Labels and limitations – the good, the bad and the ugly

We use labels to describe each other based on characteristics, gender, roles, backgrounds, affiliations, etc. The labels are limitless but their impacts can be limiting. Depending on how identified we are with these labels they can restrain our behaviour, actions and growth.

The “Shy” Girl

When I was young, I could have been considered “shy” or “quiet”. An example that demonstrates this quality took place one afternoon while we were camping. My sisters and I wanted a snack so we jumped on our banana seat bikes and headed to the camp store. My older sister Heather and I were shy, so when we wanted to know the cost of a pack of gum, we immediately turned to our little sister. Janice was around four years old at the time. She is two years younger than me and four years younger than Heather, but was much less timid than both of us at the time. We quietly asked her to ask the lady at the counter how much the gum was. Without hesitation, she posed the question for us while we eagerly listened for the answer. We were a good team with Janice compensating for her older siblings’ shyness.

This “shyness” lasted through my teen years. I remember meeting my boyfriend’s parents and spending time at his house, where I spoke no more than I had to. At our wedding his parents reminisced at how quiet I was when they first met me.

What if?

Thankfully, I never had to wear the label “shy”. My parents weren’t into labelling. But what if I had been given that label? Would it have shaped my perception of myself? Perhaps I would have held myself back from activities.

When I was eight years old I went to a Girl Guide sleepover camp for a week by myself, without knowing a single person when I left. Would a “shy” person have done that?

At my university business school, when I found out that 40% of my final grade would be based on participation marks, I felt more than a little uneasy. I was always more comfortable processing my thoughts internally. Now I would have to compete with seventy-five other people to make meaningful contributions to classroom discussions.

Would a “shy” person be able to succeed in such an environment?

Luckily I didn’t wear that label, so I went for it. I would just have to figure out a way to get comfortable with speaking up in class. And slowly, I did. I certainly wasn’t the chattiest, but I became more confident as the months passed.

And now, more than twenty years later, I’m more likely to have to stop myself from talking too much.

Labels

We use words to describe ourselves since words are what we have to communicate. However, descriptors or labels used to describe us and others can be limiting.

There are all sorts of things we may say about ourselves, which may be true about a behaviour or quality at a point in time, but are not definitions of who we are. We are much more complex as people than words can ever encapsulate and, importantly, we are not static. We are growing every day. So behaving in a “shy” way at one point in time doesn’t mean “I am shy.”

Here are some examples of things I’ve recently heard people say about themselves.

“I’m not brave.”

“I’m not an organized person.”

“I’m not a good writer.”

“I’m not patient.”

While it’s helpful to reflect on ourselves and our behaviour, it’s not constructive to identify with a certain quality as if it’s who we are. With a growth mindset, we can always add the word “yet” to the end of any of the above sentences.

Growth Mindset

A big part of life is about growing. That’s what our experiences do for us, they help us learn, grow and evolve. From the moment we are born we are growing, not just physically but mentally. When we put labels on ourselves it can have the effect of slowing or impeding our growth. It can put a box around us and we may unknowingly spend our lives fitting into a particular identity. We may even hold ourselves back from participating in certain activities or behaving in certain ways because of a label we carry with us.

Labels for everything

Labels can come in many different varieties and for different things.

As with my shyness example, we can put labels on ourselves and each other based on characteristics and personality traits.

Profession or skills-based labels

We can label and identify ourselves based on our job or profession. However, what we do for a living today may be different a few years from now. We may develop new skills and interests that move us in different directions. And we can do more than one thing. As an accountant and then a regulator, I came close to holding myself back from becoming an author because the labels didn’t seem to coincide with each other. Creative pursuits may seem at odds with the nature of the financial services industry and corporate world. But they aren’t mutually exclusive. We need creativity and new ideas in all industries. Dropping old perceptions and limiting beliefs can open up new possibilities. Creativity is important for leaders in an ever-changing and dynamic environment.

Gender-based labels

We can put ourselves into boxes based on gender and biases that may exist. Being a full-time working mom with a husband that stays at home, I find I relate to some of the memes on social media that depict men. For example, there’s a meme that shows men in the grocery store on their phones, presumably asking their wives for advice. However, in our house this would be me in the grocery store asking my husband for advice.

Gender-based labels can lead to biases in the workplace as described in this article by Dr. Pragya Agarwal, where the same behaviour can be labelled differently depending on whether the person is a male or female. For example, the same behaviour can be described as “decisive” in a man, but “abrupt” or “brusque” if it’s a woman. Instead of putting labels and judgments on others, we should aim to be open and give people a chance to be themselves. We should all be free to grow and develop as we are each individually meant to, no matter our gender or role.

Affiliation and race-based labels

Some people identify with a certain political ideology. Doing so can limit our perspective and openness to learning about different aspects of an important matter.

And unfortunately we continue to see the detrimental effects of our human tendency to judge each other based on skin colour, country of origin, and religious affiliations. This not only puts ourselves and each other in boxes but it also separates us. It divides us where there is no need for a division. It prevents us from truly seeing each other for who we are as individuals, as humans.

Humans are diverse

The reality is humans are diverse. We have a myriad of different attributes and are meant to grow over our lifetime. When we unnecessarily put labels on ourselves and each other, we put up walls, dividers and limitations for our individual and collective potential.

And when we must use labels, let’s be mindful to use positive, encouraging labels rather than negative and limiting ones. Here is a list of positive labels we can use for children and each other rather than negative ones. For example, instead of using the word shy, we can use reflective. Changing labels can change attitudes and perceptions of ourselves and each other.

Seeing people for who they are and not based on any characterization helps us to relate to one another with compassion.

So let’s break out of our own box and break others out of any boxes we may have put them in. Let’s free ourselves to grow and develop without unnecessary limitations!

When we are aware of our inner-growth potential yet have no pretensions about ourselves, when we are vulnerable, then we can change.

Amit Goswami

Let Go.

Labels can limit our growth
Photo by Jean-Guy Nakars on Unsplash