Labels can be dangerous. Sometimes they shackle us to former iterations of ourselves that we’ve outgrown, or to false perceptions other have projected onto us and forced us to hold.
Even labels that appear positive or innocuous can have ill effects. A person who has been labeled “the best” at something or “perfect” in one way or another might not feel the freedom to fail.
In grade school I was the fastest kid in my class. I may have been the fastest kid in my school (caveat: it was a very small school). But my speed only applied to sprints. I was not a distance runner. When the time came for my class to do it’s first annual timed mile run, I felt a strange weight. Everyone expected me to finish first; I expected to finish first. I felt a great pressure to live up to my label, but I couldn’t. And trying to was agony. I pushed myself as hard as I could. Oxygen felt like fire and my lungs burned. I tasted metal and blood and started to feel the rotation of the world. My heart broke. A label I’d clung to (“the fastest”) had been challenged and defeated in public. It was devastating at the time, but when we ran the timed mile next year, I felt free to go at my own pace.
When we accept an inaccurate or unrealistic label for ourselves and then permanently affix it, the consequences can be grave. It is a misdiagnosis, and so no prescribed antidote for any apparent defections will be effective—some may even prove to be destructive or deadly.
When we forcibly assign a label to someone else, it is as though we have photoshopped an image. We distort reality in order to satisfy our own expectations. We hold them down to feel less inadequate, or we put them up on a pedestal and cement their feet to it to make sure they don’t fall off so we can continue to worship them.
Not all labels are destructive. Some are simply descriptive. The labels that get me into trouble are the ones that are restrictive or unrealistic. I’m not the fastest; I’m fast. Perfection, even if attainable isn’t sustainable. A teacher once told me that it’s better to be less than perfect. If you’re not perfect, you’ll always have a goal; you can always improve. If you’re perfect, all you have is the fear of falling short. It’s a burden.
The most dangerous label I’ve every assigned to myself is the label “should be.” I should be this or that by now. I should be happy with this relationship, opportunity, or job. I should be at this stage in my personal or professional life by now. I should be thinner, smarter, working harder, or better prepared. I should be something other than the current version of myself.
The “should be” label is dangerous. It can scorch the earth of my self worth and productivity and poison the wounds of my insecurities. That is not to say that “should be” can’t inspire or motivate me. Labels aren’t inherently bad, but when they are assigned incorrectly or become inflexible, they can be debilitating. So whether you are applying a label to yourself or to someone else, do so carefully, and never with the expectation of permanence.
Labels, especially those that are erroneous, remind me of the story about the ugly duckling. I used to think the moral of that story was not to worry if you’re in an awkward or ugly phase of life, because it’s temporary. But now I see that there’s more to the story. It isn’t just don’t worry if you’re not beautiful now; in time you will be. The ugly duckling wasn’t ugly at the beginning. He wasn’t a duckling. You can’t fault a penguin for being unable to fly just because someone labeled her an eagle or a pigeon.
The moral I take from the ugly duckling story is that mislabeling has consequences. (Spoiler alert: turns out he was a swan the whole time!) He wasn’t an ugly or dysfunctional duck. He was a different breed of bird entirely. And all that time he wasted trying to be a duck must have been very disheartening—depressing even. Imagine the sad state of his self-esteem until he realized his true identity as a swan and removed the label of “ugly duckling” that others had stuck to him.
The type of mislabeling that happened to the ugly duckling happens to people all the time. We put the labels on ourselves. We affix them to those around us as well. Perhaps you’re suffering from ugly duckling syndrome. You’ve grown up with ducks, everyone calls you a duck, but you feel like an oddball because you don’t have the feathers of a duck, your beak is a different color or shape, and quacking doesn’t come naturally to you.
Perhaps you’ve been mislabeled. Your job isn’t to wait and hope you grow out of this “phase” of feeling ugly or awkward or different. Your job is to realize that you’ve been assigned (and accepted) the wrong label, and to defy it. Peel it off and release yourself from those shackles. You might be a swan. You might be an ostrich. Perhaps you’re not even a bird! Maybe you’re a rabbit and it’s time to go find your burrow, fill it with carrots, and leave those ducks to enjoy their stale breadcrumbs.