Living up to your labels. For better or worse.

By Dr GaryCA Latest Activity April 7, 2012 at 6:40 pm Views 1,857 Replies 14 Likes 1

Dr Gary

It seems like we have all kinds of labels we put on ourselves. I notice them in myself, I hear them from my clients, I read them here:

“I haven’t been able to stay on my diet and exercise plan. I’m just lazy.”

“Here we go again. People are always going to treat me like the outsider.”

“Things always work out like that for me. I’m never going to get what I want.”

“I don’t know how to act at a party. I’m socially inept.”

“This is one more reason why I am always going to be an unhappy person.”

I have been thinking a lot lately about how often those labels we use with ourselves are negative. Lazy. Stupid. Loser. Inept. Unhappy. Unlovable.

We use these negative labels in different ways. We use them as an excuse for not taking care of ourselves. We use them to put ourselves down. We use them to keep ourselves stuck in old patterns. We use them avoid taking chances that might help us grow. Not much of a reason to keep those labels around, is there?

So what’s with the labels?

We often pick up negative labels while we are growing up. How about you? Maybe your family members, or teachers, or other kids, labeled you in some way, calling you words like lazy or stupid, or made fun of the way you looked. Or something happened along the way, an event that left you upset or confused or traumatized. And as a result you created a negative label for yourself, or made yourself at fault, probably based on limited understanding.

Labels are powerful. They can get planted firmly into our minds, and then pulled out and paraded around whenever one of those déjà vu situations comes up. Those situations in which that negative label seems to be the best explanation for how we are feeling, thinking, behaving, and you can end up using the negative label to interpret what’s going on around you. You know, that “here I go again this always happens to me” feeling.

But the effects of negative labels don’t stop there.

Worse yet, you can create an expectation for yourself based on a negative label. You can find yourself going through each day expecting that, yet again, life will prove to you that you are ______________ (angry, afraid, stupid, a loser, and on and on). As a result, each day can become another opportunity to live up to those negative labels.

Tell yourself what you are often enough and you will become it.

Clients often tell me that, sure, they also have positive labels for themselves. But somehow the negative labels often seem more powerful, and they find themselves falling into the negativity before they have a chance to consider the positive side. In other words, we can stop ourselves in our tracks with the negative message and stay there in that familiar but unhappy territory, instead of giving ourselves the push to see what might be possible.

So, how are you labeling yourself? And more important, are you ready to break out of the box you put you in with all of those negative labels?

Here are some ideas to turn things around:

Make a list of your negative labels. When is the last time you painted yourself with that broad brush of a negative label? Make a list of the labels that you tend to pin on yourself, the ones that keep you stuck in a rut.

Ask yourself where they came from. Who in your life has referred to you with these negative labels in the past? In the present? And what did you do to deserve them? Usually the negative labels we use on ourselves came from someone else. Over time, we picked up where they left off and started joined the opposing team. Most of those negative labels probably don’t even make sense anymore, or at least they don’t have to. Isn’t it time to get on your own team?

Update your labels. You can start by looking at that list of negative labels and turning them into thoughts about what’s possible in your life. Turn “lazy” into “working to make improvements.” “Slow” into “thoughtful.” “Socially inept” into “a little shy but friendly.” “Lose” into “getting better all the time.” And look at evidence from your past that proves that the label doesn’t always fit, times when you didn’t live up to that label at all.

Break up the evil twins. Watch out for absolute words. Like never and always, e.g. “…always happens” and “never able to… .” And don’t forget “impossible” and “can’t.” Absolute words and negative labels tend to go hand in hand. When always or never or one of the other absolute words creeps its way into your mind, be prepared to replace a negative label with a positive one. How about: “I am doing my best to be my best, and getting better, one step at a time.” (While you’re at it, write that on your bathroom mirror.) Replace the absolute words with possibility words – “maybe,” “sometimes,” “can,” “working on” and “will.”

