We all do it – dish out labels without always thinking about it and that’s partly because it’s easier for us to comparmentalise certain behaviours. By labelling others, we’re really saying “I’m not like that”.
But people are contradictory and complicated – a mixture of feelings, actions and thoughts and labels don’t allow for this complexity; for instance, we might say “he’s so selfish” but although that person might be very selfish some of the time, at other times they will show kindness and selflessness – to believe that they are made up of that one trait is short-sighted.
In other words, labels are rarely helpful long-term as they blind us to the diversity of life and people. It’s as if, by labelling them, we can then make assumptions about their entire personalities but labels are subjective and your label isn’t any more right than someone else’s.
As a Counsellor and Psychotherapist, I can see how people can change but if we label them, it’s difficult for others to recognise this change. For instance, if they’re seen as ‘a commitment phobe’, they can be judged on that by their friends and jokes will be made about how they can’t commit to a relationship, whereas that person might have looked at why they’ve previously found commitment difficult and looked at ways to turn that around so that, going forward, they’re ready for a different sort of relationship.
Even labelling someone in a positive way isn’t always helpful. If you’re always seen as kind and helpful, never creating waves, it’s hard to then be assertive and say that you’re not happy about something both at work and home. There’s a lot of pressure to always live up to that label and sometimes it’s too much.
Labels can be self-fulfilling too; if you’re always told that you’re stupid and will never do anything with your life, you will end up believing this and not pushing yourself to do better educationally or socially.
Another reason that it’s unhelpful to label people is that you can cut yourself off from those with whom you might get on well, even call friends, but they have a label that you can’t or won’t identify with and you find that scary. If a group is labelled in a negative light, it will affect your view of everyone in that group.
Labels can make us feel superior too; if you label yourself and/or your partner as one thing that you think is good, anyone who doesn’t come under the same label isn’t seen as ‘good’ as you. If you’re home is immaculate, it’s easy to label someone who’s standards aren’t as high as ‘sloppy or lazy’ whereas they may have reasons for different standards which could include tiredness, not enough hours to clean thoroughly or just different priorities. ‘Different’ isn’t necessarily ‘worse’.
So, labels are too simple to be able to describe someone, but they do turn the person into an object, to be viewed with superiority. So, let’s be more flexible with our perceptions about others – it might open up other possibilities and bring new people and interests into our lives that we’ve never explored before.
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