The Good and Bad of Labels

Democrat. Republican. Christian. Muslim. Atheist. Gay. Straight. Transgender. Environmentalist. Polluter. Pro-choice. Pro-life. Black. White. Capitalist. Communist. And on and on.

I’ve been thinking lately about how we so naturally place labels on things and people and how they affect our Living, Breathing Story. Neurologically speaking, that labeling is a good thing—it allows our brains to make sense of the world so we can more easily navigate through it. Imagine if every time you saw a maple tree or a cell phone or a stop light—or anything else, for that matter—you had to stop and decide what it did, how it would affect you, what it meant to you, and what it was called. You would spend your life in utter confusion and chaos. Thankfully, your brain is very good at naming and categorizing things.

But these names and categories don’t exist in a vacuum. They all have emotional associations connected to them. While this further helps you function more easily in the world, it also leads to many potential problems in interactions with other human beings, each of whom has his or her own associations with the labels (see how confusing this can get?) .

The words at the top of this post are simple words we invented to describe people—but each one is also loaded with a host of mental, emotional, and physical responses. We all have our own positive or negative reactions to them (remember that “negative” and “positive” are relative terms, depending totally on the perception of each individual), and so we react accordingly. And not always for the better.

What about the labels we assign to ourselves? You know, like “too old/fat/dumb,” or “not good/smart/accomplished enough.” And on and on. You’ll notice that those labels are all negative or limiting in some way. Of course, we have positive labels for ourselves, too, but because our brain has a natural negativity bias, it’s oh-so-easy to fall into its clutches and tilt towards the negative. As you well know, that kind of self-labeling doesn’t exactly leave us feeling good about ourselves or eager to explore new situations.

Our labels originate from many sources: family, teachers, religion, society, culture, history, to name only a few. In reality, most of them are false. But when we believe them, they solidify within our Living, Breathing Story to become our self-image.

In Mark Matousek’s brilliant new book, Writing to Awaken: A Journey of Truth, Transformation, & Self-Discovery, he writes eloquently about self-image, that “portrait we carry in our head, representing the person we imagine ourselves to be…It’s a distorted, subjective view made up of stories, beliefs, emotions, desires, biases, and insecurities that have little factual basis. As an inside job, self-image is entirely personal and subjective. While it may evolve over time, self-image tends to glue into place like a photograph fixed on a moving object, concealing the truth of who we are.” (My italics.)

“How does self-image become so entrenched?” asks Matousek. “Through the imposition of narrative labels. Putting names to thinks solidifies them in our minds.”

And then, when we believe a label, when we “settle upon a story,” says Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, “we must live it as if it were true. We must perform it by living it. By enacting the story, by living as if it were true, we make it so. We make it true.” (Narrative Medicine: The Use of History and Story in the Healing Process)

In other words, we invent these labels—these little stories—and then when we believe them, we live them.

But there’s good news! Since we invented them in the first place, we can re-invent them or what they mean. Or create new labels altogether. Remember that it’s not always healthy to believe everything you think.

I invite you to try some journaling to experience labeling for yourself. Please be as honest as you can. Your journal is private, so no one else will see what you write.

• Look at the words at the top of this post. It’s likely you will have some strong reactions to some of them (and it’s okay to admit that). Choose one that describes you and write about yourself in that context. Then choose one you believe is its opposite, and write about your beliefs regarding someone described by that word. Do this for several word pairs.

Now change your focus. Choose one of the “opposite” words you chose earlier and write about yourself in that context. Do this for several word pairs.

What did you discover? Do you think your beliefs are true? If so, why?

• Consider the labels or names you apply to yourself. Write down five of them. Where did they come from? Do you believe them? Live them? How? For the ones that don’t serve you well, what would you like to replace them with? (Even if you don’t yet believe you can replace them with something more positive, write anyway. Give yourself permission.) How do you feel emotionally and physically when you compare the two versions of yourself?

What did you discover? Do you think your beliefs are true? If so, why?

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