No Labels Please!

woman holding her hand out palm forward with a post it note on it showing and X

The hard-nosed boss.
The fair-minded leader.
The needy wife.
The supportive spouse.
The bleeding heart.
The good Samaritan.

Did each of those labels bring a different image to mind? Was the experience positive or negative? Why do you think you responded the way you did?

How Labels Influence Us

“A label is a mask life wears.”

– Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.

Words matter. The way we use language, whether spoken or simply in our heads, matters. Many in society today seem to struggle with the ability to filter thoughts before they’re released to become indelible markers scribbled on another person’s life. An unfortunate example of this is the wide use of the label ‘Karen.’ What began as a lovely name for a child has turned into a label that defines an out-of-control, racist female. Women whose actual name is Karen are hurt and offended by its use.

So why do we use so many labels?

The fact is labels do have their uses. They can help us identify and find our communities. They provide us a common language. Naming a condition or situation can be the first step we need to address it or make a needed change.

Labels can even provide a sense of identity and pride. How many of us know someone who is a proud veteran? Or someone who delights in their loving relationship with their grandchildren?

But is “grandma” or “veteran” the sum total of who they are?

Labels are tricky things. They can create a false reality. They can give us permission to dismiss someone to whom we do not feel connected. Their influence sometimes limits other possibilities. For example, someone who is well-known as an accomplished musician may not cultivate their athletic prowess because that is not how they or others see them. Actors are often caught in the labeling web. People identify them with an iconic role after which they find it difficult to be cast as a new type of character. Many bosses do the same to employees who excel in one area to the detriment of allowing that person to grow or try their skills on a new project or position.

Most important to note is that our interpretations of labels are subjective. We see through filters formed by our personal histories and experiences. What you imagine when you hear a label may not be how the person next to you imagines things.

Read before buying

Do we even notice how we refer to ourselves and to others? What labels have we casually accepted or ignored? Are there any labels we assign to others? Are they valid or useful? Or do they have the potential to harm?

Labels can be deceptive. Have you ever selected a piece of clothing with a label that was you’re your typical size and when you tried it on you either swam in it or could not get it on at all?

Anyone who has been on a wellness regimen may be very aware of checking a label BEFORE buying food. Calories and hidden fats, nutrients, and fiber are all important decision-making factors. However, some of us only see the label at face value. A package may say “Healthy,” “Low Calorie” or “Diet” but the actual ingredients tell a different story. If we are truly concerned about being healthy it is on us to dig deeper. This is also how we can approach labels given to individuals—dig deeper; learn more!

Cultivate your own sense of identity

Knowing self—observing self in this case—is a lifelong process. As humans, we evolve and grow. What is true in our teens is not the same in our thirties or fifties.“

– Juli Geske Peer, 5 Senses for Success

If you have read my book (or my blogs) you will see how effective change begins within ourselves. 5 Senses for Success: Strategies to Thrive in Any Arena draws from research as well as my personal and professional experiences. I admit I’ve been guilty of judging or labeling others upon first glance or encounter. I’ve also paid the price of doing so and learned tough lessons along the way. It is up to each of us to question from where our judgment of ourselves and others is originating and work to counter these tendencies.

Here is a little exercise you can try to challenge the labels you or others may have assigned you. We have all heard of the ‘elevator speech.’ This is the ready-at-any-moment, short talk we give to introduce ourselves that covers the qualities about ourselves that we want others to know. This rehearsed narrative is handy at job interviews, networking events, or anywhere you are not generally well known.

Now, pretend you are in a room with the people you feel know you extremely well. What if you rewrote your elevator speech for them to cover only things they probably do not know about you? Things that you don’t usually share or you may have felt were not important to them. For example:

My name is Gloria but my dad used to call me Kitty because I have a really curious nature. That curiosity led me to try things like rock climbing and Salsa dancing (where my partner and I won a regional competition!). I have read every single book on Sherlock Holmes written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle because I find Holmes’ inquiring nature fascinating. My personal crusade is to educate others on how to become a foster home for animals in need. If you want to see curiosity in action, just watch a cat that feels safe and loved. And, I also grow orchids, just because they are beautiful.

