The Problem with Labels

There are many ways we label others (or get labeled) in the world today in terms of gender, race, skin color, age, religion, nationality, marital status, personality type (such as Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and others), et al.

For instance, I’ve been guilty of identifying myself as an INFJ (one of the 16 personality types in Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) in the past. One of the reasons I was proud of it earlier was because that particular type happens to be the rarest (based on a sample size), but I’ve realized you can’t let things like this define who you are. Sure, using tests like these can give you insights about yourself, but no single test or metric can be the be-all-end-all definition of you. If anything, it only leads to confirmation bias among other things, which one should be cognizant of. Simply using that to think about yourself in those terms would result in thinking small.

Use of mental health labels can be detrimental as well: OCD, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, autism, dyslexia, alcoholism, to name a few. Doctors might put labels on others thereby causing them to treat them differently than if they had not used labels. Using labels can also make the patients act differently than how they acted prior to being labeled. In other words, using labels serves neither the doctor nor the patient.

In India, if you are a citizen and over the age of 59, you are labeled as a “senior citizen”, for better or worse. Sure, there are benefits to being a senior citizen such as getting priority services in banking and discounted airfare, but more importantly, it informs these people how they (should) act (whether they realize it or not). They might see themselves as being superior to others or feeling entitled for special treatment even when they might not reciprocate the same to those younger than them. The fact that you are inadvertently using age as a factor to respect others should be irrelevant. You want to treat everyone equally and with respect, period.

Here’s a different example. My cousin doesn’t think of himself as an “Indian” (despite it being his nationality). He thinks of himself as a global citizen and that informs how he thinks and acts. I think that’s a great worldview to have. Of course, you can’t teach this to someone.

We put ourselves in boxes trying to define who we are. We get asked the “What do you do (for money)?” question and follow-up questions subsequently, so others can put you in a box, decide where you fit on the socioeconomic strata by determining how much money you make, and judge you based on all the information you give. If you happen to be in India, the people you meet will take it one step further and try to ascertain your religion and/or caste (so they can pigeon-hole you even more) by asking your last name and your ancestral place, as they are often indicative (not always) of the religion you follow. I know it sounds ridiculous, but what can you do? Of course, when you don’t give them the information they seek, at least by way of a conventional response, they feel somewhat uncertain and remain unsure as to what/how to think of you. I know, I prefer being in the latter situation than be put in a box.

So what do we mean by labeling?

Labeling theory is the theory of how the self-identity and behavior of individuals may be determined or influenced by the terms used to describe or classify them. It focuses on the tendency of majorities to negatively label minorities or those seen as deviant from standard cultural norms. A stigma is defined as a powerfully negative label that changes a person’s self-concept and social identity. As humans, we tend to create categories and try to force facts into pigeonholes.

In the book, The Bear That Wasn’t, author Frank Tashlin tells the story of a bear who is repeatedly told he is not a bear, but a “silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat”, so much that it makes the bear question his own identity.

Being repeatedly told as a child not to do certain things can have a lasting impact on the child. For instance, my nephew and niece are vegetarians because their parents happen to be vegetarians. So even when the kids wanted to try different foods, they were discouraged and instead they were repeatedly told they were vegetarians because of their religion, which has now formed a part of their identity. This example is so much more than food choices that it can lead to these kids becoming close-minded and afraid to try new things in the future simply because those things are not a part of their identity anymore. Our jobs as parents isn’t to impose our choices on our kids, but rather, expose our kids to different things and let them decide for themselves. Of course, that requires having an open mind to begin with.

Another example: it’s easy to tell yourself you won’t go to parties because you are an introvert. I am an introvert, but I enjoy going to events I care about and meeting people. Regardless of whether you are an introvert or an extravert, you can learn about them to understand yourself better, but you can’t let those things define who you are and what you do.

Labels affect people differently. Your reaction to a label may be different to how others respond to it.

Other labels we use include political leanings, sexual orientation, health conditions (disabled or special, for instance), body type (athletic, skinny, heavy), financial status (rich, poor, middle class) etc.

Here is why we use labels. We as humans have this natural desire to put labels on everything. Sure, using them gives us a sense of order and help us differentiate things, but it might come at a cost we have not fully comprehended (more on that later). Labels give us an identity and a sense of purpose, for better or worse.

Psychologist John Shaw argues that whenever we are meeting people, we are always Solving for Why. What he means by that is we are always figuring out who we are, who others are. He says it’s the basis upon which we make decisions. Two people solve for Why when they are trying to figure out if they are right for each other to spend their lives with.

