Optimize Your Life

Episode #17: How Self-Labeling Can Affect Your Confidence

Show Notes:

Hello and welcome to the show where we talk about different ways that you can optimize your life. I’m Dr. Sharon Grossman and I am super excited to be here with you yet again today to talk about something that I think is actually super important. And that’s because I see it every day with my clients. It’s called self labeling. This is where we have labels for ourselves and that can get us into a lot of trouble. And so what I’d like to do is break this up into two categories: one is when we have labels that we got from other people and the other is when we’ve given those labels to ourselves. And we’ll talk about the impact of having such labels on ourselves as well as what you can do about it.

In society we tend to label people because it makes things easier for us. It’s kind of like when you go into a bookstore. Rather than just looking for books all over the store, you can go into specific sections based on what you’re looking for. So if you’re interested in sports, you can go to the sports section. If you’re interested in cookbooks, you go to the cooking section. We take that same approach with people and this can be helpful but it can also be unfortunate. For example, in medicine we tend to give people diagnoses and that is in order to identify what their problem is and what is the solution or the treatment that is appropriate for their condition. So it makes sense why we do that but it’s supposed to be really more about their condition or symptom that they’re having as opposed to them as a person. 

In mental health, on the other hand, I’ve noticed that a lot of times the labels tend to be more on people then on the symptoms themselves. So we have depression but people will often say “He’s depressed” as if it’s a label on the person. If it were a broken foot, we wouldn’t say, “He’s a broken foot.” We would say, “His foot is broken.” And so we have to be really careful about the kinds of ways in which we talk about people and how these labels can affect them because what happens when you believe that you are just this depressed person is that it becomes part of your identity sometimes. And that can be a slippery slope. When we have such labels and, often times as I’ve said, they come from other people, from culture, from society, then it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words what you believe about yourself or what this label has led you to believe about yourself may sometimes keep you stuck in a very limited confined box. 

Another example of this is with schizophrenia. So we don’t typically say, “He has schizophrenia,” but we’ll say, “He’s a schizophrenic, he’s psychotic.” We’ll have these kinds of labels that are very damaging to people because then when you have associations with those labels you might start treating people differently. “There’s ways that we label people based on their diagnoses, in terms of mental health, in terms of their sexuality, in terms of a lot of areas. And so we have to be really mindful of this and what we are bringing on as a result. 

There was a study many years ago where teachers were approached by a researcher and what this researchers said to the teachers was, “I am going to test the IQ of your students and I will give you the results of those tests so that you know who in your class is really the shining star.” And so this researcher actually tested all the kids and came back and told the teachers that it was certain kids in the class where in fact that really was a lie. But it was an experiment. It was a social experiment to see who would happen to those kids. And what happened was the researcher came back at the end of that school year and found that in fact those kids who he identified as being gifted, as being extra smart, those were the ones who actually excelled. And the reason for that wasn’t because of their IQ because their IQ was just average. It was because of the biases that their teachers held. As soon as the teacher thought of them as special, as more advanced, they started to treat them differently. And so this is an example of how having a label can help us, but often times it does the opposite. It’s where we have negative connotations about people like ex-convict or people who have, as I said, mental health issues, people who come from poverty, all kinds of circumstances. 

So I found these two interesting quotes that pretty much say the same thing in different ways and I wanted to share that with you because they talk about this instance of being labeled by others. So WC Fields said, “It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to” and I think that that is actually an important thing to remember, that even if you’ve been given a label, you don’t have to answer to it. You can make a decision for yourself about who you are and you don’t have to identify with those labels. 

Similarly Toni Morrison said, “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined” and I think that’s really empowering to be able to say, “You know what? If you think that about me, that’s your opinion. I don’t necessarily agree with that.” 

