We all use labels. We use them as shortcuts to help us quickly identify and assess things in life. If we see a long shape slithering in the leaflitter, it’s likely a snake, potentially harmful, so we take appropriate action, perhaps jumping back. That’s a label applied and used successfully.

Our brains are excellent at this. We are able to identify something, and quickly assess it as good or bad. It’s a huge timesaver. No need to have to study an apple every time we come across one. It’s an apple. It’s good. I can simply recall the label and move along.

The problem lies in doing this with more complex things, and with all things. Since this is a mode the brain is good at and comfortable with, it tends to want to do this with everything. And it will, if we allow it. That can be a problem when instead of an apple, we are putting labels on much more complex concepts such as good or evil. In these cases we need higher level thinking. We need the ability to separate the thing itself from our label.

Let’s use money as an example. Money is neither good nor bad. Money is a representation of value. A placeholder, nothing more. And yet there might be nothing more fought over and argued over than money. People who don’t have a lot of money often see it as corrupting, and they assign those negative values to the people who have money. And on the flip side, those with money often see those without money as mentally lazy, offering little of value to society except perhaps some manual labor.

That’s a pretty simplistic (and negative) black and white picture of a very complex concept, and the complex people involved.

Sticky Labels

The real danger comes not so much from the labelling itself, which can be useful, but in not being able to see the label as a label. Things in this universe are not inherently good or bad. Evil, purity, harm, help, negative, positive…these are not inherent in objects in the real world. These are human constructs, a layer, a label we place onto things. We make it up. That’s why two people can see the same thing differently – one as good, the other as bad. Labels are just personal opinions. Granted, they may be shared by many. For example, puppies are pretty universally thought of as cute. But they are not cute, that’s just how we label them. And in the negative the same applies. Murder is considered bad. Murder is not itself bad. We human beings see it as bad.

Certainly those are extreme examples, but that’s the point. We have to accept that even something as horrible as murder is not ‘bad’. Bad is our label, created by us only. Sorry, but the universe does not care about murder. We do. And rightfully so, because it’s certainly bad for us! But we must see that as our own layer of judgement on top of the concept. The thing – in and of itself – has no such property.

Now there’s probably not a lot of mistakes than can be made by choosing to see murder as bad, or puppies as good. The issues arise only when we do a few things

1.  We forget that we’re using labels.

2. We create labels casually, for everything.

3. We reinforce labels.

1. We forget that we’re using labels.

Forgetting that we’re using labels is common, but treacherous. It’s often a way people will decree that things ‘must be so’, when the reality is simply that it’s their opinion that things must be so. Attaching this kind of permanence or grandiose label to a thing or a concept can lead someone to act extremely in its defense or its pursuit.

It’s too easy for us to move from ‘I feel this is important’ to ‘This Is Important!’, perhaps even citing a higher power or a universal law to justify their beliefs. There’s nothing wrong with aligning with a higher power if that’s your belief, but you still must realize that the label is there. You can label for any number of reasons, belief in a god or universal truth is a great one, but once we declare that IT IS TRUE FOR ALL, then we get into some dangerous territory – pushing our agenda on others, justifying our own behaviors (or lack of action or compassion) in the name of something bigger than us, and so on. And we know that this kind of thinking usually does not go well for anyone.

We need to always keep that separation between the thing and the label. When we do give ourselves that space, it allows us flexibility to change our opinion or see things slightly differently as the situation changes. That flexibility is critical for getting good results and avoiding problems.

We see this in the top performers, people at the highest level being able to negotiate with ‘enemies’, seeing a solution that wouldn’t have presented itself without coming at it from another direction, or being able to help others by understanding their problem, or the situation, more clearly.

And the opposite is of course true. When we bind situations with our given label, we can only see it that way. And thus, we really can only act one way. To do so otherwise would make no sense, so it becomes ‘logical’ to act that way. It’s a trap.

2. We create labels casually, for everything.

Labels are very handy, and they don’t require much work. It typically takes no more effort than simply stating something as a fact. “The DMV is a disaster”. There, we have ourselves a label. How about “I’m not good with numbers”, or “I don’t work well under pressure”, or “that woman is annoying”. Label, label, label.

There, our work is done. We don’t ever have to dig deeper into those topics. We now know that we simply don’t work well under pressure, especially with numbers, and let’s hope we don’t run into that lady because she is horrible! We have ourselves quite a story already. Now imagine we do that constantly, all day long, with everything we know. This is ‘this way’, that is ‘that way’, on and on. Before long we’ve got the whole world down to a series of labels.

