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The Label Maker – a dangerous tool!

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An amazing phenomenon happens to a lot of kids early in life. It isn’t often talked about or noticed, but it exists and many of us take part in it. The phenomenon is label making – the act of learning, accepting and receiving labels. These labels apply to our potential, our behavior, our physical appearance, and our personality. Unfortunately, labels get stuck on us with a kind of emotional Super Glue that can last a lifetime. And even if you do remove the labels, there is usually some kind of residue that remains.  As a young child in grade school I began to internalize the labels stuck onto me about who I was and how I learned. Back in the day teachers prepared report cards by hand including the comments, usually written in perfect long hand, in the big square sections on the back. In my mind's eye, I can still see my third grade teacher's comments:    Beth is an average student” and “Beth is easily distracted”. Beth is a chatter box” and “Beth is absent too often”.   I remember my mother sitting in her rocking chair by the dining room window and me at the big round oak table while she read the comments. At the time, I didn’t realize that they were opinions, symptoms, indicators and reflections on teaching style. What I did understand is that the comments weren’t up for debate. They were facts from an authority figure. And I began to be defined by them and live within them.   My best friend’s hand-written comments were dramatically different:   Debbie is a pleasure to have in class. Debbie is a conscientious, excellent student.   Academically, Debbie and I both went on to live out the labels we were given.  My fourth grade teacher was ready for me to show up as my previous teacher described me -  average, chatty and often absent. And I lived my label. Being average was easy for me.  Later when I went back to college as an adult and was a straight A student with two kids and a full time job, my mother said, “I always wondered when you’d realize how intelligent and capable you are?” Hmm. Imagine if I had been given different labels early on?

When I work with clients who are stuck or struggling or just plain wishing there was more to life, I am amazed how they immediately begin sharing their adopted labels, “I’m a procrastinator”, “I’m easily distracted”, “I’m not working to my full potential” and as they speak, I can see the long hand comments on their report cards.   When I am called to work with struggling managers, they are quick to share all the labels their employees come with. “Well, she is known as passive aggressive” or “He is just not that bright”, “They aren’t motivated" or “Everyone knows they are the pot stirrer”.   As the labels are shared with me, I’m always taken back to my third and fourth grade experience. As an adult I understand what I didn’t as a little kid - that the labels we adopt are not character traits, but merely the perception of the labeler. The labels indicate what is observed right now, not what is possible. And if instead of slapping a label on someone, there is some self-reflection on our part, we can likely co-create a new trajectory. As leaders, managers and humans we need to exercise caution when labeling those around us.   Spend today with an awareness of where you inject labels into conversation or dialogue, particularly labels that add no value to the content or context of what is being shared. Some of the labeling we do is habit, some of it is an indicator of an opinion, fear or even prejudice we harbor that we aren’t fully aware of. Some labels we use to intimidate or even control others when we fear we will be shown up, proven wrong, or have our sense of power taken away.   Watch for descriptors you add to sentences that keep people boxed in or aren’t necessary. Ultimately they say more about you than those you are speaking about. Some examples that I hear all the time are: “My friend, who is black, …”, “The man who waited on me, he was Indian, …”,  “My bookkeeper, a recovering alcoholic, is great". Or when we disagree or feel threatened by someone, “Stupid”, “Jerk” etc. And some labels we perceive to be positive, but actually put individuals into stereotypes such as always greeting little girls by saying, “You look so pretty” and little boys by saying “Oh my, you are strong!   Listen to the labels you place on yourself. “I’m such an idiot”, “I’m a procrastinator”, “I’m a slow learner”, “I’m average”, “I’m fat” and/or “I’m weak”. The more you broadcast them, the more you and others will begin to believe them. And eventually they become your truth.   I encourage you to look at where in your life you wear the labels that were applied to you by others. People whom in that moment had the false power to label you. All you have to do now is see the label for what it is – something that was given to you - and wash it off just as you would a splash of mud.   Become aware of the places where you are a label maker. How do you describe the children in your life? How do you describe your partner? How about co-workers or your staff? And especially notice how you label yourself. Where do you hear others label someone and then you begin your relationship with that person wearing that label? Instead try giving your relationship with that person a clean start – free of labels.

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The beauty of the label maker as an organizational tool is it creates a nice, clean way to identify what is stored in a folder. The danger of the label maker when it comes to human relationships is it identifies what we project is stored inside a human. As humans we have the ability to grow, change, adapt and continually evolve. Who we were 20 years ago, 5 years ago or even 15 minutes ago can’t possibly be who we are now. With each inhale we transform. With each experience we are altered.  It is nature and it is true.   Today is a new day! Peel off the old labels. Challenge the ones you’ve been given and drop the ones you’ve given others. It is a practice and it is freeing!   Are you ready to explore and let go of the labels you wear? Are you ready to become someone who stops affixing labels to others?   Give me a call at 978-614-5405 and let’s explore the freedom and ease of living “label-less”.   Now that I'm up in the Sacramento area, I'm looking for new coaching clients – both individual and organizational. If you know someone who would be interested please have them email me at beth@bethwonson.com or you can share these links...   Executive Coaching   One-on-One Coaching   Team Development