Do Names Really Not Hurt Us? Why Labels Limit You.

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A Woman Confined Behind a Chain-Link Fencebig part of a coach’s work is to help a client uncover their limiting beliefs – things that hold us back and get in the way of progress and change. One thing I have noticed is how our labels – even seemingly positive ones – can become limiting beliefs and keep us trapped in old patterns!

So, What is a Label Anyway?

A label is simply a descriptive term we use to refer to ourselves or others. And while they seem harmless, these labels often create a ‘box’ we get stuck in.

We get labelled from an early age – by family, teachers and friends. And these labels, about our appearance, personality, how we work, our style or general behaviour – get repeated so often they appear to be true. Sometimes we even repeat these labels to others because we don’t know any better. Then, later in life, our colleagues and bosses add to our list of labels.

Examples of Labels could include: Peter is so BRIGHT, he’s such a BOOKWORM, Dennis loves computers, he’s a GEEK. Mary is a FREE SPIRIT, Jen is the OFFICE MOM, Sarah is so FRAGILE, Rita is FORGETFUL and ALWAYS LATE. Emma is a FIERY REDHEAD, a DREAMER, a CHATTERBOX. John is a DARK HORSE, a JOCK, a BULLY.

Often we take on these labels because we don’t want to upset important people in our lives, or we may get stuck with them because we’re too busy or feel powerless to challenge or reject them. And saddest of all, if given to us early enough we even BECOME our labels.

“Once you label me, you negate me.” Soren Kierkegaard

So, What Does this Mean for Me Now?

As adults, labels can make it difficult for us when we want to behave in a way that is different to how others see us: A label can become a LIMITING belief – and keep us stuck, even when we WANT to change.

So, if Mary always considered herself to be a ‘free spirit’ she may find getting married or taking a local job scary or restrictive. Or Sarah, labelled as ‘fragile’ may struggle to be strong and stand up for herself when a situation demands it.

There is always a judgement – whether positive or negative – that goes with our labels. When the label fits we feel good about ourselves and when it doesn’t fit us or our environment we feel bad (guilt, shame, anger, disappointment, resentment).

There are Advantages to Labels:

  1. Labels make life and/or people seem easier to deal with.
  2. Labels can save us time – we know who to ask for what, and who NOT to ask!
  3. So-called ‘positive’ labels can help us feel secure in ourselves – this is who I am…
  4. Labels can guide our behaviour – we know what is expected of us.
  5. And labels can give us permission to do things or be a certain way that may be comfortable or convenient for us…

But, The Disadvantages of Labels include:

  1. Labels can become limiting beliefs and keep us stuck. We believe that it’s just the way we are. So, Rita keeps missing appointments, including a recent job interview and says, “Oh well, I’m always late!” or “I’m just a forgetful nellie” instead of looking at ways to improve and learn.
  2. Helping us avoid actions we don’t want to do. While this can be helpful when it suits us, it also limits us. Red-headed Fred gets angry easily: “I’ve just got a fiery temperament” so he doesn’t go to his anger-management classes.
  3. Keeping us stuck in difficult relationships and patterns of behaviour, often with other people who we have also labelled. Jack says, “John’s the strong one – he’s my rock” and John says, “Jack is so gentle and emotional.” John now has to keep up the appearance of being in control and strong even when he doesn’t feel it. And Jack doesn’t get to be angry so hides it by being passive-agressive. John and Jack are stuck and keep triggering each other in their relationship – and they each think it’s just the way things are.
  4. Labels are inflexible and rigid. They don’t allow us to be or behave differently according to the circumstance. And this even (or especially!) applies to so-called positive labels like “being reliable”. Jane is “reliable” so she doesn’t feel comfortable saying no or being spontaneous and putting her needs first.
  5. Labels can become a source of annoyance or frustration – as we spend our time trying to live up to them or trying to live them down! Alex was the class clown. She enjoyed it at the time, but now she’s trying to forge a new career as a lawyer – and no-one is taking her seriously. Or Scott, ‘the brainy one’ is feeling a lot of negativity from his family (and his inner critic) as he tries to pursue an arts career.

Optional Homework:

  • What are your labels? Think back as far as you can, and start to make a list gradually working your way to the present day.

Once you see that your label is just a word AND that you have the power to change it, you’re well on their way to changing that limiting belief!

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