What Happens When You Start Labelling People? By Dr Linda Berman.


6966414791_2ab4db1587_oEdward Hopper – Office At Night [1940]Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.

“Labels are for filing. Labels are for clothing. Labels are not for people.”

Martina Navratilova

Imagine a world where people were not given labels, but instead were given the chance to be seen as their authentic and individual selves? How refreshing this would be…..

What do I mean by labels and labelling ourselves and others?

So often, we attribute a personality trait, or a way of being, to someone, based on very little evidence. For example, people may be labelled as thin, fat, pretty, ugly, handsome, clever, thick, stupid, rich, poor, and so on.

This is a very narrow-minded way of thinking. In actuality, there is very little thinking involved at all; labelling people is a thoughtless, controlling, irresponsible and insensitive act.

It can cause much distress and offence.

Even wearing a tag or lanyard with your name and job title on it at a conference, whilst very useful in many ways, may also be seen as really labelling us and limiting us.

It is a kind of standardisation, classifying and conflating us into some corporate or professional body.

imageNFX Guild Conference name tags. 17 September 2015, Author: Christopher Michel. San Francisco.

“I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Perhaps, sometimes, a badge can be used to hide our real identity, behind a job, a company, or a role.

“What most people see is a badge, behind and beyond the badge is what they need to know…the person.”

 Donna Brown

Labels can be reductionist, restrictive, discriminatory, limiting, and a distortion of who people are.

They tend to isolate and exaggerate one perceived attribute of a person, which may or may not be applicable to them in reality, and to then identify that person by that one attribute only, and nothing else. 

In reality, that is nonsense; we are all made up of different aspects, with many sides to our personalities.

“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Walt Whitman.

Why do people label others? Such people are revealing much about themselves.

For some, it can be about wanting to control other people, to reduce them to something simple and ‘clear.’

“To label myself is similar to thinking that I can come up with a single phrase to explain the universe.”

Craig D. Lounsbrough

“People who label others are just lost souls who refuse to see their own shortcomings.”

Christine Szymanski

Calling someone else ‘thick’ does not increase your own intelligence; on the contrary, it reveals a lack of awareness and thinking power.

“It’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you.”
Harper Lee
Harper Lee may be right with regards to some people, but others may indeed be hurt.

Perhaps there are those amongst us who need labels to try to understand the world and other people, to give them some meaning. However, this simply does not work.

By reducing people to one simple attribute, we actually miss seeing the multifarious meanings in humanity and in the world, the shades of grey.

“Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”

Toni Morrison

51583794328_920b6c80c7_oVilmos Aba-Novák – Laura (Woman in a Blue Hat) [c.1930] Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.

“When you put labels on someone, it’s like sticking them in a box with no air holes until they slowly suffocate. People aren’t just one thing. They’re many things.”

Sadie Allen

  • Labelling And Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.

“You must be successful, affluent, powerful, married to the right person,” and so on. Each child is thus launched in service to the parent’s neurosis, and gets further and further from his or her own soul.”

James Hollis

We do not come into this world with a label. Labels may be put upon us, sadly, from the moment we are born. This is tragic, because it can limit a child’s potential.

‘Designing’ a child to fit one’s own concept of how that child should be is projecting our own needs onto her and stopping her from being authentic.

The child will only be a reflection of ourselves and our needs and may struggle to find her real wants and needs.

How many times have you heard a parent describe their child as ‘the naughty one,’ ‘the quiet one,’ ‘the precocious one,’ ‘the clever one,’ ‘the pretty one,’ ‘the miracle child,’ ‘the little monster,’ ‘the good child’ ?

Such biased labels stick, giving the child a partial identity based on another’s choice.

“Boxes are for objects, not humans.”

Abhijit Naskar

47956804758_18b4d2c900_oNicolai Fechin – The Little Girl. Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.

