Living up to your labels. For better or worse.

Dr Gary
By Dr GaryCA Latest Reply 2012-04-12 21:44:49 -0500
Started 2012-04-07 18:35:52 -0500

It seems like we have all kinds of labels we put on ourselves. I notice them in myself, I hear them from my clients, I read them here:

“I haven’t been able to stay on my diet and exercise plan. I’m just lazy.”

“Here we go again. People are always going to treat me like the outsider.”

“Things always work out like that for me. I’m never going to get what I want.”

“I don’t know how to act at a party. I’m socially inept.”

“This is one more reason why I am always going to be an unhappy person.”

I have been thinking a lot lately about how often those labels we use with ourselves are negative. Lazy. Stupid. Loser. Inept. Unhappy. Unlovable.

We use these negative labels in different ways. We use them as an excuse for not taking care of ourselves. We use them to put ourselves down. We use them to keep ourselves stuck in old patterns. We use them avoid taking chances that might help us grow. Not much of a reason to keep those labels around, is there?

So what’s with the labels?

We often pick up negative labels while we are growing up. How about you? Maybe your family members, or teachers, or other kids, labeled you in some way, calling you words like lazy or stupid, or made fun of the way you looked. Or something happened along the way, an event that left you upset or confused or traumatized. And as a result you created a negative label for yourself, or made yourself at fault, probably based on limited understanding.

Labels are powerful. They can get planted firmly into our minds, and then pulled out and paraded around whenever one of those déjà vu situations comes up. Those situations in which that negative label seems to be the best explanation for how we are feeling, thinking, behaving, and you can end up using the negative label to interpret what’s going on around you. You know, that “here I go again this always happens to me” feeling.

But the effects of negative labels don’t stop there.

Worse yet, you can create an expectation for yourself based on a negative label. You can find yourself going through each day expecting that, yet again, life will prove to you that you are ______________ (angry, afraid, stupid, a loser, and on and on). As a result, each day can become another opportunity to live up to those negative labels.

Tell yourself what you are often enough and you will become it.

Clients often tell me that, sure, they also have positive labels for themselves. But somehow the negative labels often seem more powerful, and they find themselves falling into the negativity before they have a chance to consider the positive side. In other words, we can stop ourselves in our tracks with the negative message and stay there in that familiar but unhappy territory, instead of giving ourselves the push to see what might be possible.

So, how are you labeling yourself? And more important, are you ready to break out of the box you put you in with all of those negative labels?

Here are some ideas to turn things around:

Make a list of your negative labels. When is the last time you painted yourself with that broad brush of a negative label? Make a list of the labels that you tend to pin on yourself, the ones that keep you stuck in a rut.

Ask yourself where they came from. Who in your life has referred to you with these negative labels in the past? In the present? And what did you do to deserve them? Usually the negative labels we use on ourselves came from someone else. Over time, we picked up where they left off and started joined the opposing team. Most of those negative labels probably don’t even make sense anymore, or at least they don’t have to. Isn’t it time to get on your own team?

Update your labels. You can start by looking at that list of negative labels and turning them into thoughts about what’s possible in your life. Turn “lazy” into “working to make improvements.” “Slow” into “thoughtful.” “Socially inept” into “a little shy but friendly.” “Lose” into “getting better all the time.” And look at evidence from your past that proves that the label doesn’t always fit, times when you didn’t live up to that label at all.

Break up the evil twins. Watch out for absolute words. Like never and always, e.g. “…always happens” and “never able to… .” And don’t forget “impossible” and “can’t.” Absolute words and negative labels tend to go hand in hand. When always or never or one of the other absolute words creeps its way into your mind, be prepared to replace a negative label with a positive one. How about: “I am doing my best to be my best, and getting better, one step at a time.” (While you’re at it, write that on your bathroom mirror.) Replace the absolute words with possibility words – “maybe,” “sometimes,” “can,” “working on” and “will.”

Don’t turn this into a battle. Too often, we imagine ourselves at war with our own minds, e.g. “I will fight those negative labels.” Instead, acknowledge them, and let them go. Tell yourself: “I know I feel like I’m not as diligent as I could be sometimes, but I’m more than that. I can accomplish whatever I set my mind to.” Or “Sure, I feel shy sometimes, but I’m getting better at meeting new people.” You don't have to be perfect!

And remind others that you have updated your labels. When somebody else uses one of those old labels to refer to you, gently but firmly remind them that they must be referring to someone else. That you aren’t into placing limitations on yourself.

