Do you know your labels?
When we’re kids, we start to unconsciously identify with the labels other people give to us: shy, smart, happy, outgoing, strong, gifted, leader, nerd, trustworthy, athlete, introspective, kind, generous, quiet, artist, gamer, dreamer, future scientist, and many more.
But how about tomboy, girly girl, stupid, mean, bully, strong-willed, a failure, never going to amount to anything, ugly, fat, skinny, weird, gross, anxious, depressed, a basket case, not as smart as your sibling, too smart for your own good? I could be more explicit here, but I’m sure you get the drift.
We not only take on these labels from others, but also begin to place them on ourselves. Even the most positive label can be to our detriment if that is how we begin to self-identify—attaching our well-being to something external that becomes the truth of who we think we are.
I think it’s pretty clear if we begin to identify with a negative label where that can go wrong, whether it is self-identified or given to us by others. But what about the labels we deem positive or essential to who we are?
It’s the girl described as kind who becomes afraid to set appropriate boundaries with others who are mistreating her because she doesn’t want to hurt their feelings or be seen as mean. Even after a friend starts emotionally bullying her and stealing her things. Even after her boyfriend starts hitting her, because he always apologizes and claims that he didn’t mean it.
It’s the boy described as an athlete who is afraid to tell his family and coach that he no longer enjoys playing the game that has become an obligation that he silently dreads. He begins to hope that he will become seriously injured just to escape the expectations of becoming a college or pro athlete.
It’s the girl labeled as gifted who gets diagnosed with an anxiety disorder because she’s terrified of receiving a low grade on a test or being scolded by a teacher for not working up to her potential. She’s stressed her entire high school and college years, unable to enjoy relationships or downtime because she has to be the top student in her class.
It’s the boy described as a dreamer who begins to believe he’s never going to earn a good living with his lofty ideas, so he takes the safe career path and feels miserable every day he goes to work for 30 years—feeling fulfilled and content only a few hours a week when he can escape to his preferred way of living.
Are these all scenarios I just made up? The answer is yes. Are they going to happen to everyone who has these labels? Of course not. But do they actually happen to real people in one or the other way? An emphatic yes.
Labels are part of an underlying drive to establish our place in the world. They attach us to a way of being and help to shape our way of experiencing life.
If we aren’t careful though, by the time we’re adults, we can be smothered by them. They begin to limit our world and shape our self-image in ways that might not be of benefit to ourselves and others.
So if I asked you to describe who you are—what would you say?
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