Do You Label?


Do you label people?  Maybe label yourself?   And not with little stickers.  I mean assigning a general and often negative name to people.

For instance, instead of saying, “She made a mistake,” you say, “She’s a loser.”

Or instead of “I did not prepare well for the meeting,” you think, “I’m a failure.”

Labeling may seem like a simple way to define people.  This can be for our own processing of the world or to express our opinion to others.  People even label themselves, which is often a very limiting mindset.

This type of behaviour is very commonly seen in arguments.  Labels are used to degrade others and to hurt them.  Quitter, Idiot, Fool, Loser, Whiner, Child.    Or if not used directly in the argument, these labels are used as people vent and rage about what bothers them.

Degrading others, even with labels, won’t elevate you.  And labeling is a fast tool for lowering your standard.

Labels can also be tied directly to our own self-esteem, much of which is formed in our youth.  Junior high and high school is filled with labels, many of which as adults people continue to cling to as their identity. Athlete, Popular, Smart, Nerd, Geek, Pretty, Slacker, Jock.

And even if we did not ask or like the label, as adults many people still cling to that single word definition of themselves.  Interestingly, most of us are very different from our youth.  We change and don’t even know that the old labels may not even fit any more.  Yet they drive your behaviour.

When I was in school I was not athletic.  I was not part of the more popular and cool crowd.  Right or wrong, I was labeled the “smart kid” in various ways.  And my self-esteem became geared to proving that true.  I gained short-term boosts to my self-esteem by solving problems, including class assignments and the problems of others.  I became a “fixer” (see, a label) and wanted to “fix things” for others.

As an adult this created many problems.  I (and people like me) would accept responsibility for solving problems that often were not really my full responsibility.  I would tackle problems I couldn’t solve and then felt I had to accept responsibility for the original problem (which may have nothing to do with me).  This is not appropriate or healthy.

I had to learn that I can’t fix everything.  I can’t fix others.  And all that is okay.  I can have empathy and be helpful where appropriate.  But I can say “No” to people without guilt or even explaination.

My label is not who I am, it was something others used to classify me.  The labels were often likely meant as a compliment.  It was my lack of understanding that allowed it to define me and how I sought approval.

Here’s a test.  Since we can see a behaviour in others easier than we can usually see it in ourselves, count the number of times in a day you hear other people use labels for people.  Then take another day and listen to yourself.   As you listen, each time you hear a label, ask yourself, “Did that label minimize someone, show disrespect or limit how they are seen by others?”

Labeling is one of the classic cognitive distortions that we all do to some degree.  It can help us classify our world but it can also limit how we see others in our world.


About the Author

Glenn S. Phillips works with leaders who want to leverage technology and understand risks within. An author and blogger, Glenn is often quoted in national media, plays a really ugly tuba (it even has a bullet hole) and is a fan of dark chocolate and great puns.