To set yourself free, lose imposed labels

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  • While positive labels can help foster community, imposed labels can be confining.   
  • Often times, negative labels can affect how people behave. 
  • It’s time people be recognised for their unique selves and celebrated for their individuality.

Labels. We all have them. ‘Sarah is such a joker’. ‘Emma is free-spirited’. ‘Jenna is so dark’. ‘Leigh is the office busybody’. But the first step towards rediscovering our individuality, uniqueness and our ability to be happy is to get rid of the labels attached to us – either by others, or ourselves.

“We get labelled from an early age, by family, friends and teachers. It continues throughout our lives. Problem is, every label comes with a judgment - and frankly, they’re downright dangerous, because they get repeated so often they become true, which is hugely damaging to us,” says Nicola Middleton, thought leader at NicolaBrands.

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“Labels put individuals through an assembly line, using a standard cookie-cutter mould. They make millions of identical products, instead of amazing, colourful, vibrant, individual unique human beings,” she adds.

Changing a label often starts with a small shift in semantics. ‘I am an addict’ is a label. ‘I’m battling with addiction’ is a condition. The change in words is minor, but the change in effect is massive, says Nicola. “Being an addict, or having bipolar, is an impossibly heavyweight to carry. Struggling with a condition is lighter; it’s a challenge that encourages the individual, and the people around them, to look at themselves differently and encourages them to move forward positively.”

Nicola Middleton

Nicola Middleton. Photo supplied by Kingdom Publicity House 

How powerful are labels?

The dangers of labels have been known for decades. According to Psychology Today, linguist Benjamin Whorf first proposed a hypothesis in the 1930s that ‘the words we use to describe what we see aren't just idle placeholders - they actually determine what we see’.

In the original research of the famous Pygmalion Effect studies, psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson told primary school teachers that tests had identified the ‘academic bloomers’ in the class. Unknown to the teachers, these students were selected randomly, with no relation to the initial test.

When Robert and Lenore tested the students eight months later, they discovered the selected students scored significantly higher. Subsequent research at higher education institutions showed the same outcome. Why? If you treat your students as though they’re not too bright, they’ll behave that way. If you treat them as though they’re academically smart, they’ll respond.

“This is the power of a label. And the saddest thing is when we become our labels. People called ‘absent-minded’ are habitually late. People called ‘fragile’ battle to be assertive when they need to. People who are ‘nerdy’ or ‘who aren’t clever enough to get into university’ live out their labels, in the most destructive ways,” says Nicola.

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So how do you actually lose a life-long label?

You start by finding every label that is attached to you, beginning with the biggest, most obvious, most harmful ones – and move them off you. Immediately.

You can actually do it physically: write down every negative label you think is currently attaching to you on a post-it note, and stick it to yourself. Narcissist. Unreliable. Dreamer. Procrastinator. Sociopath. Airhead. Office Gossip. Write it down. Stick it to yourself. And then, intentionally remove the label.

“It’s your free will. You decide who you want to be. Then tear up that piece of paper, as you outright reject every single negative label that’s ever been attached to you. You can even burn it if you like,” says Nicola. “It’s hugely symbolic and cathartic.”

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There’s a but …

Of course, simply removing a label is not an excuse to absolve yourself of responsibility to deal with your issues, or to pretend you don’t have a condition, a challenge or something to work on inside yourself. “We do. We all do. It’s just a case of finding what, and doing the inner work,” says Nicola.

“It’s time that individuals should be recognised for their unique selves. It’s time for society to truly celebrate individuality like never before. Our diversity is the very thing that unites and brings all of humanity together – and we can either lock ourselves and others inside boxes of our own making, or we can set off on a journey of fulfilling our individual and collective destinies.”

Article credit: Kingdom Publicity House

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