Defining who we are can be difficult. From a young age, we have been defined by labels—i.e., gender, occupation, relationship status, race, and behavior. While labels like occupation and relationship status are easily alterable, behavioral labels are much more challenging to remove because they are heavily weighted through the perception of others.
Negative labels like ‘cheat,’ ‘hot head,’ or ‘liar’ are especially tough to replace. Like trying to remove a sunbaked bumper sticker from a car, they tend to stick and leave behind a mark.
Numerous individuals have experienced their careers or reputations ruined by their poor (possible one-off) decisions. Regardless of whether their apologies or efforts to change are sincere, in many cases, their past actions or remarks tend to become a part of ‘who’ they are instead of what they said or did at one point in time. This begs the question, is it fair to label someone based on their decisions?
Some people say yes and argue that the person “asked for it” when they chose to say or do the thing that led to the label that society placed on them. Others—often people who have experienced being labeled themselves for past transgressions or those who are empathetic to the fact that we all have made poor choices or said things we regret—will say no, it is not fair. So, which is it?
While everything we do is a choice, many factors come into play. For example, ignorance (lack of proper information), indoctrination (beliefs, upbringing, cultural views), extreme circumstances (poverty, unsafe or toxic environments, fear for one’s life), lack of awareness, impulse control, etc.
When we label someone as a “bad person,” we imply that they will do wrong or misbehave regardless of the circumstances. This implication is a fixed mindset imposed by others onto someone who may want to or has the potential to grow and develop into a better version of themselves if only provided the right resource, information, and support.
The Dangers of Attaching Labels to a Person’s Identity:
While we have primarily discussed negative labels, positive labels can equally be problematic. For example, a child that works hard to obtain good grades and is wrongfully labeled as ‘a genius’ is now expected to excel in everything they do. This puts undue pressure on the child to perform and can harm their mental health and self-esteem. Other positive labels that can cause unwarranted stress on someone are:
Giver—possibly causing an individual to neglect their own needs.
Winner—focusing more on the outcome versus the effort. This label implies anything but winning is a failure for that individual.
Beauty (positive labels based on appearance)—creates an expectation for an individual to maintain a certain appearance to uphold their “identity.” This could lead to depression or low self-worth as they age or their appearance changes.
Behavioral labels, positive or negative, imply an expectation of character and heavily influence how we engage, perceive, and treat one another. Often at a subconscious level.
As a consequence of labeling, we tend to create a self-fulling prophecy. If we believe someone is a “bad” person, we will likely not be as kind and courteous to them. We might even be hateful because we have convinced ourselves they are undeserving of our respect. Thus, encouraging the very behavior and reactions from them that we would expect.
A study conducted by Rosenthal and Badad in 1968 demonstrated the power of one’s expectations on the performance and behavior of others. They found that when the teacher (in this instance) had positive expectations of a student, the student performed well. Equally, if the teacher held low expectations, the student performed below standard.
How to Strip Away Labels
Stripping away labels takes a conscious effect. We are notorious for putting adjectives before nouns. For example, “they are a despicable human being.”
A powerful first step in dissolving this habit is to separate the behavior from a person’s identity by making minor adjustments to sentence structure. Instead of saying, “this is a despicable person,” we would say, “what that person did was despicable.” The simple swap in adjectives and nouns makes a significant difference in how we perceive the person and the situation. We have detached the label from their identity and now see their wrongdoing or behavior as a moment in space and time, independent of who they are.
This act of removing labels can be challenging. We have been conditioned to categorize and generalize people with polarities like good or bad, right or wrong. But life and people are far too complicated to be defined by definite absolutes.
Being the Change
We have the power to change the landscape of human behavior and connection if we alter our perception to believe that everyone, regardless of their past transgressions, on some level, holds value and goodness. This does not mean we have to let our guard down and be trusting of everything and everyone. It means that while being vigilant, we also show respect and kindness. Giving people the benefit of the doubt that something in their life has caused them to behave in undesirable, even terrible ways, but they are no less deserving of kindness and respect. That is a choice we must make to be a catalyst for positive change.