We use labels as shortcuts to easily define others so we don’t have to keep figuring them out and because it’s convenient to use them. You don’t have to keep thinking and reinventing the wheel, so to speak. Labels essentially act as stereotypes. We use them because it’s “faster”. For instance, we say to kids: boys don’t cry, girls are bad at math, boys like blue and girls like pink. These are labels we give to kids by projecting our beliefs onto them, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Shaw says that labels are powerful, automatic, and resistant to change.

In fact, the way we think about labels or tags can inform our actions. For some, using labels might be limiting (more on that below), but for others, it might be a framework/structure within which they seek comfort. There is no one right answer for everyone.

Previously, I used to answer the dreaded “What do you do (for money)?” question with, “I am a creative nonfiction writer, management consultant, and an executive coach”, but I found that I was limiting myself because I did so much more than that. Not only that, it creates this perception in people’s minds to think of you a certain way, which depends on their notion of who/what a writer, consultant, or a coach is/does. Later, my response became, “I write creative nonfiction and consult with organizations and the leaders who run them”. The reasoning here was to emphasize the action of doing things as opposed to using nouns. Some time after that, I’d answer in terms of the things I did (apart from work) as being a video gamer, tennis lover, watch collector, etc. Now, when someone asks me that question, I simply respond with the reason I wake up every morning, which is to inspire others to be their best selves so that we can create a better future together.

Similarly, when someone in India asks you the “Where you are from?” question, they expect you to answer the state your ancestors are from (rather than where you are truly from), so they can pigeon-hole you, put you in a box, and judge you on social and economic strata based on stereotypes in their minds. Previously, I used to respond with my nationality (Indian), but I realized that thinking of myself even in those terms was limiting. Nowadays, my response to that question is, “I am a global citizen”, and leave it at that. I also choose to use only my first name when introducing myself.

In relationships, marriage is a label that society gives a couple who wants to be together, but in order for them to live together joyfully, they don’t need approval or validation from the world. They don’t have to sign a piece of paper as a way of showing that. Heck, they don’t have to invite friends and family to a ceremony to let them know the same. More importantly, marriage is a label that informs how we think about our relationship, and that informs our actions. From there, the idea of a good marriage or a bad marriage takes hold. We look for ideas that make a good marriage and so on. By not using the word “marriage” directly, you free yourself from thinking about it in the conventional sense (because then there are no notions or expectations of how a marriage should be), but you may always be looking to improve your relationship with others. Those in favor of “getting married” might argue that formal marriage protects them and gives them a standing in life. Then there are those who think unless you get married formally, it’s not enough of a commitment, but whatever. Other labels in relationships include son, daughter, brother, spouse, sister-in-law, etc.

In India, when you have formally separated from your partner, you might be labeled as a “divorcée” (particularly true with women) and/or a “single parent”. Basically, it sub-communicates things you can do and things you can’t. Everything others think about you gets filtered through that lens, whether or not they think about it consciously. Using those labels makes others act differently around you. I guess in that sense we (India) haven’t progressed as a society as much as we would like to believe. We may call ourselves “modern” from the way we live and talk, but we couldn’t be more orthodox, backward, and hypocritical in our thinking.

We use labels under the pretext of religion. For instance, my cousin believes in not having non-vegetarian food on Tuesdays because he believes his religion does not allow it. Of course, religion is man-made (but that is a different thread altogether), so it’s ironic that we are imposing “rules” on ourselves that we have created.

Here are some issues with using labels. One of them is they tell only a tiny portion of your story. You might have used labels like, “I am a CEO of a large organization” or “I am a caretaker for my parents”. No single label or even a multitude of labels can give you a complete picture of who you are.

The other problem with using labels is how they limit you. While it lets others quickly make sense of things (mostly for worse), it can be limiting in terms of how we think about ourselves. Labels come with baggage. They come with preconceived notions about things, which inform us to be a certain way.

Labels form a lens through which we see things. They make it easy for us to oversimplify the world and fall prey to prejudice and discrimination. They also blind us from seeing the person we truly are and seeing others for the way they are.

Shaw says that labels can morph into additional labels. For instance, using a word such as “beautiful” to describe a princess can equate to “good”, while using “ugly” to describe a witch can morph into meaning “bad”. The same could be said for using the colors, black and white.

We are quick to give labels to people to explain behavior we neglect. We use labels to define our identity. We become prisoners in our own mind to the labels others give us. Labels have the power for us to become the person others tell us that we are (even when we are not). Why do we tend to believe others more than ourselves anyway? Labels separate people and create a divide between them.

