How good are you at resisting labels?

In a world of vibrant colors, we seem to spend a fair bit of time thinking in black and white. 
 
Today we’re unraveling the impact of labels – that is, the words that we privately assign to others and, of course, to ourselves. At their best, labels make it easier for us to navigate the world; at their worst, labels bind us, in ways we don’t always fully recognize.
 
Think of the words we often assign to others, words such as bossy, difficult, irresponsible, lazy or moody. Think of the times we call ourselves a failure, incompetent, or selfish. 
 
On the flip side, it’s not uncommon that we say someone is intelligent, generous or compassionate. We might refer to ourselves as sociable, funny or giving. 
 
Are the labels useful at times? No doubt. But too often, if the label sticks, it can lead us astray. 
 
Negative labels often diminish our self-confidence; positive labels often create unrecognized pressure to keep meeting the expectation. 
 
Skylar Starnes says it beautifully, “You are more than just a religion, a race, a gender, or a medical diagnosis. You are a person with a collection of many unique and amazing characteristics and qualities.”
 
From the earliest ages, we hear labels assigned to others and ourselves – she’s so smart, he’s a cry-baby, he’s so polite, she’s a troublemaker, he’s a hypocrite, she’s so capable.
 
Think of all the black and white words we use: introvert or extrovert, Type A or Type B, conservative or liberal, social butterfly or wallflower, gregarious or shy. If the labels roll off our backs, no matter. But when they stick to us or others, they often limit our ability to change, and our ability to see others in a full light. 
 
Difficult? Bossy? Vulnerable? 
“When you get to know the ‘difficult’ person,” says Yolande Conradie, in a piece for mindtools.com, “you realize that they’re very detail oriented and have high standards. And you learn that the woman has been working hard to get where she is, and refuses to accept sexist behavior. Is she still bossy? Or is she simply a person with a strong character?” 
 
Don’t Be Shy
Author Martha Beck suggests experts urge us to avoid labeling children, “Instead of labeling a child as ‘a kind child’ or ‘a helpful person,’ try to say ‘you are being kind’ or ‘he was very helpful.’ Instead of saying ‘you are shy’ or ‘don’t be shy,’ try statements such as, ‘it takes a little while for you to feel comfortable with new people,’ or ‘you are talkative with people you know well.’ Instead of labeling a child as a ‘whiner,’ ‘cry-baby’ or ‘selfish,’ use descriptive, more positive words such as ‘tenderhearted’ and ‘aware of their own feelings.’ 
 
Instead of saying ‘ugh, you are so picky!’ say, ‘that’s okay if you don’t want to try it this time.’ Avoid limiting a child by labeling them unintentionally.”
 
Positive effects of labeling
Lest we label labels as purely negative, let’s defend them for a moment. Starnes points out, “There are many positive effects of labeling. Labels can allow people to find a sense of belonging and power with people with whom they relate.” 
 
The educators at facinghistory.com agree, “[Labels] can reflect positive characteristics, set useful expectations, and provide meaningful goals in our lives.”
 
Yet, in the long run, labels seem to do more harm than good, as Bryan Kramer points out, in an article for forbes.com, “Labels end up conveying something absolute.” 
 
Can You Sing? Dance? Draw? 
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite stories. 
 
Picture a kindergarten class where the teacher asks her students: “How many of you can dance?” 
 
All hands fly into the air. 
 
“How many of you can sing?” Again, a chorus of enthusiasm. 
 
“How many of you can draw?” Another universal yes. 
 
Seven years later, a 6th grade teacher poses the same three questions – just a third of students raise their hand. 
 
Fast forward to 12th grade? Perhaps one or two say yes to each. 
 
The fact is, we shift our view of ourselves, and our abilities, based on social pressures – which is sensible, of course, but it does limit our ability to change, and grow, and flourish. 
 
More than that, labels constrict our ability to get to know people who look different, act differently and think differently. 
 
Perhaps we should do as Conradie suggests, “Save the labels for packaging!” 
 

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