You Are Not Your Label

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Has anyone ever slapped a label on you that was hurtful, inaccurate, and, if you believed it, compromised your personal welfare?

If so, you are not alone.

Labels cover the gamut from racial stereotyping “you people”, psychological reductionism “depressive”, personal insults “geek”, or family put downs “black sheep”.

They also creep into the workplace. Leadership qualities can come across as a double-edged sword. The “strong-minded, independent” can also be vilified as the “poor team player”. The performance evaluation that you are “brilliant at executing plans” can imply the flipside that you “do not have a strategic bone in your body”.

Why is it that we use labels so frequently?

One of the non-toxic causes of labels is that we live in a highly complex world. As a result we try to simplify things by reducing them to categories.

We also have a penchant for conveniently putting people into boxes as far as their personality or temperament is concerned.

Unfortunately however the process can

  • Limit us to a particular role or function – “I am always…”
  • Become a carrier for venomous put downs “You are a loser”
  • Miss the mystery and magic of our personhood “I wonder what I could really be?”
  • Reduce us to self-limiting statements “I could never…”
  • Limit the possibilities of what we could become “I could learn to be a strategist”.

The key steps in transcending labels is to

1.   Consider the Source.  People who pin hurtful labels on us are often acting out their own past hurts. So the label is more about them than it is about us. Now when a parent called you hurtful names when you were a child you took it very personally. Every child does. However as an adult you can begin to distance yourself from the hurtful epithet and not judge yourself in the same way. At work your label may come from an envious boss. You don’t have to buy into his/her opinion.

2.   Resist the User. The time has come for you to use your personal awareness and assertiveness to declare first to yourself and then to others “I will no longer allow myself to be regarded in such self-limiting ways”. At work we challenge the boss who limits our abilities to tactical skills. We declare, ”Give me a seat at the strategy table and see what I can learn from you.”

 3.   Relabel yourself. I know people who have changed their names for one reason or another. This is a way of assuming a preferred identity. The same with relabeling ourselves by altering our self-talk. What would your preferred label be? We can also craft our career “brand” by asking for assignments that develop our leadership muscles in new areas.

Finally, resist any impulse, yours and others, to label you through self-limiting or stereotypical lenses.

Become what you can dream for yourself and don’t be defined by the biased opinion of others.


 How have your changed your label or brand?

About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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2 Responses to You Are Not Your Label

  1. cedricj says:

    Jerry Steward posted the following on Facebook.

    “Pretty much everybody runs an inner narrative about themselves and the world we live in. Sometimes it’s positive, sometimes it’s negative, but it’s all story and not who you really are, so why believe it?”

    • cedricj says:

      You are so right Jerry that the labels we use are largely the titles for the stories we tell ourselves. These stories are often woven into the very fabric of our lives. Debunking them is a slow and difficult process. It’s not as easy (you did not imply that it was) as saying “I don’t believe in Santa or the tooth fairy”. But that awareness that they are stories is an important part in getting to who we really are.

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