Are you being defined by your labels?

In the baggage-hold of a large aircraft.

Suitcases and duffel bags jostling for space, trying to breathe. An old suitcase, squat, battered and well-worn, covered in stickers proclaiming its long and varied travels, sat quietly in a corner, watching the shiny new hard-cases and the rugged back-packs having a very animated conversation.

labels

‘I was born in a designer factory. You can see how much my owner cherishes me – see, she has put a transparent cover on me to protect me from the wear and tear of travel. She knows I should not get scratched and soiled like you ordinary brands’.

The suitcase

Oh, you are such a ninny! Look at me. I go around hardy mountains with my owner; we don’t care about ice or rain or sleet. We are strong folks. We can’t be bothered with silly things like scratches and dirt.

The back-pack

I say, has anyone of you thought about what you want to be, or you have just become what you have been told you are?

Large old suitcase

Every one of the bags stopped talking and looked at the old suitcase in confusion and with a bit of scorn.

The old fellow is senile; what sort of nonsense is this? Each of us is made for a purpose and that is clear. Why would we think of being anything else?

Uncle, I think you are old. What do you mean? We are what we are clearly labeled to be. What else can we be?

Young brash duffel bag

What if I told you, you can be anything?

Large old suitcase

I would say you are mad.

Everyone else

I know we are not bags. We are people. But we too, have some very strong beliefs about who we are, what we can do, and what we can’t do; we have strong ‘labels’ attached to us. Given to us by others or by self, the glue is one that grows stronger over the years till the label is the man.

I always get low scores in Math, I am not good at it.

I seem to attract the wrong kind of man again and again.

I am not a people-pleaser, I do what is right, even if it hurts someone.

I am plain-looking.

I am a strong man, I don’t let weak emotions show.

What is the harm with labels?

Isn’t self-awareness and self-image natural, and good?

Think about it. If we believe the label to be us, we build a nice little boundary wall around who we are and what we can do. It limits our potential and desire to explore, to go beyond. It drives our behavior and reaction to situations in a certain predictable direction. We associate closely with people to whom we assign similar labels – they are the same as ‘us’.

We are uncomfortable, maybe even antagonistic around people who are labeled in our minds as the ‘others’. We do not make efforts to understand how the opposing label might fit us, might make things different, interesting, open up new possibilities. The worst thing is when we have strong labels we keep doing the same things in new situations that need different approaches. We can’t ‘flow’ with ease.

And remember, labels are not necessarily negative, ugly, limiting. Even a seemingly positive label, belief can be limiting and stunting – if I believed that I am a ‘strong’ person and ‘never’ seek help, that is a handicap at a time when I am better off seeking support.

If my owner or I label me as delicate, the protective plastic cover comes on, the trips that require hardiness are not for me. Is that the life I want? If I am labeled as a plain and functional rucksack, I can never see the luxurious interiors of the Taj. I am deprived of experiences I may never know I missed. If someone didn’t turn the purpose I was made for on its head, I would never become the coffee table, I would remain a suit-case all my life. Waiting in the attic for the next trip which never materializes.

What can we do about it?’

Here is a three step approach that you can adopt.

  1. List out three ‘labels’ that you currently wear. You could have given them to yourself, others might have given them to you. The best way to spot a label is to look for what you normally say about yourself -‘I am…’ Don’t look for positive or negative here – remember, labels are attributes, and are neutral in nature. There isn’t anything innately positive or negative.
  2. List the situations in your recent past where the label has been an impediment, come in the way of your success or your ability to handle a situation well.
  3. List alternate actions that you can take, behaviour you can adopt, which ignores the label. If you can, enlist a friend who can support and remind you where possible. Then, next time the same situation arises, go out and consciously try the action.


A version of this post was written by Usha on her LinkedIn page.

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