The conundrum of self-labeling
How do you describe who you are? A Packers fan? A mom? A Gen-Xer? An American? A Democrat? A conservative?
Those are some handy labels. Labeling is part of our brain’s pattern-matching tools as it is always looking for patterns in order to quickly assess and react to situations.
For example, when you encounter someone new, you quickly look for cues that will tell you something about how they are likely to act or think. You see an older man in a suit and you may subconsciously affix the label “conservative,” “successful,” or “smart.” Or maybe “uptight,” “stuffy” or “money-driven.”
The labels don’t need to be accurate for your brain to latch onto them and when it does, a whole host of past experiences (with people to whom you gave the same label) get attached to your view of that person.
Once we mentally attach a label, it can be very difficult to dislodge.
But affixing labels to people, especially ourselves, can lead to misperceptions and negative assumptions that are simply not true. Self-labeling also affects how we think, what we believe, and how well we can objectively process information.
When we attach labels to ourselves we allow others to make assumptions about us based on our self-labels. They can also become self-fulfilling. A label affixed to your identity will cause you to behave in accordance with that label. If you consider yourself “lazy” “not very creative” or “dumb,” you are more likely to act that way.
Stereotypes are simply labels with oversimplified generalizations attached.
Self-labeling itself is not inherently negative. We can find meaning, connection, and a sense of purpose through our identities. However, belief-based labels can also make us susceptible to false beliefs or prevent us from challenging our own beliefs.
There are a number of things you can do to eschew self-labeling and since few people even think about their self-labels, they will make you stand out for your ability to think more clearly.
Examine your labels
Take some time to write down how you define yourself. Notice what words you use to describe who you are. Then ask yourself these questions:
Is it a negative label?
Is it accurate?
What stereotypes do people associate with that label?
It may be helpful to look at your own social media profiles. We use those to succinctly tell people who we are, so labels are used frequently.
Beware Belief-based Labels
Also notice if the label is based on belief, like around a political party or social issue. Belief-based labels can be the most damaging to critical thinking because we shift from a truth mentality to a team mentality. Yes, we can change our beliefs as we learn more about the subject, but it is much more common to select or interpret information that matches our belief - limiting our exposure to conflicting evidence.
If you don’t like the label - remove it! Your conscious brain system has the ability to override the impulses of your primitive lizard brain, which is usually the source of the label. Catch yourself applying negative labels to yourself and reject them. This doesn’t mean to ignore your own weaknesses, but to realize they are not permanent and you can change them. Don’t let a label keep you from improving.
Remember - critical thinking, open-mindedness, and a willingness to evaluate and adjust beliefs based on evidence are essential to avoid falling into the trap of false beliefs triggered by self-labeling.
Think well - live well.
- Steve Haffner, speaker and mind performance strategist
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