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Sticky Labels - Limiting self beliefs and what to do about them

This week I have had a lot of conversations about overcoming negative self beliefs. It is something that mentors are so brilliantly placed to assist with, but often aren’t sure how to help. While I recognise that there are situations where you might need professional intervention to overcome a problem, the majority of challenges I see in the school setting do not need this escalation.

I would like to offer you a different way of thinking about self beliefs. Because I don’t believe it is helpful for non mental health professionals to use complex terminology or ‘therapy speak’ as it is coined, I’m going to talk about the ‘labels’ we put on ourselves and those around us. Those things that you and I say about ourselves and others, that become the truths that mould our lives.

The truth is, that labels are useful. They help us to organise and find things, they bring order to clutter. This is true of the labels we apply to ourselves and others as well as our possessions. A couple of searches on the internet and you can quickly discover the labels the world is applying to you. Having recently had two children, the internet is very swift to offer me sleep training, anti-ageing beauty products and relationship advice. The internet has organised me and applied some labels, make of that what you will.

I hear a lot of talk in schools about removing stigmas and not labelling people, but I believe that is the wrong conversation to be having. Before I get into the why, and what conversation I think we should be having, I want to offer a different way of considering labels. Here are some things I have observed to be true about the labels we apply to ourselves and one another.

Labels are sticky.

This year my husband and I potty trained my daughter. As part of the process, we bought a roll of farmyard animal stickers and would let her choose one each time she successfully went to the loo on the potty. To start with, it was amusing finding cows and ducks on the door frames or stuck to my jeans when I was walking round the supermarket. I soon realised that they were a nightmare to get off and left gunk on every surface they’d touched. The labels that we apply to ourselves and to others are equally sticky.

Each label comes with 3 things:

  • A how to guide for making decisions - the things someone with this label will and won’t do

  • A lens through which we can look at the world and ourselves

  • A comfy pair of slippers

I know that I have chosen a few different labels for myself over the years. My labels have said things like ‘physically fit’, ‘bad at exams’ and ‘above average baker’. It doesn’t really matter whether someone else disagrees with my labels, because I believe them.

As someone who sees themselves as ‘physically fit’ my three things look like this:

  • I choose to go to the gym regularly, even when I can’t be bothered

  • My conversations regularly circle around to fitness and wellbeing, I will use it as an analogy to help me understand new things

  • I get comfort from being fit, it is my natural homeostasis. Any time that my fitness dips, I feel less confident and less like myself

Labels are good or bad, not neutral.

Labels will always have either a positive or negative impact for the wearer’s perception of themselves. They can seem from the outside to be fairly neutral (You care very little whether I am a good baker or not, unless you are planning on celebrating your birthday with me), but they will always put a tick in the good or bad column for the person wearing them. I.e. Quite good baker = competent = good.

When an unhelpful label is applied it might initially seem like an answer, a little relief from the internal questioning. But the relief doesn’t last. The same three things happen whether it is a positive or negative label.

My belief that I was dreadful at exams looked like this:

  • I panicked when I knew an exam was imminent. I would choose to procrastinate rather than study. I avoided putting myself in situations where I would be tested.

  • It became a belief that I adopted, and acted in accordance with. I believed I could not do well in an exam, I actively sought out evidence to support my theory and disregarded evidence to the contrary.

  • Despite it being a negative thing, believing I was bad at exams felt familiar, so I felt safe. Moving away from this security, even to something more positive, felt scary.

Once someone has a label and formed a belief around it, it becomes much harder to change. It is much harder to feel in control of your life, and you become trapped, a victim of circumstance.

So what can you do about negative labels?

There is an awful lot of advice out there, but from my hundreds of hours spent mentoring it boils down to this: take ownership. If there is an outcome in your life that you are not happy with, then you are the person that is best placed to change it. That might feel harsh and uncaring - especially coming from someone who talks about wellbeing so much - but it is coming from a place of love, optimism and empowerment for your future.

I have been the person that tried to ‘fix’ other people’s problems. It hasn’t worked, certainly not in any lasting way.

I have been the person that blamed external factors for my lot in life. While the complaining was often cathartic, it never resulted in changing how I felt or the results I got.

The only thing that has reliably shifted the dial on unhelpful self beliefs and labels for myself and every mentee I have worked with, is taking ownership.

It doesn’t have to be daunting, it doesn’t have to be everything at once. Here is where to start:

Before you accept a negative label about yourself, question it:

  • Is it true?

  • Does it have to remain true?

  • What thoughts are making you believe it?

  • What thought could I choose to think to help me lose this label?

It will change over time and the compounding effect will be transformational. When I believed I was bad at exams the thoughts in my head were a jumble of “you suck” and “you’re making a fool of yourself” sentiments. I couldn’t immediately change them to “you’re going to rock this exam”, but “you’re nervous, and you can do it anyway” felt doable in the moment. With a bit of work, my mind now tells me “breathe, you’ve got this”.

Removing sticky labels takes time and practice. It is one of the reasons I love mentoring so much, you get to practise on someone else’s labels and all that practice makes you better at seeing and managing your own (isn’t it funny how much easier it is to help someone else with their problems than face your own?).

We all need this. Regardless of past successes, there will be times when you hold yourself back. The right questions and unwavering ownership will get you through to the other side.

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