“Dads. Do you not realize that a child is what you tell them they are? That people almost always become what they are labeled? Was whatever your child just did really the “dumbest thing you’ve ever seen somebody do”? Was it really the “most ridiculous thing they ever could have done”? Do you really believe that your child is an idiot? Because she now does. Think about that. Because you said it, she now believes it. Bravo.”

 Dan Pearce

  • Labels And Prejudice.

“Humanity, that’s the title we should be most attached to, yet that’s the title we are least attached to.”

Abhijit Naskar

Generalising is a way of describing a whole group of people in a manner that lumps everyone together as ‘all the same.’

Attributing certain characteristics to a person or group on the basis of their colour, race, ethnicity, culture, gender, sexuality, age, nationality or socio-economic status, is a prejudiced, discriminatory and dysfunctional way of seeing others.

It rigidly categorises people, puts them into boxes, as if human beings can be slotted into their ‘place’ like inanimate objects.

I will allow the following images and quotations to speak for themselves………

imageA Jewish wedding (Jozef Israëls, 1903)Wikimedia Commons.

“People are too complicated to have simple labels.”

 Philip Pullman

imageTitian. Self-Portrait(detail) c.1562. Wikimedia Commons.

“I do not think much of ages. People are people. What does it matter how old or young they are? It is a category, and I do not like categories. It is a sort of pigeonhole or a label.”

Louis L’Amour

pexels-andrew-ashraf-5357463Image: Andre Ashraf, Pexels.

“Taint not the mind with a puny label. We are beautiful when we are indivisible.”

Abhijit Naskar

51121322455_164a3c2ef3_oGluck (Hannah Gluckstein) – Medallion [1936] Gandalf’s Gallery, Flickr.

“Once you label me you negate me.”


51535178585_537f75f08d_oFormento & Formento – Nikita IV (India A New Way of Seeing) [2016] Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.

“I am a rare species, not a stereotype.”

Ivan Coyote

  • Reframing Our Identity.

51545688760_0d7fbef7de_oJens Kohlen – Muri Special Mum Edition [2017]

“Your labels don’t limit me… they limit your experience of me.”

Steve Maraboli

What is reframing? It is a therapeutic way of altering our ways of thinking so that we can begin to see things differently, from a new perspective, both in terms of ourselves and other people.

It is a method of challenging the ‘sticky’ labels that we may put on others, on the world in general, or on ourselves.

“The mind is everything. What you think you become.”


Labels limit us and how we see the world; we need to escape from them. 

How do you define and describe yourself? Think about it now….. do you give yourself labels?

If so, do you label yourself negatively, maintaining limiting beliefs about your own potential?

“The truth is, I’ve been learning a lot about myself lately, and at this point, I don’t feel like any of the labels really fit me.”

Nic Stone

We are whole people, multifaceted. Discovering all the different aspects of ourselves, allowing them freedom of  expression, can be a lifelong task.

imageChristiaan Tonnis . Virginia Woolf. Wikimedia Commons.

“I am not one and simple, but complex and many.”

Virginia Woolf.

Liberating ourselves from uncomfortable and erroneous labels, climbing out of the frame that others may have put on us, ‘reframing’ our concept of who we are, is vital to our wellbeing and self-identity.

“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

John Wooden

“I love portraits. I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that when you put a frame on something you create limits for it. It makes it look dead. The same works with labels, which is a popular hobby most people have nowadays, labeling.”

Nuno Roque

imageEscaping Criticism.Pere Borrell del Caso .Wikimedia Commons.

“I used to worry about the labels others placed on me… until I realized my limitations weren’t coming from their labels, but from my own.”

Steve Maraboli

© Linda Berman.

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    • I think that people put all sorts of labels on others and I do agree with you, Leslie, that there can be several reasons. I should add that some labels can be helpful at times, eg a diagnosis when someone doesn’t know what’s wrong with them. But any label, even a diagnosis, is only partial. Thanks very much for your comment.


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