Don’t turn this into a battle. Too often, we imagine ourselves at war with our own minds, e.g. “I will fight those negative labels.” Instead, acknowledge them, and let them go. Tell yourself: “I know I feel like I’m not as diligent as I could be sometimes, but I’m more than that. I can accomplish whatever I set my mind to.” Or “Sure, I feel shy sometimes, but I’m getting better at meeting new people.” You don’t have to be perfect. Isn’t that a relief?

And remind others that you have updated your labels. When somebody else uses one of those old labels to refer to you, gently but firmly remind them that they must be referring to someone else. That you aren’t into placing limitations on yourself.

Start living “as if.” Who do you want to be? What values do you want to guide your life? What qualities do you want to express? What does that ideal you look like? Pretend that you are the person you want to be, even if you don’t always feel like it. Walk around “as if” the negative labels have all become irrelevant and you have turned into a new person. Sure, you may not change overnight. But when you decide to live a life of possibilities and growth, you break those old connections to negative thinking and the labels that go along with it. Pick new labels and start living up to them. One step at a time.

And most of all, be patient. Don’t turn the challenge of letting go of those negative labels into another reason to beat up on yourself. Don’t make “failure at losing negative labels” another one of your negative self-labels. We develop those negative ways of thinking about ourselves over the years, maybe many years. It may take some time, and some trial and error, to change your wiring. So be patient. Two steps forward, one step back, a couple more steps forward.

Life is a journey. Take a vacation from your inner critic. Enjoy yourself!

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Replies (14 replies)

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  • lorene1212
    lorene1212 April 13, 2012 at 10:22 am   

    When I hear labels I think of when I was young and people would call me by my nick name. Dr. Gary the way you put "label" was quite different. Unfortunately for me you are very correct. I feel almost all the feelings that you said you feeling inept in socializing, or at a party, especially with family. Throughout my whole childhood life I went through hell every day morn and nite going and coming home from school. I mean every day, the kids would just make fun of me and call me names ect… So that damaged me. When we would do family functions never had anyone to play with and always was told to go play get a way from the adults. They were swearing and drinking ect… But, having no one to play with made me go nuts when I did have someone to play with cause I felt it would only last 15 minutes then they could not take me any more and would leave… Had or still have problems keeping friends because of childhood damage.

  • Dr Gary
    Dr GaryCA April 14, 2012 at 8:39 pm   

    HI Lorene,

    I really appreciate your honesty here. It sounds like you have had lots of struggles along the way. There are few things harder and sadder in life than being a kid who doesn't have friends, who feels like an outcast. Adults have at least some tools to have some perspective, to find ways to connect with like minded people, to keep themselves busy and distracted.

    Kids don't have any of those tools. They just feel bad and assume that there is something really wrong with them. And those labels, like outsider and socially inept, can get stuck to us, or at least we can go through life thinking that they are.

    I was also very shy as a kid, and didn't relate to a lot of the kids where I lived, which was out in the country. I often felt the same way. And those labels that you pick up as a result of that experience do certainly stick with you.

    It takes some patience, and some working with ourselves, and some pushing along the way, but I do think that we can move beyond these labels, and leave them behind. We don't have to carry them around with us.

    So I can relate. Like you, I am happy to have so many friends here! And it looks like you have people in your life who really care about you. You have so much compassion for others!


  • lorene1212
    lorene1212 April 15, 2012 at 12:09 pm   

    Thanks Dr. Gary,

    They are not as strong as they used to be, some times ocdc or whatever the word is, when around others as well as family to avoid conversation and sometimes I can pass by it and have a really awesome conversation but that is only with my girlfriend Elin… When I am with my family I tend to after an hour or two go and lie down to relax myself. Not sure if others like that dont care. When I do wake it is always after everyone has eaten and not much food left. I like that!!!!! LOL

    But with people I am meeting here we have begun to know who each other but not every one knows that I feel left out here as well. Isn't that strange? I always feel when I share no one really cares to speak out to me! Odd, cause maybe 1-2 people do but not others. But, I am getting used to that as well.

    Then I keep hanging sensing same things but still just being myself and hoping it will go some where I have not been. I believe it will! I have already shared a lot of things here and continue to on continuous basis.

