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THE SUMMIT ┃PSYCHOLOGY

Are You Using Rigid Labels on Yourself?

Choose flexible ones instead that will empower you.

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

What is the labeling theory in psychology?

In psychology, labeling theory is the theory of how your identity and behavior is influenced by the terms (labels) you use to describe or classify yourself.

Psychologists began to study labels in 1930 when Benjamin Whorf, a linguist, proposed the hypothesis of linguistic relativity. He believed that the words we use to describe what we perceive are not mere labels, but end up determining what we perceive others, the world around us, and of course, ourselves.

A few years later, psychologist Lera Boroditsky did an experiment to demonstrate this theory. She asked people of English or Russian mother tongue to distinguish between two very similar but subtly different shades of blue. In English, there is only one word for the blue color, but the Russians automatically divide the spectrum of blue into lighter blues (goluboy) and darker blues (siniy). The experiment revealed that those who spoke Russian distinguished much faster the difference between the two tones, while those who spoke English needed much more time.

The educational psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson found that if teachers believe that a child has less intellectual capacity — even if it’s not true — they will treat him as such and that child will end up getting worse grades, not because he lacks the necessary skills but simply because he received less attention during the lessons.

The same goes for parents, their attitude is going to reflect their beliefs and the children are going to quickly pick up on that. If the parents have a belief that the child is not going to be capable to do things, this belief is going to be internalized and adopted by the child. And this, the child’s self-talk of ‘I am not good enogh’ or ‘ I can’t do anything right’ will be carried into adulthood.

Our self-talk is a self-fulfilling prophecy: our attitude and behaviors towards certain things, people and even ourselves influence the way we see and filter things.

Why do we resort to labels?

Sometimes the reality we face can be very overwhelming and we are not cognitively prepared to deal with it.

We label things according to past experiences, making quick judgments and more often than ever restricting our world view and narrowing it down to black or white.

“From this perspective, each label is like a tunnel that closes our vision to a more vast, wide and complex reality. And if we don’t have a global perspective of what is happening, we cannot respond adaptively.”

— Jennifer Delgado, psychologist

How can you get into the habit of changing your self-talk and adopt flexible labels that will propel you forward?

1. Get in the habit of becoming aware of the labels you put on yourself

How does your self-talk sound like? How does it make you feel? Observe your thoughts and your inner voice whenever you put your mind to doing something. Is your self-talk supportive and encouraging or it leaves you feeling drained and unmotivated, wanting to quit the task?

What are your labels? If they sound something like: I can’t do this or I’m not good enough, or I’m terrible at anything or I am stupid, it’s time to step back and take a moment of reflection.

2. Remember the self-fulfilling prophecies

“Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.”
— Henry Ford

After taking a moment to pause and reflect on your labels, remember that everything you are telling yourself is true.

It is going to end up creating your future and your everyday reality. If you think you are not good enough to do something, subconsciously you are going to start attracting situations and people who will confirm that is the case.

3. Use flexible labels

We need to remember that “good” and “bad” are two sides of the same coin. If we don’t understand it, we will remain trapped in dichotomous thinking, victims of the labels we apply ourselves.

— Jennifer Delgado, psychologist

Realize that the more rigid your labels are, the more limited your beliefs about yourself and the world around you are going to become. The labels you put on yourself are going to become your identity.

The good news is that the world is not black and white, there are many other shades in between.

Use flexible labels and start detaching yourself from that identity.

For instance, instead of saying: ‘I am not good enough’, you could tell yourself: ‘I am still learning, I can do this with some more time and patience.’

5. Practice forgiveness

Admit your mistakes and apologize if necessary. But try to forgive yourself. If you did something wrong in the past, it doesn’t mean your label shall forever be: I am a bad person. or I can’t do anything right and therefore I am not loveable.

Choose instead: ‘I admit my faults and I choose to forgive that old version of me who didn’t know any better back then.’

Final thoughts

Remember: the way you talk to yourself is going to either empower you or make you miserable.

Every time you catch yourself using rigid labels, take a step back and ask yourself where do these thoughts come from and whether they have any reason in reality.

You are able to make a choice and although it’s not going to come easy at first, with mindfulness and daily practice, you are going to start seeing small changes day by day.

Be kind and gentle with yourself.

What labels are you using when talking to yourself?

Thank you for reading! I appreciate you!

I would like to give a shoutout to the wonderful and inspiring writer Arbab Z. for the poem Stop Blaming Self — Focus On Work in which she talks about how self-blame is detrimental to our growth. My favorite line is “If you stop blaming yourself, then the new seeds will sprout in the life.”🌹🌹🌹 If you want to read the full poem, you can find it here:

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Sorina Raluca Băbău

Sorina Raluca Băbău

Clinical Psychologist. Integrative Psychotherapist. Writer. Dreamer. Traveler. Pet lover. Avid reader. Chocolate's biggest fan. Yoga practitioner.

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