When you think of yourself, what kinds of self-descriptors do you use? Do you have a drawer full of negative labels that you use on a regular basis - tags like I'm disorganized, or unattractive, or clumsy?
Many people have the destructive habit of using labels - extreme black-or-white categories - to evaluate their personal characteristics, sometimes at the rate of dozens of times a day. Consider the following statements of a woman, each of which include a label that negates her "self:"-"I'm so FAT. I shouldn't be sitting here with all these skinny ladies."
-"I don't have anything to say to these women. I'm so PRACTICAL and BORING."
-"What a STUPID comment I made. I'm sure I offended them. I always say DUMB things."
-"I should have thought of that myself. I am so SELF-CENTERED I can't think of anyone else."
-"I'm a HORRIBLE wife. I should be in the kitchen fixing dinner instead of watching TV."
If you, like this woman, habitually use labels to describe your characteristics, you're making sweeping generalizations that totally ignore the many complex facets of your character. In one fell swoop you can wipe out your uniqueness, now thinking of yourself ONLY in terms of the label you've used.
Labels divide your characteristics into black-or-white categories - they are either good or bad, beautiful or ugly, desirable or undesirable. But then YOU become the label, YOU are the one who is either good or bad, beautiful or ugly, desirable or undesirable. This, however, is a distortion in thinking, for labels are abstractions that don't exist in reality - you are NOT the same as your behavior.
Each new situation to which you apply the label becomes one more "proof" to you that you indeed ARE inferior or inadequate in the ways the label suggests. The label itself also designates you as a "finished product," destined to remain as you are all the days of your life, with no room for growth or change.
Labels discourage you from exerting the effort and taking the risk of trying to change. In his book, "Your Erroneous Zones," Wayne Dyer relates a case in point of a young man who believes he is shy. At a party he may proceed through circular thinking that goes something like this:
1. I'm shy.
2. Look at that attractive group of people.
3. I think I'll approach them.
4. No! I can't.
5. Why not? Because I'm shy.
Rather than intervening between point 3 and 4 to do something about his shyness, the young man simply exonerates his behavior with his "shy" label, and avoids the attendant risk-taking that is necessary to change his behavior.
What can you do to avoid labeling yourself and stop destructive thinking that inhibits your growth and keeps you from any chance of attaining high self-esteem? Consider these possibilities:
- Realize that you CAN change. Avoid using, say, a label of I'm Dumb and then supporting it with conclusions such as "That's just me," "I've always been that way," "I can't help it," "That's my nature." You DO have the ability to change anything you'd like.
- Recognize that when you label yourself you wipe out any positive characteristic you have or any positive thing you've ever done in your life. Take the statement, "I should have thought of that myself. I'm so SELF-CENTERED I can't think of anyone else." Making a statement like that ignores all the generous, selfless efforts you've ever made on the behalf of others. (Besides that, who said you SHOULD have thought of a particular idea. Be good to yourself - cut out your merciless criticism!)
- Keep track of the labels you typically use for a week or so. Then throw them out of your language. Instead, be descriptive and stay with the situation at hand: "I would have liked to have thought of that idea, but I didn't, and that's OK." (The last part of that statement is an example of being good to yourself!)
- "Think gray." Instead of thinking of your characteristics or performance in absolutes, think about them in percentages: "Probably 95 percent of the time I DO think about other people's needs. I'm actually pretty good at doing that!"
- Try thinking of your behavior or performance in neutral terms. Imagine using the label "failure" as a description of an animal's behavior, says Dyer. Consider a dog barking for 15 minutes, and saying about the dog: "He really isn't very good at barking. I'd give him a `C.' "
That's absurd, Dyer emphasizes. "It is impossible for an animal to fail because there is no provision for evaluating natural behavior. Spiders construct webs, not successful or unsuccessful webs. Cats hunt mice; if they aren't successful in one attempt, they simply go after another. They don't lie there and whine, complaining about the one that got away, or have a nervous breakdown because they failed. Natural behavior simply is! So why not apply the same logic to your own behavior and rid yourself of the fear of failure."
Even if you want to IMPROVE your behavior, consider where you're at as "natural behavior" - as simply a neutral starting point for change - instead of some awful flaw in yourself.
- Remember that all of these points apply to OTHER people as well. When you label others, you see them as totally "bad" or "deficient" and wipe out their personality or "essence." You're not giving the other person SPECIFIC information about a SPECIFIC behavior that occurred in a SPECIFIC situation that may have bothered you. That makes it difficult for the other person to even consider a change!