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The Power of Labels

The problem with Self-Labelling and what to do about it

It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.
~ W.C. Fields

Labels are powerful things

While labels can define a thing in a way that is informational (goat cheese, clover honey, etc), when it comes to people they are most often negative, inaccurate, and harmful.

More so when we appoint them to ourselves.

I too often assign self-labels without thinking and ultimately, whether or not they are true, they begin to define who I am. Both to others and to my Self. I reinforce them by speaking them or writing them out or just by thinking them and as a result, I manifest them.

If I go around thinking I’m stupid you can be sure that I will go out of my way to prove it by doing something stupid.

I use that one a lot. That was stupid. What the hell did I do that for? These thoughts are usually followed up by my personal favorite, Asshole.

I have a hundred such labels

I’m Angry. Depressed. Unable to Provide. Incapable. Unworthy. Undeserving. Pointless. Alone. 

On and on and on.

It doesn’t matter how smart I am. If I believe I am stupid I will act stupid. If I say that I am angry then I will act angry. If I think that I am undeserving then I will prove it.

Self-labels generally come from two places


It is a natural tendency to define ourselves by our experiences. But while those experiences can not be denied they really don’t define us.

I might say…

Hi, I’m James. I am a truck driver and have been for thirty years. I chose this occupation to provide for a family I no longer have and now I find myself trapped in it.

While this statement can be considered true, it does not define me very clearly. It labels me Truck Driver, Divorced, and Trapped, but it is not accurate because I have obviously experienced far more in my life.

Learned self-image

This is a culmination of all we have heard and been told since birth. We hear these things from our parents, siblings, teachers, friends, even strangers. It is easier, for whatever reason, for us to hear the negative things. Like…

You are unworthy.

This can come from many sources. It can be spoken, shown through action, or even inaction. Denial of affection and the silent treatment are common forms of this. Unfortunately, these particular self-images are most often learned from our parents and they lead us into relationships where the treatment is continued because it has become normal. Expected.

But you are worthy. Everyone deserves to be loved.

We carry these labels like dog tags

Want to know why James acts a certain way? Just check his label. I’m sure you’ll find a reference to either an experience or a learned self-image.

They become weights around our necks dragging us to depths we are not meant to fathom. They hold us back. Deter us. Detour us. Derail us.

How do we break free?

Well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?

Let’s start with the reasons to break free first.

Labels are most often attached to negative feelings

It’s easier to think things like dumbass than to think genius because our society has taught us to frown on such claims. We believe those thoughts to be egotistical or vain. But just because it’s in poor taste to go around saying I am a genius does not mean that I should go around saying I am stupid. That really would be stupid.

Labels are inaccurate

Take the I’m a truck driver example. Yes, I drive truck for a living, but my true ambition, the calling I am trying to answer, is writing. I could say I’m a writer, but that wouldn’t be exactly true either because I am also a musician, a fair mechanic, an accomplished craftsman, an entrepreneur of sorts, a hell of a cook and a lot more.

Try putting all that in a label.

Labels are self-fulfilling

Do a web search on self-fulfilling prophecy and you will find 1,530,000 results. I am not kidding. All of them say pretty much the same thing; if I believe a thing to be true, I make it true.

If you want to self-fulfill a prophecy start thinking I rock! because you really do.

You is kind. You is smart. You is important.
~ Katheryn Stockett

Ok, now what? Can I be fixed?

Let me be absolutely clear on this: You are not broken. You don’t need fixing. Those are just more negative labels.

The goal is to reduce the negative labels. To free ourselves from their effects. To live intentionally. Maybe even be a little happier.

Here’s a good start

  1. Be Aware
    Pay attention to your thoughts. Not critically, that just leads to more labels. Passively. Note the labels you assign yourself at any given moment.
  2. Acknowledge 
    Be willing to name the labels. I am being… whatever.
  3. Accept
    Accept that this is something everyone does. There are no exceptions.
  4. Understand
    Try to understand where this particular label came from. Why it exists. And how it is affecting you.
  5. Forgive
    This is important. I can’t release a label if I beat myself up for assigning it. That just assigns more labels. Forgive yourself and anyone who may have helped create the label. And…
  6. Let it go
    Easier said than done, I know. But you can do it.
  7. Assign a new label
    Do what? I thought this article was about dropping labels?

    Yes, it is, but as I said in the first line, labels are powerful things. Why not reassign a positive label to replace the negative one?

    Maybe start with I am aware, I am accepting, I am understanding, I am forgiving.

Remember to breathe

One of the most important tools anyone can have in their toolbox is a mindfulness practice. Being mindful is easy and takes no time out of your day. It is a simple and effective way of creating awareness, acceptance, and understanding.

I’ve included some links at the end of this article that can lead you to further exploration of the subject as well as related books and online resources.

Who am I?

That is the question behind all the labels. The question that drives our compulsion to assign and receive labels.

The answer to that question is deceptively simple: You are who you believe yourself to be.

Believe that you are extraordinary, because you are.

Image by Fancycrave

Want more information?

Book Recommendations (affiliate links)

Online resources (I am not affiliated with but recommend)

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