Can you see the truth behind the label?
What are labels?
Labels can be incredibly helpful. By boiling things down to a single idea they help us make sense of the world. They can help us make sensible and informed choices about all sorts of things we need to do or buy. They can help us compare, define and categorise things like cars, works of literature, and flavours of tinned soup.
Labelling is very useful if you want to know if a food is gluten free or not. Useful if you want to know how to take a medicine safely. Useful if you want to buy a fridge that fits in your kitchen. Useful for lots of things.
On the other hand, labelling is almost never useful when it comes to describing people. How can you boil a whole person down to a single concept? You can’t simply file people into categories like you do with emails?
Yet we do this all the time. We label ourselves, we label others. And we, in turn, are labelled.
We create lots of labels from all sorts of external features. We create labels based on age, address, physical appearance, character, behaviour, profession, gender, sexuality, illness, religion, ethnicity, team affiliation… and more.
Brilliant, dull, beautiful, plain, short, tall, respectful, rude, kind, mean, confident, dependant, strong, weak, doctor, lawyer, healthy, sick, well adjusted, neurotic, religious, atheist.
Limitations of labels
Labels for people are either so broad or so narrow they are meaningless. Nobody, but nobody can be fully defined by any one of these labels…positive or negative.
Even if there is some truth in the label, it is a one time, one-dimensional, static truth that fails to capture the essence of a person and distorts reality.
In reality, we are all wonderfully multi-dimensional and intriguingly complex. We all have strengths and weaknesses, loves, hates, desires, dreams, values, beliefs, and delightfully unexpected inconsistencies and contradictions.
Can all of this be summed up in a word, or even a phrase? When we present a face to the world, it is just that, a thin slice of the full person. There is so much more to the story.
Limiting me, you or anyone to a label almost guarantees you will be unable to see beyond the label to anything else. In a sense, a label becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You only see what you expect to see. You end up believing your own distorted reality.
When you create a label, in your mind, the person becomes the label. You create a cardboard cut-out image of a person that blocks you from seeing the real person right in front of you. The label closes the door on open-mindedness and respect. It closes the door on growth and change.
This is true when you label another person. It is even more true when you label yourself. You cut off your options, inhibit your growth, deny your potential. You stop exploring and seeking because you think you already know all there is to know.
And that’s the problem with labelling people. Often what we really mean to do is label a single characteristic – a behaviour or a talent, or lack thereof.
When we say things like: “I am boring” or “she is dependent” or “you are rude” we often forget that the label is only a convenient short hand and not meant to describe the whole person.
The truth behind the label
So instead of labelling be accurate and specific.
Instead of “I am boring” try “my speech did not get as many laughs as last time”. Instead of “she is dependent” try “at times she needs to lean on others”. Instead of “you are rude” try “your comment was offensive”.
These options are respectful. They leave room for the whole person. They leave room for improvements, room for compassion, room for solutions.
So whether it’s something you like, or something you dislike, try and see the truth behind the label, then leave the label behind. Leave labels for flavours of soup.
For people, use respect and honesty with a dash of humility instead.