Discovering the Secrets of a Happy Life: Baby, Don’t Box Me In

I grew up in a family where labels were commonplace.  One kid was the athlete.  Another the artist.  Early on, I was identified as being conscientious, the child who “got good grades”.  At school, I was labelled as gifted.  However, at home, one of my brothers had already been called the smart one, so that title was his.  Unfortunately, these labels were inadvertently talked about in a way that made them feel like immutable facts.  And thus they became a bit like self-fulfilling prophecies.

Don’t get me wrong, categorical labelling of people can and does have a place.  Sometimes.  It is rooted in our desire to make sense of the world around us and our place in it.  Used wisely, categorizing can be adaptive.  Fear and discomfort often go hand-in-hand with uncertainty, and this is one way we strive to make the unknown more palatable.

In medicine, labels are called diagnoses, and they help us to prognosticate, to rapidly deduce the course of illness and anticipate potential complications.  We often use diagnoses to formulate treatment plans and guide meaningful research.  As physicians, we rely on the common language as a simple and practical way to communicate meaning and facilitate a shared understanding.  For some patients, giving a name to their experience can be empowering and help to minimize self-blame or judgment by others.

Dr. Tara’s Sunshine Query: When Does Adaptive Become Maladaptive?

Unfortunately, the opposite can also be true.  In both medicine and day-to-day life, how we label people impacts our perception of them and, as a corollary, our behaviour toward them.  Labels can stigmatize, limit opportunities, and trap often unwitting participants in a proverbial box.

Sometimes we make the mistake of grouping people together when they are in fact quite different.  This can blind us to their potential, their uniqueness.  It can even lead us to miss-the-mark completely.  Many of us are aware of situations where inappropriate labels or misdiagnoses were propagated for years despite evidence to the contrary.  In part, this occurs because symptoms, behaviours, quirks or personality traits can be subconsciously misinterpreted when the mind tries to make observed actions and characteristics “fit” the label.  For example, typical playful energy is sometimes erroneously construed as problematic in children who have been previously designated challenging or hyperactive.  

Discovering the Power of Human Connection: Labels Can Impact Outcomes

Perhaps even more concerning is what can happen when individuals are treated as though they “are” the labels they have been given.  Studies have shown that teachers instruct students differently when they have been identified as academically challenged or, conversely, as bright children ready to learn.  The labels impact what is taught and how it is taught.  This, in turn, can make it so: When struggling kids aren’t encouraged to learn and continue to struggle, they can start to see themselves as stupid.  This can further reduce their efforts or lead them to give-up altogether.  On the other hand, so-called bright children who are challenged and supported often excel even more.  And thus the cycle continues.

Coming back to my own experience growing up, I internalized my labels.  They became part of my belief system, reflecting what I thought I both was and was not.  I stopped playing sports and gave up trying to paint or draw or write poetry.  I liked to do things well, so why bother if I wasn’t ever going to “be” athletic or artistic?  Instead, I defined myself in terms of being good at school.  And I lived in perpetual fear of losing that -- because, dear me, what would I be then?  

Creating Your Own Happiness: Embrace a Growth Mindset

It has taken me years to un-box myself.  I am forever grateful for seeing the light and opening my eyes to a growth mindset and the belief that I am so much more than the childhood labels given to me.  However, my personal and professional experiences have made me acutely aware of the need to be cognizant of when and how we apply labels.  We must remember that labels can stick and have lasting consequences.  My desire in writing this is to help those of you who still feel confined to your boxes and to prevent young ones from being boxed-in at all...