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!