As author Ralph Charell has said:

The inner speech, your thoughts, can cause you to be rich or poor, loved or unloved, happy or unhappy, attractive or unattractive, powerful or weak.

Here’s the thing — how we think about ourselves affects everything we do. Labels impact how we identify ourselves or how others identify us and mold us into what we become rather than what we choose to become of our own volition. We might think that we always have a choice (which we do!), but it’s hard to remain immune to labels that others give us. By the way, the effects of these labels can occur even when we don’t say or use them. In other words, in order for labels to work, we don’t even have to actively use them as long as we keep thinking about them. When we use labels, we become those labels both in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. It affects both the people who are labelled as well as those who label others. It skews the perspective of those labelling others and keeps validating their own biases. Labels also create an us” vs “them” dynamic between people.

Using labels confines you in terms of using your work to define who you are. The work you do is only a small part of who you are. You can’t let those few things define who you are. Most of us introduce ourselves in terms of our work, but we don’t have to define ourselves that way.

Labels can also get in the way of true learning for children. Calling one kid “intelligent” while calling another “lazy” can have lasting effects in their childhood and beyond. Who knows, maybe being lazy for a kid is a strength waiting to be explored or discovered? Instead of praising kids (or anyone for that matter) for results or accomplishments, we need to appreciate the effort they put in and the progress they make. It’s not about comparing your progress with that of others, but comparing it to your previous self and seeing how far you’ve come.

Another thing wrong with using labels is that it’s focused on inputs, not outputs. For instance, calling myself a management consultant before could mean different things to different people, despite the prevalence of this work in today’s world.

We don’t need labels to do the right things. For instance, leadership does not require a rank or position, so you don’t have to be an “authority figure” such as a CXO or VP to do something. The truth is anyone can lead and do the right thing rather than waiting for others to do the same.

Job titles are essentially labels we give ourselves. At work, we use job titles like project manager, creative director, vice president, or whatnot. For instance, does that mean that only the creative director gets to be creative? Can someone in an accounting role not be creative? Only the project manager manages projects? What about those working with the manager taking ownership of the things they are working on and being accountable to themselves because they hold themselves to a higher standard? Can only the vice president make decisions? What about giving responsibility to those down the organizational hierarchy who have the information to make decisions rather than making decisions for them and having a false sense of control. Isn’t that true leadership?! How about empowering those who work with you by getting out of their way?

Here are some ideas for subverting labels in our everyday lives:

Author Martha Beck argues there are two kinds of self:

Our essential self and our social self. Our essential self is about who we are at our core, which gets far less play than our social selves, which is the part of you that interacts with the world and puts you in a role that informs nearly every choice you make. We need to spend more time with our essential selves, which can’t be defined by labels, and a lot less time with our social selves, which often rely on them.

When it comes to labeling others, we can try to lessen our use of labels. Rather than try to figure out people when we meet them, why not simply get to know them? We can try not using labels at all, but it might not be so easy after all. It might require a great deal of self-awareness and reflection, which takes time and doesn’t happen overnight. We need to choose the words we use carefully and understand that how we talk (and what we talk about) determines our thinking (and vice-versa).

Avoid giving labels regardless of positive or negative. Avoid saying things like you are “good” at this and “bad” at that. For instance, calling your kid “intelligent” because he aced the exam is just as bad as calling him “lazy” when he didn’t do as well. Instead, appreciate the effort the kid put in rather than giving them praise. Congratulate him on the progress he has made and how far he’s come. Use verbs not nouns. There are many problems with being called “intelligent/top ranker” (or any noun). One of them is it creates sub-conscious pressure (expectation) on the kid, so now in his mind he is intelligent, he has to get the most marks or he is not intelligent any more. The other problem is he might be afraid to try new things and make mistakes because of this label. This would lessen his ability to be truly divergent, which is required for creativity.

Even using words like “good” or “bad” can be thought of as labels, but they are relative like using “cheap” or “expensive” or “right” and “wrong”. Good to one person may be bad to another. Similarly, “white” doesn’t have to mean good and “black” doesn’t have to mean bad. Using these terms should be avoided as it can lead to confusion and misinterpretation. Above all, realize it’s all a matter of perspective.

In order to prevent the schools from giving labels to students, educational consultant James Nottingham suggests we focus on student progress (rather than rank order) and to use labels to describe actions rather than people. We need to look at the things that children are doing rather than the things they are. For instance, instead of saying, “You are racist”, say, “That was a racist thing to say”. While the former example may cause the person being labeled to be defensive, the latter is focused on a specific instance, which he is perhaps likely to feel sorry for later. Label actions/behaviors rather than people. We say what others are doing rather than who they are. He also suggests focusing on student progress rather than getting fixated on the results they get. What matters is how far they have come from where they were before. Use adverbs instead of adjectives.