Start living “as if.” Who do you want to be? What values do you want to guide your life? What qualities do you want to express? What does that ideal you look like? Pretend that you are the person you want to be, even if you don’t always feel like it. Walk around “as if” the negative labels have all become irrelevant and you have turned into a new person. Sure, you may not change overnight. But when you decide to live a life of possibilities and growth, you break those old connections to negative thinking and the labels that go along with it. Pick new labels and start living up to them. One step at a time.

And most of all, be patient. Don’t turn the challenge of letting go of those negative labels into another reason to beat up on yourself. Don’t make “failure at losing negative labels” another one of your negative self-labels. We develop those negative ways of thinking about ourselves over the years, maybe many years. It may take some time, and some trial and error, to change your wiring. So be patient. Two steps forward, one step back, a couple more steps forward.

Life is a journey. Take a vacation from your inner critic. Enjoy yourself!

11 replies

Nana_anna 2012-04-09 14:35:20 -0500 Report

I hated working at the hosptal. Because we labeled patients with there conditions. They still do that. Using their first names was only used by permission. I think that if someone has a disability or something odd about them it is normal to label them. I don't do it, ever. It's very rude. We are all human. We all have names. Please, please, please, use the names or nic names that have been given to us. It doesn't matter what, who, why, where or when, we are people and should accept every one in every walk of life!

jayabee52 2012-04-10 08:02:12 -0500 Report

Anna, That is why I prefer the term "Person with diabetes" (PWD) to the more common word "diabetic". I worked in hospitals too as a Certified Nurse Aide and heard references to "the diabetic in room 17" rather than Mr [name] in room 17.

Sometimes it seems like I am fighting a losing battle with those commonly used terms, but then sometimes I see others using the term PWD and have hope that someone gets it.

Just Joyce
Just Joyce 2012-04-08 21:33:27 -0500 Report

Interesting Dr. Gary. Negativity begins at home as a child. If you didn't get a lot of positive influences, you turn into someone who doesn't have confidence in yourself.

“I haven’t been able to stay on my diet and exercise plan. I’m just lazy.” - It isn't that the person is lazy it is because even though they want to diet, they aren't committed to what it takes to go on a diet and stick with it. Laziness is an excuse as to why that dress you bought last year is too small this year.

“Here we go again. People are always going to treat me like the outsider.” - If you see yourself as an outsider, you will be treated in that manner. The wall flower never involves themselves in conversations or dancing or anything that is going to turn attention on them. They want to join in but many feel they are not smart enough to be with the groups of people around them. When you are brave enough to join in, you could discover that you may be smarter than the person who seems to know it all. Thankfully, I am an avid reader with a lot of interest in so many things I can have a conversation with anyone on a subject. I may not know enough but I am smart enough to ask questions to keep the conversation going.

“Things always work out like that for me. I’m never going to get what I want.”-Does anyone really truly get what they want? I would love to have a Kindle but I can't afford one so I make myself happy with the free app offered by Amazon. Sometimes when we do get what we want it still may not be all it's cracked up to be or worth all the time yearning for it. I also wanted to win mega millions. I didn't win but it wasn't a disappointment. No things may not always work out the way we want them to however, you might be able to modify what is wanted and things work out.

“This is one more reason why I am always going to be an unhappy person.”- I think people want others to make them happy. No one can make you happy but you.

I think some of these types of people are codependent on others. They have labeled themselves in such a negative manner they need someone to motivate them into looking at things more positively. Negative labels are in a sense enabling the person to never move forward. I think we all could get away from being labeled or labeling others if we had a more positive look at ourselves. I think that motivation should be used in a manner that teaches people how to self motivate and to believe in themselves.

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2012-04-09 12:54:36 -0500 Report

Hi Joyce,

Thanks a LOT for for adding your experience and practical wisdom to my negative labeling statements. I agree with you. If we turn our negative attitudes around, drop the unrealistic expectations, enjoy what we do have, and keep pushing ourselves to move forward, then life can have all kinds of possibilities. It all starts from within, motivating ourselves, and dropping the negative labels. We can create change from within and project it outward, but we can't expect others to give it to us.

Thanks again and have a wonderful day!


jayabee52 2012-04-08 00:29:56 -0500 Report

I went through High school with a negative nickname (which I won't disclose lest I give it power again). The last time I attended my HS reunion (several yrs ago now) someone referred to me using that nickname, trying to get my attention. I didn't pay attention to him. When he used my given name I responded to him. He got the idea, and never referred to me using that negative nickname again (at least in my hearing).

