Labels are useful. They help us organize our world—for example, college majors, job levels, geographic boundaries, demographic descriptors. Labels are necessary in research and in medical treatment. In research, we fit people and events into categories. In health care, we need diagnostic and disease parameters so appropriate treatment can be provided. In everyday life we use labels to help us make choices. Think about brand names for products such as phones and clothing, or labels on food products (organic? gluten-free?), generic drugs or off-label use.
There are, of course, numerous negatives around labeling. Stereotyping is an excellent example that leads to generalizations. Racial profiling and scapegoating also come to mind. One other aspect of labeling is that it can result in self-fulfilling prophecies.
To better understand this, try the following exercises:
1. Quickly choose five adjectives that describe you. Don’t give it a lot of thought. Just write down the first five words that come to mind.
2. If you can find your high school yearbook, reread the comments written by your friends and by the individuals who weren’t so friendly toward you. Were there any labels attached to your photo? Were you “the most likely to succeed” “or “always the life of the party?”
4. List all of the nicknames family members and others have called you? Did a childhood nickname follow you into adulthood? Do you like the nickname? Do you still identify with it?
5. Think about your coworkers. Are there terms you use for one another (the “genius,” the whiner, boss’s pet or worse.)? Is there a workplace label that you know colleagues apply to you? Are you OK with it?
Then determine whether or not the labels linked to you impact your life in any way. If you have always been called “smart,” do you have self-confidence? If your childhood label was “chubby,” do you still worry about weight and body image even though you outgrew chubbiness years ago. If the boss says you are a “go-getter,” do you feel that you deserve more respect from your colleagues?
Finally, consider the labels in your self-talk. When you make a mistake, do you hear yourself applying the “stupid” label or repeating some other negative term that someone once used about you? Be more aware of the labels you use and those you accept about yourself. Self-labeling and self-talk can help you move forward in a positive way, or they can result in self-sabotage.