“Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” ― Toni Morrison
Don’t let a bully’s labels define you — defy them.
Earlier this week, Monica Lewinski made the headlines for leading a new anti-bullying campaign. She knows how it feels being called names publicly. The former White House intern was referred as ‘that woman’ during Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
Lewinski has become a powerful and brave activist — the labels and bullying couldn’t stop her.
The #DefyTheName campaign wants to disarm name calling. This reminded me of self-criticism — labeling is something we do to ourselves too.
What happens when we are the ones bullying ourselves?
Self-bullying is more harmful than being bullied by others — it’s impossible to stand up to external criticism if you can’t stop your own attacks.
Labels are anything but random
“We contain multitudes.” — Walt Whitman
Our brain is wired to take shortcuts — that’s why we love labels.
Early survival depended on the ability to see patterns in randomness. Our ancestors needed to discriminate friends from foes — they had to quickly decide to either fight or fly.
However, rapid reasoning is prone to error — we must second guess what our brain is trying to tell us.
Labeling is more than name calling — it’s an extreme form of all-or-nothing thinking. Instead of saying “My last project failed,” you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a failure.” You might also call yourself ‘a jerk,’ ‘a stupid,’ or ‘an incompetent.’
The use of labels is an irrational form of thinking, according to David Burnes, who made Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) popular.
Labels make people invisible — we reduce them to a single adjective.
Labeling is a cognitive distortion — it’s a biased perspective of ourselves and the world around us. These irrational thoughts are often subtle — it’s difficult to recognize them before they turn into a pattern. That’s why self-bullying can cause so much harm — you don’t notice when you call yourself names.
When you make a biased judgment about yourself — you let one behavior define you.
We apply that same mechanism to judge others. If someone takes time to explain something, we call that person ‘slow’ or ‘insecure.’ Before we even realize it, those labels become everything we see about that person.
Our brains tend to make connections where there is no relationship — we interpret unrelated thoughts, ideas, and actions. Those faulty correlations make us judgmental and dismissive towards others (we included). We even lose out temper. Mislabeling refers to the application of highly emotional, loaded language to label others.
Labels oversimplify reality — we confuse a part with the whole.
In the workplace, personality tests encourage a culture of labeling. Instead of trying to understand people, we take a simplified approach to team building. People are put in a (personality) box that limits their ability to grow.
Human beings feel uncomfortable with what we don’t know — we are driven to pull together stories to make sense of others. Labels identify in-groups and out-groups — they divide us based on one single trait.
Our brain is lazy — categorizing and filing people through perception saves us the effort. Instead of spending time to know another person, we jump into quick conclusions. The labels we use merely capture our impression of someone else in a particular place and moment.
Labels don’t let us see people — they describe an oversimplified version of who they are.
When you label yourself, you are following the same pattern. Instead of accepting one flaw, you become that flaw. You can’t see beyond it — you let one defect define you.
Not all labels hurt the same
“Labels are for filing. Labels are for clothing. Labels are not for people.” — Martina Navratilova
Self-bullying is harmful.
Would you allow anyone to label you the way you label yourself?
I’m not saying that external attacks don’t hurt — but neutralizing being labeled starts with you.
Labels are neither bad nor wrong — the way we use them can be negative or positive.
Descriptive labels address aspects of your identity. The issue is being limited to one. Most people describe themselves by their role (spouse, daughter, etc.) or title (doctor, engineer, designer, etc.). Your identity goes well beyond that — you are everything you do, both bad and not.
Prescriptive labels don’t just describe us; they force us to do something. If you are the ‘notetaker’ or the ‘great presenter,’ those labels pigeonhole you — they force you to play the same role all the time. I see this pattern very often when working with teams — some people repeat themselves and others can’t try new roles.
Labeling hinders your potential in various ways.
- Labels are static — they get you stuck in one moment or experience.
- Labels divide us by grouping us into categories — you are either a friend or a foe.
- Labels highlight one single aspect — descriptive labels hide your distinct and true identity.
- Labels force you to play to your strengths — prescriptive labels stereotype the roles you play at work or in your family.
- Labels turn one part into the whole — we let one flaw define who we are.
Organizations like to talk about professional and leadership development but miss one point — it’s human development what matters. By becoming better persons, we improve our ability to lead and thrive as professionals too.
Let’s remove the labels that divide what we do.
We are fluid and adaptive — our preferences and behaviors evolve through time. But labels hinder your personal growth. When you put yourself into a box, you get stuck.
You are not a label — you contain multitudes.
How to stand up to self-bullying
“Labeling yourself is not only self-defeating, it is irrational.” — David Burns
Use the following steps to become more aware of self-labeling. And, most importantly, to stop being your worst bully.
1. Notice labeling
Pay attention to the words you use to describe yourself. Ask someone else to help you become more aware (even if that requires calling you out from time to time).
Focus on understanding why and when you tend to label yourself. Do you use them to punish or reward yourself? Which emotions spark labeling?
2. List your labels
Track and capture all the labels. Do you tend to call yourself the same names over and over? Or it depends on the circumstances. Compare the labels you use and the ones others use to describe you. What are the commonalities and contradictions? Anything that surprises you? Why?
3. Categorize the labels
Grab a piece of paper and divide it into six equal rectangles. Name them:
‘what I hide to others’
‘what I show others’
‘what I’m proud of.’
‘what I’m embarrassed by.’
Grab the list you build and assign each label into each category (it’s okay if one falls into more than one). You can use two different colors to discriminate self-labels from the names people call you.
Try to make sense of this analysis. Is there any category that feels more cluttered? Any surprises or contradictions? What this analysis tell you about how you see (and call) yourself?
4. Don’t become an adjective
As you become more aware of how you label yourself, avoid turning events into an adjective — don’t let something define you.
For example, if you lose a match, instead of calling yourself a loser, reframe how you talk to yourself. Use this structure: “I’m not a loser, I just lost a match.”
5. Defy the name
Going back to the anti-bullying campaign: don’t let labels define you. Challenge the words you (and others) use to describe yourself. You are not a label — you can make mistakes, but you are not a flaw. Use humor. Monica Lewinski replaced her Twitter bio by all the names people used to call her.
When we laugh at our labels, they can’t cause any harm. Bullies enjoy seeing their victims suffer. When you stop reacting, they will feel ignored and look for someone else to bother. That applies to you — stop bullying yourself.
— — —
We are who we are. We are human beings — full of perfect imperfections. Start accepting who you are and treating yourself more kindly.
You are your worst bully. Only until you decide to stop labeling yourself.
P.S.: The video is a reminder that labels divide us, but can also unite us. When we get past one label, we get to realize that we have many things in common with other people.