Labels are words we use to describe ourselves, a thing or someone else. Some people think labels put you in a box and limit what you believe you can do. They can. Some labels hurt your feelings. They do.
In scouting upcoming opponents in basketball, I use labels a lot: left-handed, shooter, driver, quick, smart, athletic, physical, strong. For me and the players (hopefully) they are helpful. The labels help the players understand tendencies and what the opposition is most likely to do. As for the labeled, in this case, they have some control over their labels. Your freshman year, you could be solely a spot up shooter, but you could improve your skill set over the summer to become a more complete player to rid yourself of the label “shooter.” Then, I have to add more labels after your name: improved, quicker, stronger. In basketball, best I can tell, labels are neither good nor bad. They are simply the truth.
When I was growing up, people used labels to describe me as well: smart, tomboy, left-handed, nerd. I can see how people say labels put you in a box. People told me I was smart, so I was. They called me a tomboy, so I was. But I always had been left-handed.
Some labels are hurtful: stupid, slow, dumb, the R-word (which I hate).
I don’t know which comes first. If I was the thing or if people called me the thing. If you are the thing or if people call you the thing.
This I know: Labels shouldn’t be used to demean another human being. You should never use a word that makes or is meant to make a person feel less than human. If that’s what you are using labels for and that’s what you are limiting labels to, then they’re bad. No contest.
But what about the good ones? What about the ones that encourage you, that empower you, that give you greater self-belief and confidence? What about the labels that promote self-discovery, peace and learning?
For me, that’s what the labels of ASD, obsessive compulsive disorder and ADHD did. They gave me a “why.” Growing up, I didn’t know why I did certain things things. I didn’t know that not everyone’s brains carried on a never-ending conversation I hoped never spilled over outside my head. I didn’t know my head wasn’t like most people’s. These diagnostic labels taught me so much about myself.
They helped me learn about other people who had the same difficulties and how they coped. These labels gave me an inner peace I hadn’t felt before. Knowing what was “wrong”/different helped me learn about my strengths and weaknesses. One of my favorite sayings, which I learned from one of my favorite people (Coach Jenny): “Know your strengths and stay in your lane.” These diagnostic labels helped me learn more about the areas I tend to struggle with and the areas in which I excel. What a difference that made! Learning I would likely struggle with the recruiting area of college athletics allowed me to change my career path to stay in areas where I excel, video and stats.
Recently, I was asked how I expected to get a job since I struggled making eye contact. Before these labels, I would have answered I didn’t think I could find a job. Now: I know I can. I know that my abilities, my past experiences and the people for whom I have worked speak much louder than lack of eye contact. And if someone thinks that eye contact is more important, then I probably don’t want to work for them anyway!
I stopped trying to make myself be something my brain isn’t wired to be. I learned my brain was wired differently; not necessarily wrong, just different. The hopeless feelings went away and I became hopeful. Instead of focusing on all the things I couldn’t do, I started focusing on what I was good at and what made me feel good. I started selling my work instead of selling myself. I became more confident in my abilities.
You get to pick how you use labels. You can make them limiting, demeaning or hurtful. You can simply use them to state facts. You can use them to lift up, to empower and to encourage. You can take a label that was meant to be limiting and make it empowering. You can take a label that was meant to be hateful and ignore it; the user is likely ignorant of his/her own ignorance. Take a word that was meant to ruin your life and instead let it empower your life. You can turn a diagnosis into peace, education and acceptance.