Where do you stand on labels?
No not the kind you find on packaging in shops!
I’m talking about the labels we attach to others and ourselves.
We use them to describe everything from our eating habits to health conditions, from other people’s personalities to their physical appearance.
Why is it that we want to label so much?
If you think about it, pretty much everything is a label. Language is about labelling things so we can communicate with each other and create understanding. If I ask to you pass me the salt, first of all we both need to understand what salt is. If I tell you that I feel sad, we’ll both have a broad understanding of what that means and you’ll react or respond in a particular way.
In fact our communication would be very limited if we didn’t label every object, emotion, feeling or experience. When we first learn a new language, usually we start with learning the names of objects, feelings and places so we can begin to make ourselves understood. The same happens when we’re young children.
Labels can be positive and problematic
Labels can bring us together through shared understanding. Yet they can also separate us too. We need to remember that when we use labels to describe feelings or experiences, we can only convey our interpretation of them. Our feelings and experiences are unique to us, no label can ever truly describe them. The phrase “You would have had to have been there to understand” sums this up perfectly.
They help us make sense of the world around and what’s happening. Yet labels also have negative connotations. This is most keenly felt when we use labels to describe conditions, personalities and appearance. Sometimes we do it to understand the world better. Yet we can also knowlingly or unknowingly use labels, to view both ourselves and others differently. When we call ourselves or others fat, lazy or stupid, these labels can really limit our potential. We use the labels so often that they stick in our mind, they become part of our everyday narrative, accepted and believed as the truth without challenge. Such labels have the capacity to do us untold damage.
A world together or a world apart?
At times we intentionally use labels to hurt others, to make them different and exclude them. Apartheid in South Africa for example, was about labelling people and judging them as inferior simply because of the colour of their skin. To many of us it seems wholly inconceivable that people should have to use a different building entrance (assuming they were allowed in to begin with), or had their movements restricted and their land taken and sold simply because they were Black. Yet for a great many people it was their harsh reality for decades.
Think also about the bully in the playground or at work. Labels are part of their arsenal. Some of the labels they give us can stay with us for a very long time, I know they did for me.
So on the one hand, labels help us make sense of the world, yet on the other they can be limiting and damaging. Some are wrapped up in stereotyping, bigotry and others perpetuate the medical model of disability.
Isn’t it about how we and others perceive and use labels though? Isn’t it also about whether we use them to describe ourselves or others and as well as the intent behind them?
Labels and health conditions
Say you feel unwell and you’re not sure what the issue is. You’re likely to be somewhat relieved when you get a diagnosis because at least then, you know what you’re dealing with. Yes you’ve been labelled, but it helps understanding and means you can take action. It’s your response to that label that defines you. For example, a label of fibromyalgia might mean you restrict what you do and justify it by saying “I’m unable to do this because I have fibromyalgia.” So, the health condition is defining you. On the other hand if you stay active, which can seem counter intuitive, you’re not defined by a diagnosis, you’ve freed yourself up.
Labels and learning difficulties
Commonly known labels for learning difficulties are Asperger’s syndrome, autism, Down’s syndrome, dyspraxia, dyslexia and ADHD. They can help us to understand certain types of behaviours.
When viewed negatively, they limit our thinking about ourselves and others and lead to discrimination and marginalisation.
Seen positively, these labels can help promote understanding, acceptance and the right kind of support. We’re able to recognise the associated strengths of differently thinking people. For example people who have dyslexia see the world differently, they’re generally very creative, big picture thinkers. Many people with autism are persistent, focused and pay great attention to detail. Engaging such people promotes neurodiversity in workplaces.
However I hope the day will come when our institutions truly become adaptable and inclusive, where capacity to meet varied needs is naturally built in and we no longer need to label whoever sits outside a pre-determined norm!
A double-edged sword
Labels are indeed a double-edged sword. We need some to help us understand ourselves and others, yet labels put people in boxes, which can be damaging to wellbeing and prevents some from living a fulfilled life.
Paradoxically labels can be freeing too. Think about it: if we can assign labels that limit us, we can do the opposite too. We can describe ourselves in terms that get rid of the boxes and promote visionary behaviour and actions. We can use labels to help us think positively about ourselves and flood our being with self-belief – I am powerful, I am free, I am resourceful, I am enough.
Labels can give us a sense of belonging too. We tend to migrate towards others who share similar values, beliefs, interests or view of the world. Runners, Mums, gamers, environmentalists are a few group labels. We’re encouraged to find our “tribe”. Within our labelled group we can find support, encouragement and gain a greater insight into ourselves. We can feel like we’re part of something bigger. Such labels can help bolster our sense of purpose and find our true calling.
We can help view ourselves positively and achieve our goals if we change our labels. Someone who takes up running might initially think of themselves as a non-runner who is doing it to become fitter. So they might label themselves as unfit and running feels like a hard slog. If they start to label themselves as a runner, their perspective shifts and so too does attitude and motivation.
One thing to remember about labels is that we can change them at any time. By doing so we change the narrative of our lives. This is where NLP is extremely powerful. Using NLP tools and techniques, we can recognise labels for what they are; identify those that help or hinder and learn how to use labels to our best advantage. What’s more we can learn how to help others too.
If you’d like to find out more about NLP, please give me a call on 07923367545 or email: [email protected]