Are labels hurtful or helpful? Ready for a big ol’ truth nugget? It depends.
You’re welcome. (Just kidding.) A label can be hugely beneficial, just as it can be paralyzing. I’m going to share a negative experience of self-labeling, and then unpack how we can apply labels to our advantage.
NOT AN ATHLETE
My climbing gym offers yoga classes, and one in particular—“Yoga for Athletes”—caught my eye. I love yoga. My practice has waned and waxed over the years, but it’s always held a place in my life. This class stirred in me both excitement and fear, for one particular reason: the word athlete.
I wanted desperately to attend the class, but I couldn’t drum up the courage to call myself an athlete. Do I work out? Sure. I play hockey, and I run, rock climb, and hike. I even spent a week on Mount Rainier—in February. But athlete has such gravitas. Surely, I thought, I’m no athlete. Keep in mind; we live in Bozeman—home of the fit & beautiful outdoorsy set, where your favorite bartender runs 100-mile races and that mother of three at the grocery store lapped you and your college buddies on her backcountry skis last weekend. No matter what your chosen activity, good is often attainable but great is both omnipresent and out of reach.
So, I avoided “Yoga for Athletes.” I’d see people carrying their mats upstairs every Monday afternoon, and I’d duck my head and head for the top ropes, feeling equally wistful and guilty. This went on for six months. HALF a YEAR of very specific self-doubt. What was I afraid of? Not being able to keep up in class? That the other participants would notice my insufficiencies, maybe even call me out? “She’s no athlete!” “You don’t belong here with us—go back to yoga for non-athletes!” Clearly, in hindsight, no one would do that in the judgement-free zone of a yoga class. My fears were entirely based on a label I had identified as personally unattainable. I didn’t want to try—and fail—to reach an imaginary bar I’d set for myself.
We all have our comfortable nooks & crannies of self-judgement. I don’t own a scale, but I do dabble in playing the numbers at the gym. What will it say this week? Last Monday—yes, “Yoga for Athletes” Monday—I was in a self-confidence slump. I’d been on vacation and eating indulgently. The locker room scale loomed, threatening to pass its judgment with clinical detachment. I felt the magnetic pull to know—the need to self-label—and stepped aboard, bracing for the blow I knew was coming. And that scale read six pounds lighter than it had before I left for my week of joyful hedonism.
I was shocked. I’d been so certain of an increase. My thoughts raced. How little did I know my body? What else was I wrong about? Emboldened, I brushed off my courage and followed the trail of strong, svelte athletes upstairs to their yoga class. I wasn’t sure I could hack it, but I was going to try. The result? Another blow to my negative labels—I loved every minute. I felt strong and capable and left blissed-out and confident.
How can you make lemonade out my self-doubt lemons?
FOUR STEPS TO FREEDOM
#1 Identify self-given negative labels. A self-limiting label tethers us, exponentially decreasing our capacity for success. Do you use a statement like I can’t, or an identifier like I’m not? Figure out what damaging story you’re telling yourself. If it holds you back from success, it's not useful.
#2 Tie your happiness to doing. Identifying a goal is important, but there is freedom to be found when we take pleasure in the journey. Goals keep us from drifting aimlessly, yet defining success or failure by extrinsic achievement isn’t always beneficial. Did you try your best? Did you learn something new? As I learned this winter from the inimitable Coach Blair Speed, those are achievements worth celebrating. We don’t have to be the strongest or the fastest if we measure ourselves against the effort we put in and the satisfaction we bring back.
#3 Rewrite your negative labels. Replace I could never with I am trying and see where it gets you. It didn’t really matter if I identified myself as an athlete or not; the act of conscious self-exclusion was an unmovable obstacle. When I replaced that sentiment with an attitude of I’ll try, the doors opened.
# Embrace the power of labels. This can be difficult, as so often labeling is done with harmful results. But humans are hardwired to see patterns, create categories. We notice what’s alike and what’s different. And in business, self-labeling has the power to tell a story better than an outsider ever could.
As much as a judgement-free, label-less world sounds utopian, labels can be positive. Identify your own truths, and stand by them. Be humble and real, but not self-effacing. I am strong. I am a good communicator. I care about the earth. Choose a positive identifier you feel drawn to, something that embodies your values, and embrace it. Don’t wait for someone else to tell your story.
We dance with labels every day. By recognizing our own self-limiting beliefs, and taking intentional action, we empower ourselves to use labels as fodder for positive growth.