My bride "Jem" was another example of this negative principle of stinkin' thinkin' at work. We were courting over the phone and had met once or twice in the real world, and one evening she started making noises like she wanted to break off our flowering relationship.

Fortunatrely I didn't immediately grant her request but kept her talking for a while until she acknowledged that she still did love me. Seems she had those negative ideas floating around in her head that eventually any man who would want to be with her would eventually reject her.

As a younger lady she had been engaged twice and one of the fellas to whom she was engaged just seemed to drop off the face of the earth, the 2nd engagement ended by the fella getting cold feet one month away from the wedding date.

Later on in her life, a couple years before I came into her life, she had a long term boyfriend and she wanted to marry him, but he wouldn't commit to her. Seems he wanted to "use" her without the benefit of marriage, something which was foreign to her sensibilities.

So she saw herself as a 3 time loser in the romance dept.. She then from that decided that I would probably do the same as the other fellas to her. So she might as well "get it over with". I had my own beliefs about ladies left over from my divorce to my first wife and almost let Jem get away with it. But I somehow kept her talking and eventually (don't know how we got on the topic) but she admitted that she really did love me and it would break her heart if we split.

When I got that processed, I said to her: "you don't get off THAT EASY!" I told her she would have to tell me flat out that she DIDN'T love me, and then I would reluctantly go away. I pointed out that whether she broke it off with me or I broke it off with her, we'd BOTH have broken hearts, and the only way she could know if we would "go the distance" to matrimony was to let the relationship continue and grow.

She was relieved for a time, but that idea that she should dump me before I did it to her came up a couple of other times. Each time I would say "you don't get off that easily!" and she would admit that she still did love me and would be devastated if we split. (it even came up again once we were married too.)

She was a wonderful woman but had a negarive self image when it came to romance and relationships with men. I think that I helped her change that in some small way, at least a bit before she passed away.

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2012-04-09 12:49:46 -0500 Report

Hi James!

Great to hear from you. And wow, what an incredible story! It's a great example of how a couple of bad experiences can leave us with a very bleak view. But it is also an example of how we can use negative self-labels to protect ourselves from further hurt. A double whammy.

I so often see this happening in relationships. Losing a relationship is so painful, and it is a human reaction to just want to throw up your hands and not go through the pain again. And it's hard to accept that their are no guarantees. You can get to know that other person, learn to trust them. But we don't know what life will bring. But if we don't take that step to trust, we are guaranteed to be alone. As the Jackson 5 said so many years ago, "one bad apple don't spoil the whole bunch."

Jem was fortunate to have you, as I have said before. You both took a chance, and experienced great joy. I am sure that you helped her so much!

Thanks a lot for chiming in here. Always great to be in touch with you!


jayabee52 2012-04-09 20:41:41 -0500 Report

Thanks Gary!

I was fortunate to have Jem also! Since I knew that she had "one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel" (to coin a phrase) I had prepared myself (as much as I could) for that eventual certainty.

Now I am in another long distance relationship with another lady "SQ" and things are looking good for us. I plan to visit her sometime this month. She had burned herself and needed a skin graft a couple of weeks ago (my writeup for this event is here ~

But I met SQ through the same dating website, Dating4Disabled, through which I met Jem. SQ does have a disability (cerebal palsy) but does not have as many medical challenges as Jem. Perhaps SQ will outlive me! She is a special lady as well, and says she's not threatened by my fond memories of Jem.

Right now we are having a bit of withdrawal since I have lost my cell phone, which is our "lifeline" and we're both having "signifigant other" withdrawals.

I just sent for a phone to replace the one I lost. (should be here in 2 to 5 business days). SQ has been going from floor to floor in the hospital, and has been discharged to a rehab facility. I have to see if I could get my Renal Specialist's appointment moved up so I can fly out there to meet her and help in her recovery.

Life is an adventure, to be sure!

Dr Gary
Dr GaryCA 2012-04-12 21:44:49 -0500 Report

HI James,

Wow, this is a really great story. I am so happy for you. I know that you have been lonely, based on what you have told me in other posts. So it is great for me to hear that you are in touch with someone that you like, and that you feel connected to.

I hope that you can get together with her soon. I am sure that you will be an angel of mercy to her when she is in rehab, a welcome sight!

I have been Internet challenged for the last couple of weeks, due to a move to a new office. It is frustrating to be out of contact, I know what you mean.

Thanks a lot for the update. I will be interested in hearing how this is going. And you're right, life is an adventure... at least if you are willing to sign on!

Thanks a lot for the update!