Labeling, by definition, is the act of categorizing people according to characteristics they share. In fact, our human brain labels all people unconsciously to make it easier to process information. The moment we see someone, we categorize them by gender, age, ethnicity, weight, profession or different factors; and even though this process helps our brain function more efficiently, it has negative impacts as well which includes stereotyping.
You see a woman and the associated words you may come up with may include ‘kind’, ‘loving’ and ‘arts’; but there is a probability you may not think surgeon, leader or engineer. Hence, labeling creates expectations for us and others to meet, depending on the categories and labels we were brought up hearing around us.
Labels do not have to be negative to affect us – positive ones can cause damage too.
Being told you are a thin or smart person for example, can make us feel pressured to always be thin and smart because we believe this is why people love and appreciate us. We might become obsessive over conforming to that category and lose our true identity in the process.
So what can we do about labeling and how should we handle it to avoid being held hostage by these assumptions?
To help you out in this process, I came up with steps we can take to flush out labels and use them to our advantage.
1. Practice Self Awareness
Since labeling is an unconscious act, we need to make it a habit to recognize the ones we view ourselves under and how they affect us. We can do that by journaling and asking ourselves, “what are the masks I believe I have to always put on?”
For me, for example, my entire life, I was told I was a strong woman and I behaved from the assumption that I had to always wear that mask. I would hide my real emotions and portray the strong woman everyone saw me to be. Taking the time to sit down and journal helped me flush out this label among many others that had affected me. So take a moment, pause and do that exercise of self-awareness.
2. Find the Strengths Behind the Labels
The second thing to address is to find out what strength you have that can be derived from labeling.
For example, I was always told I am strong, because I would always know how to act under pressure. I needed that strength for emergencies but that did not mean I had to be this person all the time.
I was also told I am a flexible person that can adapt to most situations but that did not mean I had to be flexible all the time and change my boundaries to fit others, it meant that I would adapt quickly in periods of change.
So from labeling, I was able to figure out 2 of my strengths; I adapt to change easily and am strong in the face of emergency.
What about you? What strengths can this reflection help you flush out?
How can you use them to navigate life?
In which circumstances should you use them?
3. Decide What Hats You Want to Wear and How You Want to Change
Being labeled makes us believe that we are put in one cage and we are supposed to behave within it. As Glennon Doyle puts it in her book “Untamed”, “sometimes we are Cheetahs tamed to be Labradors”.
So who has labeling tamed you to be and who are you as a cheetah? What are the different hats you want to wear? What type of person do you want to transform into? Once we break free from our labels and identify the different strengths we have, we can also work on who we want to be. For me I know now, I am not just a woman engineer. I am a coach, a dancer, a project manager, a writer, an activist, a daughter and so on.
I became a coach at 26 so I added it to the list of hats I wear. We can always add new experiences and roles we want to play in our lives and decide when and how to live by them. The key is to know we have the option to change and making the decision to do that no matter how people label us.
In the end, our brain may choose labels to make it simpler to process the world but those labels should not hold us hostage and prevent us from becoming who we know we can be.
It is important to take a moment to see how labels affect our daily lives, flush them out and ask ourselves the following questions:
1. What strengths do those labels show in me or what strength do I see in myself?
2. What hats do I want to wear in my daily life?
3. How do I want to use what I know about myself to be better everyday?