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Labels And Lies And How To Be Tiresome

If you asked my three best friends to describe me, I think you’d probably get variations of:

  • smart – I’m comfortable with that, I think I’ve earned it
  • funny – I still think humor is impossible to define, and wouldn’t argue with someone who said I wasn’t funny
  • generous – Not sure but I’m doing my best
  • tall – guilty

But those probably aren’t the first terms I’d use to describe myself. Maybe you’d find yourself disagreeing with your own three best friends, maybe not.

I’ll tell you why I ask.

Labels as identity

In the very recent past, I’ve met a lot of individuals who insist on telling me that they are “outspoken” people. That they “speak their mind” at all costs and “won’t change” for anything or anyone.

There’s nothing wrong with that on the surface. It’s hard to claim that you have strong convictions if you can’t/won’t defend them and speak your mind.

But here’s the pattern I’ve been seeing with these outspoken individuals. They have fallen so in love with the idea of themselves as being outspoken that they are going out of their way to prove it, whether there’s anything worth being outspoken about.

This idea has become so entrenched in their identity that they can’t abide the thought that someone might not consider them outspoken. And that becomes arguing for the sake of arguing.

As a wee teen

When I was a super-hardcore (yawn) teenager with a heavy metal band, I said “I don’t care about anything” way too often. And because I said it so often, it became true to me. As that sinister dung beetle Joseph Goebells said: “If you tell a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.”

And because it was true to me, I began looking for ways to prove that “I didn’t care about anything.”

How tiresome. I didn’t have the tools to explain my feelings very well. So I substituted ability for repetition. And then I was on autopilot.

And that’s what I hear when these people began harping at things, seemingly without even knowing why–they are on autopilot because they have allowed themselves to believe in labels.

My friend Brad Nelson, when lecturing on the ills of Pop Tarts and Licorice,  says “If something has a label on it, that something can be marketed to you.”

Qualities that matter

I’ve never had a charismatic person remind me that they were charismatic. Kind people don’t usually go around blowing the kindness tuba in everyone’s face. Integrity, excellence, strength and mastery, great height (WINK!), compassion, empathy–these are the kinds of attributes our friends often give us which we may never feel quite as comfortable giving ourselves.

If you have a label you identify with, is it sending the message you want to send?


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  • jenn April 6, 2010, 12:25 am

    GREAT post Josh. As usual you stirred my mind to think a little. Thanks!!!

    Are you on the west coast? I noticed your posts almost always go up as I’m checking my reader before bed.

    • Josh Hanagarne April 6, 2010, 11:12 am

      I’m in Salt Lake City. My posts are scheduled to run at 00:01 each morning, but I probably set WP up in the wrong timezone.

  • Eric | Eden Journal April 6, 2010, 4:57 am

    Kindness Tuba… that’s good stuff! I imagine it to be an instrument that is felt rather than heard.

    • Josh Hanagarne April 6, 2010, 11:11 am

      Sounds about right, Eric. Maybe I’ll start selling one.

  • Mitch April 6, 2010, 6:14 am

    I like it.

    • Josh Hanagarne April 6, 2010, 11:12 am

      Thanks Mitch. How’s everything going over at Code Zero?

      • Mitch April 7, 2010, 12:43 am

        Good, we just started another challenge this month. Thanks for asking, I appreciate it. Congratulations on the book by the way, I’ll be buying it this week.

  • Joy Tanksley April 6, 2010, 6:19 am

    Allow me to be really outspoken here… (just kidding!)

    The “I always speak my mind” and the “I don’t care examples” really made me think about Byron Katie’s method of inquiry called “The Work”. In this, you take a thought/belief that is causing you dis-ease, and go through a questioning process. At the end, you do a “turnaround” and it’s been so fascinating for me to see that the turnaround statement often carries the most truth.

    My guess is that some who feels compelled to constantly say “I don’t care” or “I am super-duper kind” probably feels a lot of dis-ease with that statement. (Which is why they have to say it. A lot.) And, chances are, the turnaround (“I care deeply” or “I am unkind”) is probably most true. Maybe.

    One more thought (Josh – this is you’re fault for making me think on my spring break when I have so much time to ramble!) – it seems to me that labels, good or bad, are essentially judgements. And they are usually about external qualities (the social self) rather than the essential self. When a person’s essence comes through, it’s so beautiful and amazing that you really can’t label it.

    • Josh Hanagarne April 6, 2010, 11:11 am

      That’s what you get for spending Spring Break on the computer.

  • Hillary April 6, 2010, 7:28 am

    I have to tell you we have been on a quest to live outside of labels. In fact often we find out we fit in a label by the circumstances we live and then we look and each other and run for the hills! lol–This isn’t entirely true, but I find it to be really tiresome and not so cool to find a group, declare yourself to it and then somehow move towards a mob-like type mentality.

    However, let’s talk social media. One of the biggest challenges when I first started blogging/tweeting etc was getting comfortable defining myself with labels. In this world it is a really powerful tool to find place yourself where you want in this crazy cyber world. I’ve found myself taking on way more labels than ever before in order to navigate these waters and I suppose my challenge is not get too hung on them.

