How many of what others say about us do we believe? Worse, how many of the negative labels others give us do we internalize and limit us? On the other hand, how many of the labels given to us do we use to our advantage?

I interviewed for a web development manager position once and was asked the question “What is your weakness?” For some reason, my answer was “I am not a very good programmer.” As soon as I uttered that response, I was so disappointed in myself because at that moment, I realized I had subconsciously accepted a negative label, someone who wasn’t too nice, had given me and had spread to others behind my back. At that point, it didn’t matter to me that I’ve proven my competence with the numerous web and database applications I have successfully developed throughout the years. It didn’t matter to me that my customers and my superiors, throughout the years, had told me over and over that I had done a great job and they were happy with what I had produced. It took me a couple of years after this incident to come to terms that I had to stop believing in that limiting label and to stop justifying my abilities.

When I was in 6th grade, I was sometimes made fun of by my classmates because of my “fresh off the boat” (FOB) Pilipino accent. It became so bad that I thought I had no choice but to fight back. There was one time when we were at the playground and I was finally fed up with the bullying. I challenged one of the bullies to a fight and while I did not know karate at all, I assumed a “karate” stance with my fists up, ready to fight. Before we were able to fight however, our teacher saw us and stopped the fight. Later that day, I overheard some students talking about how I must have known martial arts because I’m Asian. Needless to say, I was never bullied again the rest of the year.

Labels are placed upon us, for better or worse, and it’s up to us to interpret them for our gains or to limit ourselves. In our positions of privilege, we must also be conscious on whether the labels we are placing on others are used to lift them up or demote them.

What labels have been assigned to you and how have they hurt/helped you?