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Ditch the labels

Did you, as a child, somehow end up with a tidy little label attached to you? Were you the sporty one? The smart one? The joker that made everyone laugh? Or maybe (heaven forbid) you were the ominous ‘Black Sheep’, the messy rebel who never fitted in? As humans, we feel better if we can sort people into boxes by either their talents (or supposed lack of them), behaviour or appearance. Often there is at least a shadow of truth to these labels, but the danger is always that we may succumb to what is known as ‘The Pygmalion Effect’ (coined from the George Bernard Shaw play), where people are influenced by the expectations put upon them. To put it simply we become what we are told we are and behave in a way those around us expect us to. This can be incredibly limiting and does not encourage us to grow and change. Maybe if you are the sporty one, you feel that choosing an academic career isn’t your designated path. Or maybe you are the labelled (sometimes almost affectionally) as the family mess who is resigned to never being the one who is ‘sorted’, and maybe you feel it’s just easier and safer to stay in that role rather than try to prove everyone (including yourself) wrong. Language is a powerful thing and we become easily conditioned to the roles we have been given. While often these labels are not a deliberate attempt to limit us, others do tend to get uncomfortable when we step away from the labels assigned to us, because we are challenging the very way in which they see the world. Every family has an unspoken role attached to each family member and breaking out of these roles can feel like upsetting a very real balance. Circles of friends and workplaces can have a similar dynamic. It doesn’t always just come externally either: our own internal dialogue and labelling can be just as damaging. Henry Ford once famously said “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right”. How often have you told yourself you are not a runner/reader/baker/entrepreneur or whatever it is that you feel is out of your range of capabilities? Of course, natural talent is a real thing, but it really just gives us a shorter runway and a head start. Effort, mindset and grit are the real key to any kind of success.

These seemingly viscous labels become limiting beliefs that stop us reaching our potential. We can’t always control whatever labels others assign to us, but we can decide whether these labels define us ‘always’, or just ‘now’. We are never just one thing: we are like crystals: complex and multi-faceted, and where we put our focus and effort depends on which of these facets shine the brightest. The stories we have told ourselves, and that others have told us, are often our biggest hurdle to happiness and success. We create our own self-fulfilling prophecies, to our own detriment.

Flip the Pygmalion effect and make it work for you. Tell yourself the stories you need to hear. You are worthy, you are successful, you are intelligent, you can run a marathon, read a book a week, own a bakery, start your own business. You can be scared of commitment and let yourself fall in love. You can be an athlete with a law degree. You can be a rebellious black sheep and an epic entrepreneur. If you are willing to put in the work, there is no label you can’t break free of. So, what’s stopping you really?

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