When others label you, ask yourself if it’s a fact (Is it true?) or an opinion. Failing (or succeeding) at a task or not achieving a goal should not affect your self-esteem in any way. Treat both success and failure the same way. Calling yourself stupid in a situation is different from calling yourself stupid. The latter is a label we give ourselves. Stop defining yourself based on your situations.

We can choose to ignore the labels others put on us, thus taking away any power those labels might have. Let’s say your kid returns from school complaining about how other kids were calling him (or her) names like monkey or donkey. You empathize with the child and you tell them that they didn’t become a monkey or donkey simply because others called him (or her) that. So then it shouldn’t matter what they call you. It’s ironic that adults don’t take the same advice for themselves and instead get provoked so easily from others’ actions.

The point is we can only be (truly) upset from the choices we make. We might say that others irritate us or pressure us to do things, but truth be told, they don’t have any access to our minds. So nothing they say can or should affect you. Of course, this is easier said than done and requires us to build that inner self along with having increased self-awareness, which can take some time. Simply knowing something to be true doesn’t mean you can practice it right away, let alone be that person naturally.

When others label us inadvertently, we should be wary of it. Being given a compliment such as how you are always kind can be flattering, but that doesn’t mean being kind in all situations is warranted. Of course, when someone complements you, you might thank them and say how you are not always that kind, but you try, just to make it more real.

The labels that others give us are not as important as the labels we give ourselves. We can choose to ignore the labels we get from others, but we need to be more cognizant of not giving labels to ourselves, let alone getting attached to them.

When it comes to giving labels to ourselves, we can use positive labels. You see, not all positive labels are bad. For instance, when you think of yourself as a winner in sports, let’s say, you will act and think like a winner until you eventually become one. Using affirmations works in reverse. You think about what you would like to be in the future, and you say it in the present tense as if it was already true. Labels have the power to motivate us. It all depends on how we use them.

Here are some other ideas for dealing with labels:

Stop talking about yourself in terms of what you do and start talking in terms of who you are. That is a more interesting way of making an introduction. If you’re going to talk about your work, talk about why you do what you do. That will make it easy for others to connect with you and care about what you’re doing.

Don’t let others put you in a box. That’s totally your choice. It’s up to you what you share with others about you. To avoid getting labeled, provide unconventional responses to the run-of-the-mill questions from others.

I am reminded of a quote by Tyler Durden in the film, Fight Club:

You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet.

We need to focus on living our lives joyfully rather than worrying and thinking about what others think about us and our relationships. Stop caring about what/how your friends or family think about you. Your job isn’t to guess what they think, but to show up, be your best, and make the most of what you have. Stop doing what I call “mind guessing” — thinking about what others are thinking about us from past actions. It shouldn’t matter to you what others are saying or thinking. This is as true for your personal relationships as it is for your clients or customers. Use labels to your benefit. When you find yourself being called names, one of things you can do is deliberately misinterpret what they call you by way of reframing things, since that is within your purview. This is also consistent with the line of Stoic thinking that you not only accept things (rather than resist/fight), but you take it a step further and revel in them.

Here’s the thing. None of us are truly alike. We all have our own passions and interests. While it may be hard for others to distinguish us from others and more convenient to label us, if left unchecked, they have the power to influence how we think about ourselves. Stop saying things or acting in ways that reinforce the negative labels that others give you.

Labels tell us to think about others a certain way, which limits what/how we think about them. Labels are shells we need to come out of. We are meant to be free and being free lets us see ourselves for who we are.

It’s not the things in our life that happen to us that matters, but how we think about them. We always have that choice. So when others label us, it’s ultimately up to us how we choose to perceive it. We may carry the negative labels that others give us — whether it’s lies we believe or how we feel about ourselves — or we may choose to not be affected by it. We always have a choice, no matter how susceptible we might be to labels.

The truth is there is more to us than what these labels might suggest. We are far too dynamic to be placed in boxes (or categories). The labels we use will never be able to capture the complexity of our true spirit.

How/what we tend to believe about ourselves (by giving labels) is what informs our behavior (and vice versa). When we let (artificial) labels define us, we choose to be small. What would a world without labels look like? Who would you be if the world never gave you a label or a box to check? How would you act differently?

You live up to the labels you attach to yourself. Choose wisely.

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