Labels. They’re great for organizing things in our homes and offices. They’re even great refrigerator reminders to jog our memories.
But when labels are used as boundaries that keep us within prescribed limitations, they’re lethal to our ability to move forward. These labels tell us what we “should” do based on preconceived notions of what others think about who we are and what we can become.
When we buy into these limiting labels, we relinquish our sense of self. Labels – particularly when they have been placed upon us by people whom we love or respect – can become so embedded in our brains and psyches that we feel guilty if we try to step outside of them.
While many labels that define prejudice and discrimination have been discouraged through laws and regulations, the most dangerous labels to our ability to succeed are those which we place upon ourselves.
The Stickiness of Labels
When we have a strong sense of self and a true understanding of who we are and what we stand for, we are much better able to remove the “glue” from the labels that others try to stick on us. But it’s not easy.
The problem is that many of the labels that we use to define ourselves (consciously or unconsciously) are not the result of recent experiences – or even our interpretations of those experiences. Instead, they are the result of what other people have told us about who they think that we are and, as a result, what we can become. For example, how many of these labels have crossed your mind in response to different challenges?
- “I’m a control freak.”
- “I don’t like change.”
- “I guess I’m just too sensitive.”
- “I can never overcome what happened to me in the past.”
- “I can never be a/an [fill in the blank].”
Just like pulling off a bandage, pulling off a label can be just as painful. By saying that the label no longer applies to us, we automatically have to say that what other people told us is wrong. If the label came from our parents, family, friends, or even an admired boss or co-worker, the act of removing the label from our psyches actually changes our relationship with that person.
Consider the labels that society and families placed on women in the Baby Boomer generation. An “acceptable” job (which you only kept until you were married) was generally a teacher, nurse, or secretary/administrative assistant. Anything else was “shocking.” Although other women were in different careers, they were the exception and not the norm – and you were told that you weren’t one of them.
Although Boomers pushed back and opened the doors for women to enter any career, it was not without a great deal of anxiety and second-guessing.
- Working women were directly or indirectly criticized for either not having children or for “deserting” their children when they were at work.
- The “glass ceiling” surreptitiously appeared in corporations – although women could see the higher level jobs within the organization, they were effectively barred from moving into them.
- Pregnant women were often forced to quit their jobs due to their “unseemly” situation – a practice which led to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
- But even today, there are countless cases of sexual harassment against women when they enter into fields that have been traditionally male dominated – and often times the women never file complaints against their harassers.
While these pioneering Boomer women pushed through these doors, many privately expressed doubts and concerns as to the “wisdom” of their decisions. Although they loved their jobs and excelled in them, a nagging voice inside their heads often made them question their choices – particularly when others were nonsupportive or blatantly accusatory.
With doubt often comes guilt and, with guilt, comes anxiety. When anxiety couples with unmet expectations of what “should” have been the result of a decision, the result is burnout.
Puleo’s Pointers: How to Pull Off Unproductive Sticky Labels
Labels only appear to be permanent but, in reality, the glue that sticks them to our consciousness is only temporary. Instead of affixed with super glue, we have the power to change that adhesive to one that is used on the little yellow stickies of Post-It™ notes.
When we permit ourselves to continue to hold on to the label that someone else gave us, we essentially relinquish our control to someone else’s judgments of who we are and what we can become.
To move forward, we have to let go.
If we believe that the glue of a negative or unproductive label is permanent, then it will be permanent. Why? Because we become who we believe we are.
Here are some tips to help you finally remove the caustic labels that are preventing you from achieving the success that you want on your own terms:
- Try to discover the source of the label. Was it something that your parents told you growing up? Was it the opinion of a manager who didn’t really understand you? Or was it a general consensus within society at a specific period of time? (It may take some time, but be patient.)
- Determine what was going on when they affixed this label to you. Did you make a mistake, but were then unilaterally labeled as a “failure?” What was going on in the labeler’s life at the time – could it be that the boss was belittling you with this label because he or she was afraid that you would take their job? (Remember: the label was placed on you by someone else’s reaction to you – so taking account of what was going on in their lives at the time helps you see the bigger picture.)
- Consider when you used this label as a “safety net” to NOT take action. One of the biggest problems with labels is the attached “should” that prevents you from taking a desired action – because the label says that “you’re not that kind of person.” Be very clear and detailed about the opportunities you’ve missed because you bought into someone else’s label of who you are. (The more you personally buy into this label, the more you increase the super glue-iness of its adhesive.)
- Identify who (if anyone) would be “hurt” if you relinquished this label. Many times we believe that if we change, we’re going to upset others. However, in the end, only you are in charge of your own life. Besides, the people who really care about you will adjust – and, if not, then they aren’t the type of people who are conducive to your success, so limit your interactions with them. (This is the first step in destabilizing the super glue.)
- Imagine all the positive things that could happen in your life if you let go of this label. Instead of dwelling on who might be upset or the even more scary unknown future, vividly visualize how much more free you can be once the label has been ripped off. Life is full of boundless opportunities – but you need to be free of the unproductive labels in order to take advantage of this abundance. (At this point, the super glue will effectively change to a temporary glue.)
- Finally, start acting in a way that is the opposite of the previous unproductive label. Yes, it’s going to be scary at first. Habitual actions can be difficult to overcome – but you can do it by replacing the negative actions resulting from the previous label into positive actions that reflect the antithesis of that label. Just like Post-It™ notes can be placed and removed repeatedly, it will take some time until you truly believe that the label no longer defines who you are. (When that time comes, celebrate and congratulate yourself for the courage you exhibited in overcoming the boundaries that have limited you in the past. Woo hoo!!!!)
I hope that these tips help you to stop “should-ing” yourself into the über stress of burnout. Let me know if these ideas worked for you!
Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model. An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube. To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com.