This month we are focussing on labels and their impact on our mental health. Some labels are obvious; jock, butch, millennial, crazy, lawyer, cat lady, whatever. Other labels however are far more subtle. These are the words we use to describe ourselves and our capabilities.
A tale of 2 labels
I was a teacher’s aid in grade 11, tutoring 2 students in math. This is ironic because I dislike math immensely. The first student was a girl who had simply fallen behind in her understanding. The second was a boy who was behind because he frequently missed class.
The ironic thing is that both students needed more help managing their labels than they did with math.
The girl had struggled with learning some of the principles, and had been called ‘stupid’ by someone. She internalized this label. My goal was to show her that the label was wrong. After a few months, she started to believe me, and ended up with a B in math.
The boy on the other hand had a darker label- ‘bad’. He came from a difficult home and economic situation. Struggling without support, he acted out. He didn’t need tutoring in math. He was faster at getting to the answer than I was. One day I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He stopped and thought for a minute, ‘an engineer’ he said, and added ‘you’re the first person to ever ask me.’
Given and implied labels
Words are thrown around in our culture so lightly. Words like lazy or bad or stupid. Even if they aren’t directly stated, they are implied by not meeting a standard. If you don’t look like some girl on Instagram, you are fat. If you don’t wake up at 5 am, you are unmotivated. If you don’t understand the complexity of political structures, you are stupid. If you fail to save your money or if you eat a cookie, you have no will power.
And so by these backward processes we all become lazy, worthless, unmotivated, stupid people.
The problem is, we as a culture make everything a personal failing. We attribute every action to the character of the actor. ‘You skip school because you’re a bad kid.’ ‘You have sex with multiple partners because you’re a slut.’ ‘You failed a grade because you are stupid.’
It is so neat, so convenient. Its also wrong. My friend who skipped school did so because her dad was an alcoholic and she didn’t know how to cope. My friend who had multiple sexual partners had been abused. My friend who was failing biology lived in a home that frequently didn’t have any food. But this reality is far less neat.
Let go of labels
Labelling people allows us to take the easy way out. If we approach every human being as inherently good and worthwhile, we must fight to understand why their thoughts and behaviours are otherwise. We must spend time learning where they are warped or broken or distorted.
We must also apply this to ourselves. Believing we aren’t achieving our goals because we are lazy is simplistic. Believing we can’t find love because we are unlovable is wrong. We fall on these solutions because they are easy to arrive at. The reality is far more complex. The reality is a myriad of beliefs, and traumas, and negative thoughts, and learned behaviours.
Letting go of the label means allowing for change
While it may be much more complex and challenging to untangle the real reason we behave and think as we do, there is liberation in throwing off the label. If we are failing because we are stupid, that cannot change that fact. It is an immutable characteristic. But if we are failing because our mom was diagnosed with cancer, or we were told by our emotionally abusive step father that we are stupid, or we actually don’t even want to be an accountant- all of these are problems we can solve.
So be careful what you tell yourself you are. Because you might just convince yourself its true.