The Harmful Power of Labels

Labels help us categorize, arrange, identify, and find things. 

Applying labels to objects is quite useful. It’s less so when we use them to describe people. 

Words like “dumb” or “lazy” or “fat” are labels that hurt feelings and have no positive purpose. Labels become your idea about that whole person (or yourself).

If someone changes lanes too quickly in traffic, you might label them a “jerk”. 

The behavior (cutting you off) was unexpected and dangerous. 

But applying the label “jerk” to them as a person isn’t helpful. They might be avoiding an accident or having a really bad day. 

The behavior is wrong, but the person still has value beyond this one act.

By assigning the label to the person instead of the deed, we deny them this truth.

If someone you would like to be in a relationship with doesn’t return your feelings, you might think that you’re “unlovable”.

The behavior you’re observing is true (they’re not reciprocating your offers to get closer), but you are certainly lovable in spite of this rejection. 

Labeling yourself as “unlovable” puts you in a box, diminishes your value, and leads you into a self-deprecating spiral. 

Disappointment and other difficult emotions are hard to own. Labeling yourself or someone else just prolongs the discomfort and delays the breakthroughs.

Our students are hurt by labels every day.

They don’t learn them in a vacuum. 

They hear them on TV, on the playground, at their lockers, and in their homes. 

To change this, we need to dive a little deeper into our habit of using labels.

Awareness is the first step.

Notice when you use labels. Observe without judgement. We are all perfectly imperfect!

Question the validity and usefulness of using a label:

  • Is this thinking hurting or helping me?
  • How can I think differently?

Choose your thoughts wisely! You get to decide which thoughts you focus on and which ones to ignore.

In the SocialEyes Together® SEL curriculum, you’ll find a multitude of games and exercises teachers can use for social emotional learning. One of them is called “Labeling Others. Labeling Ourselves.” 

Click here to learn more about the curriculum!

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