    Thanks for brining up such a stimulating topic!

    • Josh Hanagarne April 6, 2010, 11:11 am

      Fascinating. If you look at my various social media profiles, they’re mostly tongue-in-cheek because I’m never quite sure what to say. Very, very interesting comment.

  • Greg April 6, 2010, 7:29 am

    Quite often, the labels we give ourselves are how we want to be perceived, rather than how others perceive us, and I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered someone who truly cares about nothing. That persona is a front for wishing one doesn’t care.

    • Josh Hanagarne April 6, 2010, 7:55 am

      Greg, I absolutely agree with you, and I think that’s why I was trying to feel that way as a teen. I cared about everything but that didn’t seem very hardcore:)

  • Labels are super-critical in the business world, because we want our customers to relate to us in a certain light. It’s important to show that you are a real person on the other end, with flaws and bad breath, and maybe even a few good qualities to boot.

    I think that it’s possible to show people how you really are and allow them to examine their own lives in relation to the way you live yours in public, in social media, on your blog etc.

    That is always what impresses me about Josh’s blog here. When you can show the world that you might have an issue. You can show the world that you can overcome things. You get to brag a little and you can show the world that you are a person too.

    We get waaaay to wrapped up in trying to paint this perfect picture, but that’s not really what people want to read/watch about. They like seeing reality. I say let your freak flag fly!

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

    • Josh Hanagarne April 6, 2010, 11:10 am

      Great point, Josh. I never get more comments here than on the rare occasions when I quit praising myself and say I stink at something:) Johnny Truant wrote a great post on confessionals once. Freak flag is up and fluttering in the breeze.

  • Giulietta the Muse April 6, 2010, 9:17 am

    Hey Josh,

    I too think about labels a lot. Many perpetuate negative self-images. Labels may be part of the human condition. Try and think of a world with no labels at all. Am guessing the mind needs to sort and sift to reduce the overload of all the input streaming in. Not sure. Just guessing.

    On the other hand, the ones that truly feel right can be most empowering. After taking my own genius-finding life shop, I came up with Inspirational Rebel. I love it and have been using it for awhile!

    Great post! Thx. Giulietta

    • Josh Hanagarne April 6, 2010, 11:09 am

      I think it’s natural and easy for us all to fall into. That’s why just about everyone falls into it. I just don’t want to do it, but I have to watch myself constantly.

  • Randy Hauer April 6, 2010, 10:08 am

    When you label someone, you have limited the interactions that are possible with that person. You have essentially “killed” them. When you label yourself, you have done the same thing.

    People are happy to label each other because then they don’t really have to be present in their interactions. It’s easier and safer to interact with a label, a concept, than to actually be open and interact with the person.

    Our own identities are vested in the labels we give to others. It’s very upsetting and difficult for many people to “change the label” they have for a friend or family member who is trying to lose weight, quit drinking or quit smoking. Schadenfreude is grounded in the validation of the labels we have given others.

    It’s not that labels will go away. And they can be useful. Being aware what they can do will help transform our relationship to them. Some people really are assholes. But labeling them as such doesn’t give you or them the room to be acquitted one way or the other.

    • Josh Hanagarne April 6, 2010, 11:08 am

      Randy, there’s a lot to think about in there. Thanks. I think the imagery of “killing” someone’s self by labeling them gets at how insidious a problem this can be. I think you said everything I was trying to say in that one sentence.

      • Randy Hauer April 6, 2010, 1:22 pm

        Josh…after I posted and reread the post I thought maybe I had just succeeded in demo’ing “tiresome”…thanks!

        • Josh Hanagarne April 6, 2010, 1:28 pm

          Nah, maybe just tired, as in “world-weary.”

  • Dave Doolin April 6, 2010, 10:27 am

    I admit to having many of the same sorts of thoughts about “authenticity” and “transparency.”

    My thought is why not just quietly be transparent instead of talking about being transparent?

    Another thought is that I have trouble enough minding my own business without worrying about minding someone else’s.

    Although, I have to also admit I told a client yesterday I had her game plan mapped out, even though she couldn’t see it. Now if someone would only get MY game plan all mapped out. Heh.

    • Josh Hanagarne April 6, 2010, 11:07 am

      Double D, you have no trouble being authentic, believe you me. And I agree, it can be way easier to see what everyone else needs to do:)

  • Nicki April 6, 2010, 10:29 am

    Thanks for the great post, Josh. I have written about labels a lot lately as it seems everyone wants to put one on me and I don’t want these words. I want my own words but not labels. Make any sense?

    • Josh Hanagarne April 6, 2010, 11:07 am

      It does. It makes a lot of sense. By the way, I found A Design So Vast through your own excellent blog. Thank you for them both.

  • Heather April 6, 2010, 10:30 am

    When someone gets labelled (“branded” is a better term, IMHO), they do limit themselves to other possibilities. It also sounds like the people you are describing are taking a fast journey up their own rectums. . . . now THERE’S a lovely mental shot! Man, people who go around arguing just for the sake of arguing. . .. how tiresome. This was a great post, Josh. Thanks!

