How many times have you heard or said, “I don’t like labels” or “I don’t like being labelled?” I used to feel that way too, but, believe it or not, I think I can now argue the case for labels. Don’t believe labels can be a good thing? Read on!
I think many people object to being labelled because it feels like you’re being pigeonholed or restricted in some way. Labels make it feel as though one word is supposed to be able to represent your whole pluralist, multi-faceted, and three-dimensional self.
How you acquire a label affects how you feel about it
The way in which you acquire a label has a huge bearing on whether or not you find it useful. Whether or not you like it depends on your position in the labeling process. Did you actively take on the label or were you passively assigned it?
For example, perhaps you were given a negative label at school. If you needed additional support, you might have been labeled “stupid.” If you didn’t fit in, your classmates might have called you “weird.”
That said, labels assigned by others don’t have to stay bad. Powerful and successful communities have come together to achieve great things by standing united behind labels. Think about the empowering reclamation of many previously derogatory terms such as “queer.” Reclaiming labels can be incredibly powerful.
Your associations affect how you feel about labels
Of course, your relationship with a label will also depend on whether you have a positive or negative association with that word. If you associate negative qualities with a particular label, you are unlikely to want to be seen to be in any way connected to it.
No one would ever want to carry around the labels “lazy,” “stupid,” or “good for nothing.” Turn them on their head though, and think about how you’d feel if you were instead labelled “clever,” “successful,” or “talented.” Feels very different doesn’t it?
When are labels useful?
How do you feel about calling yourself a multipotentialite? Now, that’s a label I would guess most of us are very proud of using. This term helps to define an array of qualities that make us who we are, as well as helping us to identify others like us and to create a community around something we have in common. Is there really anything negative in the use of that label? I don’t think so.
A label is useful when it can accurately and positively convey who you are. Maybe there are labels you already use to portray yourself positively. For example, I often describe myself as an “artist” or as a “multipotentialite.” I find both of these labels to be positive ways of conveying who I am.
Labels can also work as social cues or shorthands, by which you can quickly identify people with similar ideals, beliefs, and values. While they’re rarely perfect, labels can speed things up.
Labels must be flexible
As we evolve, the labels we pick for ourselves may also change. Obviously there are some qualities, beliefs, and values that stay with us no matter how old we are, but others need to be shed from time to time.
A label you adopt when you’re in your teens may well have become obsolete ten years later, thanks to changes in society, technology, and culture. Ways of being and identities that don’t exist today will come into being in the future. I do a lot of web design, but I wouldn’t have been able to call myself a web designer when I was at school, because the web didn’t yet exist!
We need to be free to add to, change, and remove our own labels at any time. Labels need to be flexible if they are to continue to represent us.
What if we replaced the word “label?”
I believe the biggest problem here might be the word “label” itself. So imagine for a moment that we replaced the word “label” with a word such as “ingredient” or “element.”
In cooking, we take a number of individual ingredients and combine them to create complex and richly-flavoured delicacies. In science, we can also do the opposite, by analyzing something complex it to determine its individual component parts or elements.
How would you feel if, instead of labels, you could pick from an array of ingredients or elements to describe who you are? I like to think of labels in this way – as individual building blocks that can be experimented with and combined for optimum effect.
Rather than feeling pigeonholed by limiting labels, we should use words as building blocks to help explain who we are and to understand ourselves.
How do you feel about labels? Do you think there’s a positive side to them?