enable us to make any decisions on the back of it. But if you’re not careful and give in to the automatic nature of this process, you might find that the labels that you attribute to yourself, others use to describe you or you attribute to others can have a negative impact on multiple different aspects of your life.

I remember when I was in primary school, teachers used to give us labels, categorising some of us as ‘scientific minds’ = good at maths and the others as ‘humanist’, which might be a 1:1 translation from Polish, but essentially meant ‘not as good at / not gifted in maths and more predestined for soft things like literature / history / politics etc.’. I wonder how that simple, harmless labelling influenced our choices and our lives up until now. I know that because of being in the second group, almost throughout my whole education I perceived maths as something that I didn’t need to spend too much time on, as I wouldn’t fully get it anyway and just learned enough to pass the exams. It was not until my Economics studies when I realised how useful mathematical thinking is and that it would’ve been amazing to invest more effort in it when I was younger to not have to catch up that dramatically. I am 100% sure that the ‘humanist’ label had an impact of my approach to maths and it’s kind of sad that the teachers were handing out those labels (come to think of it, parents did it, too, actually). It was most likely subconscious / not intentionally negatively impactful and probably an instance of the Rosenthal Effect in many cases.

I’ve worked with a guy who gave himself the label of ‘big picture thinker’ and practised the affirmation ‘I don’t do detail’ literally daily. You know my approach to details. I do think that people might tend to prefer details or big picture, but what I don’t believe is that these are mutually exclusive. But if you convince yourself daily that you do not do details and also tell others about it all the time, you shouldn’t really be surprised when details elude you or when you have problems with remembering / understanding them! I know that this is obvious, but over time those labels become a habit, a part of your nature if you just convince yourself of them enough.

Another favourite label of mine is ‘too old to learn’, which is a different example of a self-inflicted wound on your capabilities. Hey, we’re living in a world where the only pretty much constant elements are change and death – everything else might or might not happen. So if you managed to convince yourself that you’re too old to change your habits, too old to learn new skills or even too old to listen to feedback – then well done for shooting yourself in the foot. Hopefully you’ve made this choice consciously.

Have you ever had an MBTI assessment or even an IQ test? In my opinion that’s another way (even though pretty scientific) of labelling. If you get a low IQ score on your IQ test, how will that affect your self-esteem, your job choices and your way of thinking if you choose to fully believe in it? Or if it comes out on the MBTI assessment that you’re more of a thinker than someone who goes by feelings, how will that impact your way of working? That’s why my main suggestion is to approach labels with caution instead of blindly believing in them and reorganising your life by them.

There are some questions that my former boss referred to as ‘Schroedinger’s questions’, i.e. the ones that cause something to happen by having asked them. An IQ test is a kind of a Schroedinger’s question – until you take it, you are and you aren’t smart (as defined by people who devised the test), but once you have taken it, you become categorised based on your result. It is potentially worth knowing, as long as you put some healthy distance between yourself and any of those labels.

My suggestion for the coming weeks is this (and I’m following it as well): observe what labels are you giving yourself, what are others giving you and what are you giving others. Note how often you hear the same label and whether it has not turned into a convenient excuse or a self-fulfilling prophecy. To paraphrase Lenin (never thought it’ll come to this), ‘a label told often enough becomes the truth‘ and we need to be very careful about what we want to materialise in our lives.

Once you’ve noticed any harmful labels that you put on yourself, on others or others attribute to you, decide, whether that’s the label that you like. If not – build a habit of not using it! And see how it will affect your life. If you’re being referred to as a ‘young man’ in a derogatory sense, let the other person know that this is not the attribute that you want to be known for and make sure that you mention that until that preference of yours sticks. It might cause ‘young’ to be replaced by ‘annoying’, but hey, that’s progress, right?

Approach labels with caution. I recommend de-personalising them and instead of saying ‘I’m an introvert’ and therefore excusing away why you don’t want to socialise with colleagues, try ‘I have introvert tendencies and can consciously choose to act in an extrovert way if I need to’. Instead of saying ‘I don’t do details’, try ‘Big picture seems to be my strength, but if I spend more time on the details, I can master them’. ‘Too old to learn’ could be replaced with ‘I am of a certain age and have a lot of experience. I am aware of the constant change around me and of the fact that if I want to remain competitive, I need to embrace adaptation’. You get the gist.

Regain control over the characteristics that have been taken over by labels. And consciously choose those labels that are beneficial to you and to your goals. I choose to call myself a ‘healthy eater’, an ‘athlete’ (it’s interesting how much I cringed when I wrote this word, not feeling worthy of it – probably a story for a different post), a ‘versatile consultant’. I choose the ‘boxes’ that I want to lock myself in, trying to ensure first that they are wall-free.

Have a read of this as well, I found this post interesting and useful and it touches on similar topics as I do.

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