The Art of Letting Go: Trapped by Labels

Sometimes letting go is simply changing the labels you place on an event. Looking at the same event with fresh eyes
– Steve Maraboli

Pretty girl with "no labels" over her mouth Creating labels is another function we use in order to help us survive this world. Humans use labeling to manage the complexity of our environment.

Think about schooling. We send all the kids within a date range to 1st Grade when the difference in age between them is much higher than that between the youngest child in 2nd Grade and the oldest child in 1st Grade (could be just one or two days). We have built a whole education system on that huge range of 365 days, in which kids were born at different times of the day, have different family structures, live with a different number of other people in the same house, come from different socio-economic backgrounds and have different interests. Still, we categorize them all as 1st Graders.

Labeling is part of our day-to-day life. We do it for our own sake and not necessarily for the sake of those we label.

If you take 1,000 random people and put them next to each other, you will not find two that have the exact same skin color or the exact same hobbies. Yet, we often label people by skin color or say they all love drawing, although their skin is different in shade and texture and some love drawing animals, some prefer to draw plants and each person uses a different technique.

In 1930, Linguist Benjamin Whorf came up with the “linguistic relativity hypothesis”. According to him, the words we use not only describe what we see, but actually determine what we see.

We tend to treat labels as real, rather than as representations of reality
– Dewight R. Middleton

Lara Bordoditsky, a cognitive psychologist, asked people to distinguish between two shades of blue. Her research involved people who spoke Russian and people who spoke English. In Russian, there are different names for dark blues and light blues, while in English, both shades are called “blue”. When participants were asked to distinguish between two very subtle shades of blue, the Russian speakers were much quicker, because they already had the labels for the two colors.

So labels are important for us!

Anti labeling poster with personality typesThe risk of labeling is that it changes the way we perceive things. Jennifer Eberhardt, a social psychologist at Stanford, and her colleagues showed white college students a picture of a man who was racially ambiguous – he could have plausibly fallen into the “white” category or the “black” category. For half the students, the face was described as belonging to a white man and for the other half, it was described as belonging to a black man. In one task, students drew the face while sitting in front of a screen and copying. Although all the students looked at the same face, those who believed the face belonged to a black person drew human characteristics of black people and those who thought it was a white person, drew a person with white characteristics. The racial labels formed a lens through which the students saw the man and they were incapable of perceiving him independently of that label.

Similar research was done in education and proved that we see things based on the lens we have, regardless of what happens in reality. Children labeled as troublemakers get lower grades regardless of their knowledge. I learned this the hard way. When I was a bad student and my grades were very low (about 50% to 60% success rate), it did not matter how much I studied. I always got the same grades. In 11th Grade, when I became an excellent student, one of my friends asked if she could sit next to me and copy my whole exam (I agreed, because I remembered how it was to sit for a test and panic). Surprise, surprise! I got 95% and she got 60%. When we got our exam papers back, we could see she had written exactly the same things I had, but we could not go to the teacher and say it… Later, when I was studying Special Education, I learned that what teachers think of their students greatly influences what they think of themselves and therefore their performance. It also skews teachers’ perception of their schoolwork.

My work over the last 25 years with special education students who were labeled with learning difficulties has proven to me many times how dangerous labels can be.

We inhabit a world in which we tend to put labels on each other and expect that we will then march through life wearing them like permanent sandwich board
– Nick Webb

According to the same theory, some labels are actually very good for us. For example, if we label our children as “smart”, “friendly” or “determined”, we are helping them fulfill our “prophecy” and be smart, friendly and determined children. It is that simple.

Fashion labels The problem is with the negative labels we put on ourselves, others or events in our life. Some people want labels and they go to professionals to help them put those labels. They go to the doctor or to a therapist and want to know the name of that problem they have. I have met many people who came to me with a name for their problem, which had taken a lot of time, money and effort to discover, and what they really needed is to remove that sticker off their mind, but they did not know how. I see many amazing children misdiagnosed with ADD, ADHD, Asperger, ODD and other “nice” labels. Most of my work with them is not on their academic challenges but on removing that label someone else has put on them. Once they see themselves as capable and unlimited, they start to shine and smile.

Labels bias our perceptions, thinking, and behavior. A label or story can either separate us from, or connect us to, nature. For our health and happiness, we must critically evaluate our labels and stories by their effects
– Michael J. Cohen

Empowering vs. limiting labels

Negative labels are like heavy anchors. They prevent us from moving forward. For example, if you say, “I’m that kind of person”, as an explanation for why you cannot do something, than this is a limiting label. It will keep you as that kind of person who cannot do something.

One good way of discovering our own labels is by noticing when we use the word “because”.

Make a list of 100 things that are not working in your life – things you are not happy with, things you are angry about and people you are upset with. When you finish this list, write why you feel that way about each item.

Our names are labels, plainly printed on the bottled essence of our past behavior
– Logan P. Smith

For example, “I’m angry with Josh, because what he did wasn’t friendly”.

Man with muslim labels on his faceNotice that to be able to say this sentence, you have to have a “friendly” label. To be angry, you have to have an attachment to that label. Most people think that this is a sign you no longer need to spend time with Josh or that Josh needs to apologies or change his ways, but in coaching, this is a sign that your definition of what is friendly may need to change.

Remember, your labels is yours and yours only and if you have limiting labels rather than empowering, than no one need to live by them, not even you.

I hope you will find some inspiring quotes here that will help you let go of limiting labels and live a free, successful and happy life.

Artists are traditionally resistant to labels
– Patti Smith

Whatever labels are being pinned on me have nothing to do with me
– Skeet Ulrich

Labels are for cans, not people
– Anthony Rapp

It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to
– W.C. Fields

I think putting labels on people is just an easy way of marketing something you don’t understand
– Adam Jones

Feelings are feelings. They don’t have dumb or smart labels
– Cherise Sinclair, Breaking Free

And I came to believe that good and evil are names for what people do, not for what they are. All we can say is that this is a good deed, because it helps someone or that’s an evil one because it hurts them. People are too complicated to have simple labels
– Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass

Until next time, may the Force be with you!