“Labels are for cans, not people.”
– Anthony Rapp, American Stage and Film Actor
“All right,” my mother stated, “We have a choice for supper tonight.”
“Choice is good,” replied father, not looking up from his newspaper.
“We can have beans, apple sauce, tomatoes, or maybe peaches.”
This time father did look up. “What kind of crazy supper is that?”
I started laughing. “Tell Dad what happened, Cathy.”
My little sister cleared her throat and looked at us sheepishly. “Well,” she began, “we had this school project, and each of us had to bring labels from canned foods.”
“It was about advertising,” I said. “They were making a poster.”
“So you took all the labels off the cans in the pantry?”
“Yes,” she admitted. “I guess I didn’t think about it.”
After a long pause, father burst into laughter. He climbed out of his easy chair, folded his paper and jokingly swatted my sister with it as he strode toward the kitchen.
“Grab me the can opener, Mother,” I heard him say. “Let’s solve this mystery!”
There are times when labels are important. If I reach for a can of apple pie filling and it turns out to be mushroom soup, I’m going to be disappointed. Labels advise, instruct and warn us of hazards. Without labels, life would be frustrating and dangerous.
The labels that concern me are the ones we systematically apply to situations, institutions, religions, cultures and, more importantly, to ourselves. When we apply negative labels to ourselves, we limit our life and damage our self-esteem.
Every label is limiting in one way or another. Labels put people in pigeon holes leaving them with no place to go. Why do we have this tendency? Part of it is a natural process – part of how our mind works. We categorize people, places and things for quicker access to important information. Having to reassess every situation every time would prove overwhelming. Labelling makes navigating the world a little easier.
Sadly, we also do it to mask our ignorance or unwillingness to investigate our thinking and discover the truth about the people with whom we share this world. Listen, and you’ll hear people apply such labels as, “Those people are all radicals,” or “Those people are all lazy bums,” or “Those people don’t cherish life the way we do!”
Even in my neighbourhood, I’ve heard people place labels on new members of the community. Social labels give rise to indifferences and, ultimately, intolerance.
“We must reject not only the stereotypes that others have of us,” wrote Shirley Chisolm, American author and activist, “but also those that we have of ourselves.”
Challenge the labels you’ve placed upon others. Start today. Then move on to the ones you’re wearing.
Here, I’m speaking of the labels that define us in a negative or disempowering way – the labels that damage our self-esteem, and place a governor on our energy and our ability to strive, succeed and overcome obstacles.
When I conducted self-esteem workshops, I tried to put a positive spin on the labelling dilemma with an exercise I called “Stick it to Your Neighbour.” I handed out packets of sticky notes and asked participants to write down a positive quality they recognized for each participant.
The attendees always enjoyed the exercise, and it was wonderful to see people plastered from head to toe with positive labels.
We concluded the exercise by taking turns reading the positive labels aloud and applauding each other.
An important aspect of becoming self-aware is recognizing the labels we affix to others and the ones we wear at an unconscious level. Removing unwanted and unhealthy labels takes time, but the results are worth the effort for all concerned.
Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem columnist.