Abandoning Labels

It ain't what they call you, it's what you answer to.

W.C. Fields (comedian, actor, juggler, and writer)

Last Friday marked the end of a 12 week health challenge that I started with friends a few months ago. (I wrote about it in an April blog post.) Besides losing 12 lbs during the process, I adopted some healthier habits, like intermittent fasting, which work well for my schedule and general well-being. I also learned the importance of reading labels, something which I always knew about (we all do) but rarely ever put into practice (we all do this also). It’s been a game changer knowing that every time I pick up a fun-sized pack of peanut M&Ms (one of my favorite candies) I’ll have to run the equivalent of a 10-minute mile for 10 minutes to burn it off. Not.fun.at.all...but good to know.

Labels give us the information we need to make an informed choice—the opportunity to decide whether the indulgence is worth the implications. We know what we’re getting every time.

Unfortunately, labels don’t work so well for people. For example, take a moment to think back on the labels that people have put on you in the past: lazy, shy, stupid, selfish, you name it. The problem with these labels is that if said by the wrong person or heard enough times, many of us start to internalize them and in essence, we become what we’re told we are. We start to live up or down to those expectations even though labels are more about the other person and less about you. Labeling is our way as humans of assessing who we’re dealing with and determining how to engage with that person. And we all do it.

But what if our labels about someone are wrong? Or misguided? Even worse, what if we internalize the labels others put on us and they keep us from evolving? Labels are easy—much like reading the back of cereal box; we make assumptions without having to think much. For example, if I constantly tell myself that, I’ve always been a bad speaker, I give myself an excuse to never stretch myself and I stay in my safe space.  I can hide behind the label and overlook opportunities to address that weakness.

There’s a motivational speaker named Les Brown who was born in a low-income section of Miami in the 70s and given up for adoption by his mother. In grade school, he was declared "educable mentally retarded" but despite the labels put on him by school teachers, he managed to transcend those limiting labels to become one of the most prominent speakers ever. If he, and the adults in his life, had let other people determine who he was, the world would have missed out on an incredible orator.

My point is, we need to be careful of the labels we put on other people and more importantly the labels we internalize—either self imposed or put on us by others because they can be limiting.  No one knows you better than yourself and if one day you decide that you want to transcend your labels, it’s your right and duty to follow through. Life’s too short to live any other way.

Aji OliyideComment