The Burden of Other Peoples' Projections: Labels

05 December, 2019
Labels can make you take on traits you don't have, which can be unhealthy. How can you shake off the labels others have given you? Read about it here.

Labels are one of the fastest and most common ways to get an idea of the nature of what’s in front of us. Furthermore, they simplify many things for us. As such, they can be very useful tools. However, labeling people or labeling yourself might be a different matter entirely. It could mean assigning negative types and characteristics to people no matter if they match up with reality or not.

In some circumstances, labels help you. On the other hand, most of the time, they put people into imprecise categories. Through labeling, people often assign characteristics to others that they probably don’t have. This can often cause changes in the labeled person to match others’ perceptions of them. That is, they might come to adopt those characteristics just because they come to accept the labels.

Labels and self-knowledge

There’s a need to use names to categorize behaviors. Nevertheless, you have to keep in mind that labels lead to pigeonholing people. They’re based on stereotypes. Furthermore, they can generally lead people to take on a role that is, in many cases, neither natural nor inherent to the person. “Restless”, “bad influence”, and “slow” are just some of the many labels that people might carry around with them.

People often get many of their labels at early ages. They’re bad enough in early childhood, but it’s in the teenage years that these categories can hamper growth in a significant way. Additionally, they’re often projections that reflect the shortcomings of the parents or the teachers. They reflect the guardians’ own weaknesses, as well as their lack of knowledge or skills in dealing with children that are in critical developmental stages.

A worried man with his face in his hands.

The result is that some people can come to absorb these labels internally. They might behave “as people expect them to”, even outside of the context in which people assigned them the labels. It becomes normal for them to take on the characteristics which then lead to attitudes that are foreign to them. These attitudes, especially the more negative of the bunch, can significantly affect a person’s self-esteem, self-knowledge, and motivation.

The power of words

Labels can lead people to assume roles and to identify with these roles despite the fact that they’re not consistent with reality. Even when they’re positive, they can generate a great deal of stress and anxiety. That’s because they might carry certain expectations with them. You judge other people and attribute characteristics to them because it makes things easier. But in many cases, these labels are just that. They’re nothing more than subjective judgments and opinions.

Labels shape you as a person. All of us have had moments of weakness, and it would be unfair if that moment came to define you in the eyes of others. That’s why labels go the wrong way because they attach themselves to the “self”. They identify other people as selfish or generous, intelligent, or dumb. The truth is that you might be more or less generous or more or less intelligent depending on the circumstances. It also depends, perhaps just as much, on the generosity and intelligence of the person doing the judging.

Imagine the opposite situation. In other words, imagine people label you as a strong person. In principle, this sounds like a positive and desirable trait. Still, be careful. It can make you judge yourself or others negatively when they behave in ways you consider weak. Being labeled as a strong person also involves depriving yourself of moments of weakness and forcing yourself to be strong under all circumstances. This carries a certain level of responsibility and certain expectations, both personal and external, which aren’t easy to fulfill.

A woman confused by her thoughts who may use labels to simplify the world around her.

Updating labels

The process of changing and overcoming labels requires a lot of internal work. This work starts with identifying what labels are bad for you or are no longer useful to you. It also requires an analysis of your self-image as you look at what characteristics people attribute to you that you don’t actually have. On the other hand, if you’ve taken on some negative habits, it’s often easier to change the reality of the labels. Even so, keep in mind that a little something may always be left behind.

This process also includes developing affirmations that are contrary to the labels. You must also change your attitudes to prove whether or not your new disposition falls in line with the new self that you want to become. That is, the self where nothing that you decided to throw away has any place while everything you’ve decided to add does belong.

Are you willing to start this journey?

West, R., & Turner, L. (2005). Teoría de la Comunicación. Análisis y Aplicación. Ed. McGrawHill. Madrid.