    Thank you for listening to me!

    Have a great Sunday!

  • Dr Gary
    Dr GaryCA April 16, 2012 at 10:00 pm   

    Hi Lorene,

    I think that one of the most important lessons we learn as adults is to accept that our families can give us certain things and can't give us other things, that our family members are human, with lots of limitations that go along with being human. But we also learn to find people who we can relate to and who are supportive and form our own families.

    We are glad to have you here. It takes time for people to get comfortable with each other, some people are more comfortable with certain topics than with others, or don't know what to say at times. But when I think back to where we started with HIV Connect, I think that we have come a long way.

    It is always good to be in touch with you!


  • adrian999
    adrian999 April 15, 2012 at 9:58 pm   

    I care, some may think what can I say? Will I make worst? I am a type of person say something to me and even curse me out. I don't understand in your case you have a great personality and your thoughts seem to just flow. I admire that and us, introverts have our ways.

  • Dr Gary
    Dr GaryCA April 16, 2012 at 10:02 pm   

    HI Adrian, you're right. Introverts do have our ways. I am one, too. The extroverts help us to avoid isolating ourselves.

  • lorene1212
    lorene1212 April 16, 2012 at 11:32 am   

    yes, I guess we do Adrian, thank you very much!

  • tossed
    tossed April 13, 2012 at 2:16 pm   

    Thank you Hawk!!!!

  • hawk1962
    hawk1962 April 11, 2012 at 7:40 pm   

    Again…labels can ONLY stick IF we allow them too! :0)

  • Dr Gary
    Dr GaryCA April 12, 2012 at 11:39 pm   


  • hawk1962
    hawk1962 April 8, 2012 at 1:10 pm   

    I have always felt that labels were for clothes and canned foods and have never found myself caught up in them! Growing up years ago…and I MEAN years ago..thehehehe..labels were not the "big" craze as they are today! It all seems to start when we are young and like you stated seem to stick with us until we get the courage to remove them. In today's society, it all starts at home when we are little. No one is born with a label and I feel that parents are the first teachers in our lives and if they teach us early on that we are somebody and don't ever let anyone tell you any difference that would go a long way! Now self esteem is a good thing t develop early on, but over confidence can also lead to problems if you get to"cocky" about yourself and think you are better than others. We are all in this game called life together and the sooner we all remember the golden rule…treat others like you want them to treat you…then this would help people not to label themselves by what others may say or perceive about them! Life is a highway and I intend to enjoy the ride where ever it takes me! So chuck the labels and get on with life. I know for some it may not be that easy, but you can do it and the sooner the better. Again life is hard enough without adding more needless stress! :0)

  • Dr Gary
    Dr GaryCA April 8, 2012 at 10:16 pm   

    Hey Hawk,

    Some interesting comments here. Thanks a lot1 I agree, so many of the labels we carry around originated with our parents, for better or worse. They may be well-meaning, but the effects can be anything but. And as you said, being cocky also doesn't benefit anyone. There is a lot to be said for having some humility. Replace the labels with possibilities, and enjoy the road ahead.

    Thanks! And have a great Monday!


  • adrian999
    adrian999 April 7, 2012 at 11:23 pm   

    Life is a journey and just enjoy the ride. The first time someone put a label on it with the term atheist that I rejected the idea. Because to define atheist you have to use god. I was cool with the person with no religion, now that makes sense. Times has change and I am not atheist and I just don't believe in god but I won't say there isn't no god. Words in doubt can very powerful and stay way from hate or even evil. Since those are strong word. failure are nothing but steps to success. We all make mistakes, if you learn from your mistake then is it truly a mistake? When I was growing up the words that pissed my mother was 'cant'. So good discussion doc.

  • Dr Gary
    Dr GaryCA April 8, 2012 at 10:13 pm   

    Hey Adrian, nice to hear from you. I like the idea of failure being steps to success, a great example of reframing something that could be negative into a possibility. If we would leave those negative labels behind, we might enjoy ourselves, and others, a lot more. Have a great Monday!