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The Power of Labels—And of Breaking Them

‘Shy’, ‘arrogant’, ‘fat’, ‘short’, ‘ambitious,’ labels come in all types and forms. Labelling puts you in a box. Believing the negative labels to be true only affects your personal growth, and nobody else. The first step to breaking labels is deciding to think differently.

By D Tejaswi
22 Nov 2022

In a recent Archetypes podcast, Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, spoke about how words like ‘crazy’, ‘insane’, or ‘out of your mind’ are casually used to describe people. She recounted how labels that were carelessly applied to her over most of her life have caused her much suffering. She says her ambition was seen as “a terrible thing” while dating Prince Harry. “Apparently ambition is a terrible, terrible thing — for a woman, that is — according to some. Since I've felt the negativity behind it, it's really hard to unfeel it. I can't unsee it either, in the millions of girls and women who make themselves smaller — so much smaller — on a regular basis.”

Whether it’s through personal experience, or media representation, seeing individuals being ‘labelled’ isn’t anything new. You might be guilty of doing it too. A middle-aged, single mother in a high-level leadership position is labelled “bossy” and “demanding.” When a young black man witnesses a crime, he is considered to be the perpetrator rather than the witness. It is assumed that a young woman from a humble background who marries a wealthy man is a “gold digger.”

It is clear that labels have the power to paint people in a certain way. Labels rob people of the chance to be treated fairly. People carry the weight of some label throughout their life, to a point where it may halt their personal growth.

 

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Science tells us that the human brain is predisposed to classify people and label them negatively, especially if they belong to an outgroup (a group you do not feel attached to). Humans naturally establish ingroups and outgroups, and you only care about people with whom you have some sort of relationship, such as a hometown, school, or religion. And when it comes to complete strangers or someone you don't like, you have an empathic bias or wish to paint someone in an unfavourable light, using simple negative labels such as pushy, arrogant, nosy, stubborn, lazy and so on, finds David Eagleman, Stanford University neuroscientist and author of several books on cognition and society.

Eagleman performed a study where participants lay in an MRI scanner and looked at six hands on a video screen. When the participant watched an ingroup hand getting stabbed with a needle, it evoked more empathic brain activity than an outgroup hand. Brain imaging revealed that you care about some groups more than others, and your subconscious selectivity is based on a one-word label, things such as if they’re of your same religion, colour, region and others, notes the study.

So, next time when you say, “Oh my god, my ex-boyfriend was so mean” or “My colleague is stupid and selfish, it’s your brain’s degree of affiliation to that group or person causing you to spur bias and differentiate the person using labels.

But while labels help you to feel safe and make sense of your world, is that really healthy? Because when you label a person, you essentially frame a judgement, which can have an enormous impact on their lives. When you judge someone, you also generate a prediction of their behaviour, which can have an impact on them and occasionally have a negative impact on their self-esteem, personality, emotions, and how they respond to events in real life.

 

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Young kids are especially vulnerable to labels as they don’t realise the difference between objective versus subjective labels. When a father says, “It’s all your fault” or when a mother says “You make me so mad” they start to believe the label to be true. And because they are unable to regulate the expectations that their environment has put on them, children are more likely to experience a crisis in case of any negative event such as scoring lesser grades or failing a subject.

In the book Words Can Change Your Brain, authors Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, suggest to use words and labels wisely because these influence the expression of genes that regulate your physical and emotional stress. “Your words and thoughts impact the key structures that regulate your memory, feelings and emotions,” notes the book. The labels also impact your emotional clarity (your ability to identify the type of emotion, for instance fear vs anger), a trait you need for mental well-being.

The more you have emotional clarity, the lesser the chances of depression, social anxiety, borderline personality, binge eating and alcohol use, finds a study published in Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 2014.

 

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How To Speak To Avoid Labels?

There are ways to talk and communicate without blaming or shaming the other person. The key is to assume the other person is a decent human being and did not intend harm.

1. Respectful communication: No matter who you’re speaking to, what your mutual history is, or what kind of day you’re having, a little respect is a constant must in any communication you practise. Importantly, avoid “you” messages of blame and accusation when you speak.

Compare these “you” messages with the better “I” messages.

 

  • “You” message: You’re always tardy (label you’re imposing) when there’s work to be done.

 

  • “I” message: I feel tired and irritated when I do everything on my own.

 

  • “You” message: “You’re such a workaholic (label you’re imposing).”

 

  • “I” message: "My feeling is that things are out of balance and you need to spend more time at home."

 

2. Use non-judgemental language: Non judgemental language consists of observations, thoughts and feelings that are put out as your ideas or hypotheses but not something that is conveyed as truths.

For instance, it consists of saying something like, “My idea was….I wondered if….I’ve suspected that….I worry that…, and others.

This helps you to take the responsibility for your opinion and use clear messaging.

 

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How to Break Labels

There are many benefits once you start tossing labels aside. They help you to invest in your true potential and lets you take a more holistic view of everything, about people and the world. Try these.

Acknowledge your labelling habit: Notice any labels you give yourself and others. Challenge the assumptions. Ask if they’re based on facts and data (because most labels arise out of negativity). Next, figure out triggers and devise a plan to stop labelling yourself and others. One way is to journal the events when you’re agitated and use labels. Doing this for some days may help you to see a pattern emerging.

 

Practice affirmations: This helps you to change the set of beliefs about yourself. Studies say that positive affirmations fire up your neural pathways and make changes to those areas of the brain that make you positive and happy. That means that you can fundamentally change the structure of your mind, often within just a few weeks. Imagine what you can do and how you will feel when you hold a more positive outlook. Another study in Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, 2012 confirms that identity affirmation helps you to develop more positive feelings for oneself and others.

You can start by picking one of these affirmations for yourself.

“I am confident and value myself.”

“I am growing and learning every day.”

“I believe in myself and my skills.”

“I am consistent in my hard work.”

 

Use breathing techniques: From deep and controlled breathing to stress-relieving “breathing breaks” exercises help you to restore calm and enable you to think more objectively. A study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience finds that slow breathing techniques enhance your psychological flexibility. When you breathe slowly, you better regulate your central nervous system and with it activities related to emotional control and psychological well-being, says the study. Better emotional control translates to better ability to act beyond the constriction that labels may imply.

 

So, simply pick a place you like, close your eyes, and fill your lungs with slow, deep breaths.

 

Lastly, be kind to yourself: Being kind to yourself empowers you to act beyond the labels. Because, you are kinder, you’ve the capacity to think beyond. And, when you are kind, the kindness comes back to you.

 

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