  • Gurl April 6, 2010, 10:45 am

    Excellent post. I try not to label myself or others. I can describe them (and myself) if asked, but I usually don’t like to.

    Although labeling each other is pretty much how we learn to interact with those around us, too many never see past the initial labels the put on someone when they first meet. For example, if you were to run into me IRL, you may think I am reserved and quiet at first. Once we’ve hung out a bit…you find out otherwise LOL Those who don’t hang around me much never get to see the side of me that comes out when I trust someone…and that Gurl is much more fun, lemme tell ya 🙂

    • Josh Hanagarne April 6, 2010, 11:05 am

      I believe you. Thank you for teaching me yet another acronym (IRL).

      • Gurl April 6, 2010, 11:16 am

        *grins* You’re welcome. Sometimes I forget there IS a real life out there 🙂

  • Picsiechick April 6, 2010, 3:34 pm

    Sometimes I like hearing the labels other people put on me. They are often much kinder to me than I am! But, also, it helps in those all-to-often moments when I remember that I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. Either I’m spurred to some kind of opposite action (No, actually I am *not* just an admin) to prove that I’m not that limited; or I’m given something to strive for (accepting? me? well, I guess if you already *think* I am, then maybe it won’t be too hard to get there)

    Altogether, I’m probably much too concerned that people like me *and* think I’m sexy/smart/successful, which can often be mutually exclusive.

    One of the tragedies of human interaction is how woefully inadequate words can be to communicate what we think, much less how we feel or the type of soul we have.

    In this virtual place we call our community, what can I possibly be to you that is any more than black symbols drawn on a white background? And yet, somehow that shiny thing in you, your amazing soul, still comes through. And I like it.

    Hugs and butterflies,

  • Asatar Bair April 6, 2010, 4:41 pm

    This reminds me of something one of my old teachers, Pir Vilayat, used to say: “Try not to have too many beliefs.” A funny thing for a spiritual teacher to say. I think he meant something similar to what you write about labels, Josh. We can’t very well avoid beliefs entirely, like we can’t avoid the labels that form a part of our identity. But we can notice when they chafe and limit us, and that the labels and beliefs are not who we are.

  • ami April 6, 2010, 7:43 pm

    great insights here Josh. A variation for your consideration: trying to escape labels that DO apply. I spent my college years trying to escape the labels ‘good,’ ‘geeky,’ and ‘smart’ – hoping to trade them in for ‘exciting,’ ‘cool,’ and something other than smart but not as bad as stupid. What an effort! And ultimately, for naught – tho’ perhaps I succeeded wildly in being stupid during those years.

  • Vivian April 6, 2010, 9:37 pm

    Hi! New commenter here. Love your blog, Josh!
    This post really got me thinking. I especially love how after I’ve read the post, all these smart commenters give me even more to think about! What a lovely community!

    I think labels can be a positive thing, when used properly. Just as repeating “I don’t care about anything” over and over makes it more true, repeating “I can do what I set my mind to” and “I can be a good person” can help you achieve greater things. Parents label their kids this way constantly, especially when they’re young. “What a big, strong boy you are!” etc.

    Since labels fool us, why not fool ourselves positively?

  • Jodi Kaplan April 7, 2010, 7:20 am

    Well, someone recently labeled me a “goddess” (!??!) — in public. I haven’t stopped blushing since.

    However, in real life, I’m trying to use your dad’s advice as a guide, “walk like you’re wearing a cape.”

    Love that!

    • Hillary April 7, 2010, 7:23 am

      Jodi–I love this! I’m going to try it 😉

  • Rachel @ MWF Seeking BFF April 7, 2010, 10:32 am

    This is great. Makes me laugh because I just posted about how there are certain things a friend should never say (http://mwfseekingbff.com/2010/04/06/the-frenemy-within/)
    and a commenter wrote about how after she had a few too many drinks “I told my BFF that while she prides herself on being open minded, she was actually the most closed minded person that I know, (true) when it comes to food, men, meeting men and music.” This post reminded me of that, cause it’s so true. It’s those of us who yell our labels from the rooftops–I’m open minded! I’m a badass! I’m non-judgemental–who actually embody those qualities the most. If you ARE charismatic or open minded, no need to remind people. All that stuff about actions being loud and all..

  • Vandy Massey April 8, 2010, 5:37 pm

    Very interesting perspective on labels. It’s given me a theme for a blog post (thank you, Josh). I’ve always been concerned about the ‘labelling’ aspect of profiles used by companies in their training and development.

    Once you’ve been analysed and put in the appropriate box a number of things can happen. Mostly, I wonder if the label becomes self-fulfilling because we unconsciously start to live up to the characteristics we think are expected for that particular profile.

    I’ve also known people to become really upset by the fact that their profile labels them in a way they don’t like.

    As with so many things, labels can be helpful, but they should be used with caution.