The Limitations of Our Labels

in Personal Development

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Labels can be a good thing. Like when you put sugar in a container and add a big label on it saying “sugar”. They can be practical, useful, functional and a great way to save time and mental effort.

The problem today is that we’ve become so accustomed to labelling, we’ve lost sight of what the label is doing to us.

We aren’t just using labels anymore, we’re letting labels use us. We’ve become victim to their rigidity. Fallen prey to their constraints. And even been blind-sighted by their deception. We’ve become a society that creates labels without any consideration of the unconscious patterns that those very labels have on us. We stereotype, criticize, judge and jump to conclusions of who people are, what things can do, and the way things work.

Let’s take a minute to explore this deeper…

We’ve taken love and unconsciously made it a label for selfish possession. “I love you, but only if you love me back or only if you are part of my life.”

We’ve taken friend and unconsciously made it a label for people that have the same perspective of us. ‘Those people think differently than me… they are wrong… they are not my friend.”

We’ve taken success and unconsciously made it a label for being better than others. “I am successful and they are not.”

We’ve taken sparing feelings and unconsciously made it a label for lying. “I want to tell them the truth, but I don’t want to hurt their feelings.”

We’ve taken motivation and unconsciously made it a label for suppressing feelings. “They really hurt me, but I’m gonna use it as motivation to do something else.”

Just because we see a jar that looks like sugar doesn’t mean it may not be salt.
It can be easy to assume a label on others, our situation or ourselves, and even more tempting to do so with the fast-paced, technology-centred culture we live in; however, now more than ever we must challenge ourselves to become even more aware of the labels we use and what they have been programmed to trigger within us.

Take a minute to reflect on all the labels you have intentionally or unintentionally created in your life – think in terms of your relationships, your circumstances and yourself. If it’s helpful, write down a list of the actual meaning that label is covering up. Meditation can be a great tool to help in this process. Just sit quietly in a comfortable position and as you release yourself to the silence, be attentive enough to watch the subtle thoughts that show up, which are pointing you towards limiting labels you’re using.

Once you’ve taken inventory, you can do one of two things:

  1. Redefine the label. Consciously give it new meaning. In other words, label the salt jar ‘sugar’, but know there is salt inside.
  2. Replace the label. Define a new word that is associated with a better meaning for yourself. In other words, remove the ‘sugar’ label from the salt jar and put a new label that says ‘salt’.

While the second option might seem to be your best bet, it’s not always the case. Words have power because we give it power. And by changing a word doesn’t mean we’ve released the power the other word has over us. Learning to re-claim a word in the context of a new meaning can be a powerful exercise and be very beneficial if it’s a commonly used word by others. (More to come on the power of words in a future post!)

An example of this is say you have the label of ‘loser’ put upon yourself. You may have justified this label based on some stupid things you said and did or didn’t say and didn’t do. My guess is that label has a negative effect on you in the most common sense of the word. If you look at that word, and meditate on it you will likely go through the emotions that are related to the meaning you’ve given that word and how it applies to you. You might experience emotions of sadness, anger, frustration…. go through them. Conjure up all the thoughts that perpetuate these uncomfortable emotions. Once you’re complete with the emotional release, ask yourself “beyond my emotions, what does this word mean?” … without any emotions pent up anymore you’ll be able to explore more clearly other meaning. Perhaps you realize that someone calling you loser is someone who is projecting how they feel about themselves onto you and thus you can become more empathetic. Or you might see that the word is just 5 letters put together to create a certain sound, but really there is no power inherent to it. Notice how after you’ve worked through the emotions that the word unconsciously evoked in you, you can reclaim and reframe that word in a much more positive way. You can re-label yourself without necessarily fighting the old label or needing to change the word at all (i.e. you could continue to call yourself a loser but because it doesn’t have any power over you only see it in the funny light of Beck’s song.)

As you can see, consciously becoming aware of and evaluating your labels gives you much more control over how you use them and takes away the control they have of using you. This is an ongoing process since there are so many labels that you’ve likely applied over your life that you are unaware of – be patient. Work on the ones you become aware of and allow new ones to show up in the future without feeling like you’re doing anything ‘wrong’ or believing you’re not moving forward.

In time you will find that the more sugar jars you have that are properly labelled with sugar, the sweeter life will get. (See what I did there! #Huzzah)


Photo by Jillien Minera on Unsplash



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Copyright © 2017 Ryan Coelho. All rights reserved.