Have you ever been given a nickname? Many of us had these when we were younger and while some may have felt delightful, funny and loving, others may have felt unkind, hurtful and unwelcome, whether that was the intention or not. Even disguised as humour, they weren’t funny for us; they always found their mark and perhaps left lifelong scars.
Isn’t a nickname just a label? A judgment that has been assigned to us by someone else as a reflection of their view or opinion of us. When we contemplate that others only get to see 5-10% of who we are via our actions and behaviour and judge us through their own unique filters, clearly their view is based on little to no understanding of who we truly are and what drives us.
Not only are we all on the receiving end of labels throughout our life, we also label others, whether we know them or not and maybe not out loud, through what they do as work, how they look, how they behave or some other lens. Hands up who didn’t have an opinion about the toilet paper hoarders and label them selfish or ignorant. We’re human and labels are unhelpful, inaccurate and sticky.
Liar, stupid, dumb, bad, good, evil, pretty, smart, fat, skinny, rich, poor, black, white, no good, perfect, victim, aggressor, guilty, innocent, manager, staff, leader, influencer, lazy, high-achiever, employee, boss, an endless list and you’re welcome to add more from your own experience. Some may sound positive and taken to be that, but they all carry a certain weight and impact.
Imagine that you are aged around 6 and someone makes a passing comment about something they think you’ve done badly or wrong and calls you stupid or thinks you haven’t made an effort and calls you lazy. It may seem inconsequential but the child who hears it believes it and feels the impact and it affects what and how they do things from then on. The ‘labeller’ does not read what’s going on for the child and often does not know what the background circumstances are for the child or consider that they’re doing the best they can in those circumstances.
While it’s easier to relate to a negative example, the impact of a positive one is also worth considering. Continually labelling a 6-year old as smart, intelligent or perfect may seem positive and supportive yet those labels can shape the belief that they don’t need to change anything or improve over time and that can lead to a fixed mindset or sense of entitlement.
Both examples can have the child assume that the label they have been given will always be true and that everyone will think so and, due to our human unconscious confirmation bias, we will then only look for evidence to confirm that the label was indeed correct despite evidence to the contrary. Worse still, our own negative internal dialogue has us creating our own labels and the more we associate with and focus on them the more we water the seeds of the disempowering beliefs they create.
We all have an opportunity to recognise our own judgments and biases and the impact of the labels we use therefore we can all choose to stop. It may take practice, however any label can harm and sticky labels become almost impossible to remove or permanent, so let’s not apply them in the first place.