The power of a label

Labels are absolutely everywhere. In a literal sense, they are stuck on food products, prescription medications, and medical folders across the globe. Check out your mattress – there’s a label, the inside of your jeans – another label, the sun visor in your car – ok you get the point. Their purpose is to give us a sense of what the product contains so that we don’t have to deconstruct it and do the research ourselves.

Labels help us improve efficiency, categorize things, and in turn become more productive. But what happens if a label is inaccurate? Maybe it gets mixed up or it’s not up to date? Someone with a food allergy just ate their worst nightmare, someone takes the wrong medication, or a record gets misfiled forever. How helpful was that label then?

While working as a counselor in juvenile detention, I became acutely aware of the ways in which labels could limit, and in some cases damage, any hope my clients had for their own future. They would call themselves criminals, bad kids, no good, and worthless. These labels had been given to them by society, their families, and sometimes even each other. Because of this I made it my mission to get know who they were, rather than just what they had done.

It is difficult to describe the feeling that you get when someone with their whole life ahead of them looks at you and tells you that they have given up. Honestly, my first instinct was to very directly (and respectfully) challenge that thinking. My goal was to empower them to say to hell with anything in life that doesn’t support who you want to be. I wished so badly that they could see themselves the way I saw them. This approach would work for a while, but you better believe that after any setback or struggle all of the old thought patterns would come rushing back in. I found myself at odds with these pervasive labels in almost every interaction I had with a kid. Every. Single. Day.

So after some reflection, here’s my take on the matter. In life, we are going to receive a lot of feedback about ourselves, whether it be from the media, the judicial system, or our closest relationships. We have a choice as to whether we are going to accept or reject allowing someone to use super glue to slap a label on us for all of eternity. It is important to be selective about which labels you choose to embrace and show the world, and which ones you refuse to be associated with going forward. Just because I make a mistake does not mean that I am one. Language makes a huge difference.

The trick is that it’s not really how others see you that matters, it’s about how you see yourself. No one can make you feel or think a certain way. Not even me (this would usually get a chuckle out of the kiddos). I will always look back on my time at juvie fondly and with a full heart. I am certain that I learned just as much from working with those kids as they did from me, if not more so. And to set the record straight, in my opinion there wasn’t a “bad” kid to be found there. Just too many expired labels.