The point is not to use this speech at a job interview. The point is to do some deep thinking about what is important to you and what makes you, YOU. What brings you joy. The Gloria in my example could be an accountant, which is an occupation often falsely stereotyped to be filled with boring people who like numbers. However, you can see Gloria is anything but boring.

Are we just seeing or truly observing others?

“Just as our eyesight weakens as we age, so too our personal lens becomes tainted by time and experience. In order to see with new eyes, it’s a good idea to start slowly, one person at a times.”

– Juli Geske Peer, 5 Senses for Success

Now it’s time to expand to acknowledging the unique qualities and possibilities in those around us. To get a clear picture of our friends, family, and colleagues as they are in the present, we must use our sense of observation in an open and non-judgmental manner. My book chapter on using our sense of Observing asks us to open up to the fact that one person’s way of existing in the world is not the ONLY way of existing.

A Forbes article titled, “Why It’s Time To Stop Labeling Ourselves And Those Around Us,” notes, “… the fact that we label people by their behavior and characteristics can end up limiting our curiosity about a person.”   We are more than the labels attached to us.

A first step to changing this limiting behavior is to examine our motives behind labeling. Some people label to feel superior. Others may be projecting their own shortcomings onto another. And some are simply unaware they are depending on labels to put life and people into neat little categories.

How do we change these labeling habits? Start at a place of empathy. Life is messy and people are complicated. Would you like to be judged by the worst thing you said or did? I’m guessing not. I know I wouldn’t want to be.

To strengthen your bond with others you must be authentic and admit you have flaws as well. In doing so, you may be less likely to jump to conclusions (or labels) when encountering someone new or different than yourself.

Labeling from a place of power

“I hate labels; the problem is that if you say you’re one thing, it’s hard for people to imagine you as something else.”

– Bill Frisell

For those in a position of leadership or influence, the misuse of labeling can be particularly damaging. It is important to stay curious and open-minded about the people whom we supervise in the workplace. In a position of authority, when we say someone is one thing or another, we can unduly influence how others view that person.

One way to avoid this is to see the whole person and appreciate who they are beyond the traits on their resume. You can start right away by changing your job interview or employee review questions. Try sprinkling them with curiosity about the employee’s or candidate’s interests. Maybe something like, “Tell me about an experience you had lately (that you’re willing to share), where you’ve learned something.”  Another question could be, “Tell me about someone you admire; what makes them admirable to you?” You get the idea.

Living in a world of labels

The perspective on labels in 2022 is promising. We have made some progress in the use of names and in debunking old stereotypes. You rarely hear the term “disabled” these days. A physical or mental challenge is not considered something to be shunned or pitied. Being different (or oneself) is more celebrated today. We see glimpses of light in diverse places such as Victoria’s Secret selecting its first model with Down syndrome who also happens to be Latina.

People are also taking what makes them unique and sharing these things more openly as a method of healing and helping others. I was moved by the story of America’s Got Talent contestant, Nightbirde (Jane Marczewski). This young woman battled and recently lost her fight with cancer. But, instead of allowing others to pigeonhole and pity her, she had the amazing self-awareness to see her talent as a singer-songwriter and compete when others may have simply given up. Her attitude and approach to her illness blew away the accepted perception of a cancer patient. She showed us the full spectrum of who she was.

I will leave you with these inspiring words she left for us:

“I am much so more than the bad things that have happened to me.”

– Nightbirde

#JuliGeskepeer, #NoLabelsPlease, #2022success, #successinanyarena, #successfulleaders, #beauthentic, #empathy, #getcurious, #thewholeperson, #Nightbirde #juligeskepeerauthor, #appreciateothers, #emotionalintelligence


A Book for the Authentic Leader in YOU!

For more about engaging all the senses that can provide support for your journey to success, please take a moment to explore my book, 5 Senses for Success: Strategies to Thrive in Any Arena. I am very proud to share these approaches and truly achievable practices that were born out of my own life and career experiences and strategic research. Each of us has it within us to achieve success and create healthier relationships within ourselves and with others

Follow this link for more information.

Juli Geske Peer is a leadership, relationship, and accountability strategist whose professional credentials include two academic degrees, mediator training, train-the-trainer certification, two coaching certifications, numerous other learning and certification accomplishments, and now, author!

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