And that’s exactly what we all do. In fact, we’re usually not even living in reality, we’re living a story we’ve created from our labels. And we barely give it a second thought, sometimes even assigning a label from a rumor, or a headline, or a tv commercial, a tidbit of info. Boom, a label. We’re almost literally fabricating reality from light scraps of information, and incomplete judgements. And we wonder why things don’t seem to go our way all the time – it’s because the story we’ve put together simply doesn’t come anywhere close to reality. And when it doesn’t match up, we get stressed. Seems a bit foolish, doesn’t it? Here we are casually piecing together a picture of the world from essentially post-it notes and company slogans, and then being upset when our rudimentary mix-n-match story doesn’t match up with reality. Something a child would do, but most people will continue to do it until the day they die.

These labels are also extremely limiting. As we go around labeling everything, including ourselves, we are putting in place limits. “I can’t”, “I have to”, “I’ll never”, “this is”, “this is not”. These are very common prefixes to labels, and they immediately shut down any further analysis or flexibility around the topic. And since change is hard, it’s very likely that they/we will stay that way – limiting ourselves to this narrow view based on simple labels, simple judgements. The result: we continue to build up a superficial, flawed, inaccurate understanding of the world around us, one that we’re unlikely to change (and in fact more likely to reinforce, but that’s next…).

That’s quite a structure we put in place for ourselves. Almost a caricature or cartoon version of life instead of actual reality. A mish-mash fairy tale that we call reality and then use as a map to navigate our lives. No wonder it seems like such hard work.

3. We reinforce labels.

We cherrypick. It’s just human nature. So of course we do this with labels as well. Once we have a label in place, we’ll find evidence to support it. We’ll cull out supporting information from the din. In some cases this becomes the slope to stereotyping/racism. In others, it’s simply reinforcing our own limits (“See, I told you I’m not good at this”). It’s another lazy move, because it takes almost no work to find supporting evidence somewhere. Hell, we’ll fabricate it if need be, and certainly suppress all conflicting evidence. Pesky counter-evidence, who needs it?

By reinforcing, it becomes circular, as the labels become more strongly affixed to the object, situation, or concept. The harder we press them on, the harder it is to see them as a label, and not just a part of things. And soon, we have ‘our fixed life’. We are no longer open to change, not in any significant way anyway, and we bounce around between comfortable stops, totally limited by our own thinking. And as we reinforce the labelling, it gets harder and harder not to see it as reality every day.

That’s why labels matter.

Okay. So how do we avoid this? How do we fix it?

Question Your Labels

Labels do have tremendous value. They are formed naturally, and are reinforced by our education (A – Apple – this is an Apple…Bing! Label.). But that’s not a bad thing. They are excellent time-savers, great for avoiding major trouble spots, and most importantly we simply can’t avoid forming and using them regardless.

But we can question them. We can stop the cycle by challenging our own thinking instead of cherrypicking complementary data. We can ask ourselves whether these things are true. And this starts with being very, very careful and mindful about our language.

“I can’t”. Why not? Is that actually true or an exaggeration? Do you simply not want to? What if you could? How could you?

“This is annoying.” How so? All the time? What is annoying about it? How could it be less annoying? Am I creating the annoyance in the first place somehow?

Questions are the key. Don’t trust labels and judgements until they have been fully ‘vetted’. We wouldn’t hire a painter with the lackluster process we use about something as important the labels we have around our own limits in life. Really quite a ridiculous oversight. But we can fix that by starting to watch our language carefully and asking some simple questions.

The really good news is that change is immediate. As soon as we find the courage to do this, we reveal some pretty major flaws and limits in our thinking, and the world starts to open up to us. Things start to move a little easier, the train begins to crawl at first, and with a little practice we find ourselves gliding effortlessly along the right track.

Remember it’s a label

We need to remember to give ourselves some space between the thing and our label or judgement. A person is not a jerk. They are acting like a jerk in our opinion. That thing we think is difficult is not ‘impossible’. It is just something we are currently finding it difficult to do. Do you see how this small shift in language serves to both better describe reality AND bring the object within reach, instead of pushing it away?

Most things in life are not extreme, and yet we continually use extreme language. We do this for the drama, and frankly a lot of it is because the messages we hear are either directly from dramatic stories (tv, movies, even books) or from commercials or headlines, which seek to shock and draw attention by using extreme language. And of course it’s all reinforced as we engage with other people who use similar language. But when you hear a different way of speaking, it stands out. It’s softer, seems more thoughtful and accurate, because it is. And it’s something that can be practiced with great effectiveness very quickly. The shift is almost instant.

When you see people moving through life more or less effortlessly, finding solutions to problems you couldn’t see, able to avoid pitfalls and emotional stress, achieving goals over and over, and appreciating everything along the way – in other words living well – chances are good they are being very careful with their language and their labels. And you can too, with the same results.