Often my clients will talk about themselves in a negative way. They’ll have labels for themselves such as, “I’m a loser, I’m worthless, I’m crazy, I’m broken.” Sometimes I’ll give my clients an assignment to do and I’ll check in with them cuz I’m trying to hold them accountable for their growth. And so when I check in with them let’s say a week later, if they haven’t done the assignment I’ll ask them, “What do you think got in the way?” and it’s a very strategic question because I want them to have some insights about what their obstacles are. Often times people make excuses for why they don’t do things and that just keeps them stuck and so it’s important to identify what is the underlying belief that is leading to that behavior. But in this case what I’m trying to do is kind of see where they go with their story and a lot of times what I hear is, “Oh I was just lazy.” And people use this excuse for why they don’t exercise or why they don’t do things they know are good for them, and what I find is that more often than not this is not the case. It’s not that you’re lazy which is why you didn’t do the thing that you were supposed to do. There’s usually some sort of underlying belief that you don’t deserve to feel happy, you aren’t good enough in order to have the kind of life that you want, or something along those lines. And so I start off with this line of questioning in order to get to that belief. And this is important when we talk about labeling because when we have these labels, it’s often a belief.  It’s often been cemented into our subconscious mind and we have to become aware of those labels and how they’re affecting us.

It gives us an opportunity to really break through a glass ceiling that was either given to us from other people, from society, or that we’ve given to ourselves. Sometimes we give it to ourselves when we’re comparing ourselves to others and we think, “Oh, they’re doing so much better than me. Therefore, I’m a loser. I’m not as good.” Or you see people who are having healthy relationships and you find that you’ve just had this terrible relationship or you just got divorced, so you tell yourself, “I’m broken. There’s something wrong with me.” So think about how you describe yourself and how doing so can really lead not only to feeling really badly about yourself, but can actually lead you to that self-fulfilling prophecy where you start to create those results in your life that you are telling yourself about.

Craig D. Lounsbrough said, “A label locks me into a definition that people use to control me. A vision graces me with an idea that serves to release me.” Obviously very poetic but the reason I share with you is because again sometimes these labels are given for good reason but they’re misused and sometimes they’re given, as he says, to control you. But what he also says which I think is more of a positive note is that when you have a certain vision about who you are and what is possible for you, that can really release you from the label and open you up to possibility.

One of the things that I write about in my book is how labels are tied to confidence and more specifically to self-efficacy. If you’re not familiar with this term, self-efficacy is your belief in your ability to do something. And as were talking about work, it’s about your ability to perform on your job. Now what happens is sometimes we try something and it works and so we have these labels like, “Oh, I’m amazing! I’m so smart. I’m successful.” Even though these sounds great, you also have to be careful about giving yourself those kinds of labels  because you can easily get caught up in this idea that everything is so easy and that you already know everything that you need to know so you don’t really need to try so hard and then you experienced failure. This is inevitable and the question is — what do you tell yourself when this happens? 

So sometimes people who are really into labeling themselves will say, “I am a loser. I’m a failure.” You end up on this roller coaster of emotions. You’re constantly going up and down based on the results that you see in the world. 

So here’s what you can do instead so that you can sustain your confidence or your self-efficacy:

  • Avoid labeling yourself based on your outcomes. In other words, don’t call yourself a loser if things don’t work out. This can only hinder your success moving forward. The Pygmalion Effect is when your expectations become your reality. High expectations lead to high performance while low expectations lead to poor performance. This is not only true of your expectations of yourself, but other people’s expectations of your performance as I’ve just mentioned. When you have a stable outcome over time, you might start labeling yourself as a winner or a loser. So remember that… 
  • What’s important is your mindset and your effort. Whether you succeed or fail a task is irrelevant. So long as you are learning, you are winning. So avoid labeling yourself. The outcome does not represent who you are, only your efforts do. 
  • Focus on learning rather than achieving and redefine your successes and failures and this will serve you brilliantly for years to come. 

For additional mindset hacks, be sure to go to my website www.drsharongrossman.com and download the free Mindset Mastery Starter Kit.  I’ll talk to you next week.

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