Names Do Hurt: How “Labels” Might Be Limiting You!

2 women holding signs with labels on there like Office Mom and Chatterbox

I bet you remember adults saying this to you when you were a child: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.

And whilst this was supposed to help us deal with the name-calling we all (at some point) endured, it’s actually both wrong and harmful.

Because this saying actually denies the truth.

Calling someone names may not be the same as a punch on the nose. And yes, we can “rise above” name-calling and ignore it.

But we are a social species: we need each other to survive. So when we’re insulted and called names, on the very deepest level, it’s a threat to our survival.

Which means names can hurt us

Being called names impacts our mental wellbeing and triggers a stress response that directly impacts our physiology eg. a racing heart, upset stomach, tense jaw/shoulders etc.

And beyond our stress response—crucially—being called names also helps us form limiting beliefs about ourselves. It negatively impacts what we believe about ourselvesand what we believe we’re capable of.

Luckily we’re all grown up now…

As adults, we don’t experience much playground-type name calling.

And yet…

What about labels?

In this Article:

  • What we mean by a Label
  • Labelling starts early
  • Example Labels and how any Label can be harmful
  • The Advantages and Disadvantages of Labels
  • Easy Homework to Identify Your Labels
  • Wrap-up

First, what do I mean by a label?

A label is simply a descriptive term that we use to refer to ourselves—or others. Well meaning or otherwise, labelling can be about our appearance, personality, how we work—or our more general behaviour.

Labels can be ‘negative’ like the Office Bitch or Sleazeball or more ‘positive’ like the Office Mom or Dependable.

Behavioural examples could be a Forgetful Nellie or Drama Queen. Appearance related labels might be the Pretty One or the Plain Jane.

On the surface, labels seem harmless

Labels are just words aren’t they?

Well yes, and… Labels can create a ‘box’ we feel uncomfortable stretching out of. It’s easy to get into the habit of behaving in ways that are expected of us—and limit ourselves.

Labelling starts early

Being labelled starts at an early age. It happens in our family, among friends and teachers.

These labels get repeated over and over by others until they appear to be true. We may even repeat these given labels to others—because we don’t know any better.

We may take on these labels because we don’t want to upset important people in our lives. Or we simply get stuck with them because we’re too busy or feel powerless to challenge or reject them. And then we end up inauthentic and unhappy, because we’re hiding who we really are.

I think the reward for conformity is that everyone likes you except yourself. Rita Mae Brown

Lastly, sadly, if labels are given to us early enough we can even become our labels.

Some Example Labels (and how labels can be harmful)

Were you (or was someone you know) the Rebel, the Scaredy Cat, the Girly Swot?

Notice these labels are a mix of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’:

  • Paul is a WHIZ KID.
    • Yet how does Paul feel about himself when he doesn’t understand something?
  • Rowan is a NERD, such a BOOKWORM.
    • Rowan is always be striving to be ‘cool’—to shake that ‘nerd’ label.
  • Lisa is a FREE SPIRIT and a FLAKE.
    • Lisa avoids responsibility and often lets people down (after all, that’s what people expect).
  • Charlie is a DREAMER, a CHATTERBOX.
    • Being labelled a ‘chatterbox’ means Charlie taught themselves to be quiet and shy. They often feel shame when talking to people.
    • Labelled a dreamer and made fun of, they now work hard and make lots of sensible, unsatisfying life decisions.
  • John is a DARK HORSE, a JOCK.
    • John finds his passion, but hides it because it doesn’t fit his ‘jock’ label.

Do any of those labels (or results!) resonate with you (whether now or in the past)?

Labels usually go hand in hand with a judgement

Just like a judgement (right/wrong), you may have noticed that labels are also stated as certainties. Sara is _____. There is no room to move. No acknowledgement that on a different day or in a particular context someone might be any different.

  • When the label judges us in a ‘positive’ way, we usually feel good about ourselves (proud, happy, appreciated).
  • But when the label doesn’t fit, or is viewed negatively by people we care about, we usually feel bad about ourselves (think guilt, anger, disappointment, resentment etc.).

Labelling happens throughout our lives

Labelling doesn’t stop in childhood. Later in life, our boss, friends and colleagues add to our list of labels.

And those labels (new and old) can make it difficult for us when we want to make change in our lives.

But there can be benefits to labels too…

The Advantages of Labels include:

  1. Labels make life and/or people seem more straightforward and easier to deal with: we know what to expect.
  2. Labels save us time. We ‘know’ who to go to for what—and who NOT to go to!
  3. So-called ‘positive’ labels can help us get a sense of our personal worth, helping us feel secure in ourselves: this is who I am.
  4. Labels can guide us on how we should behave: we know what people expect of us.
  5. And labels can give us permission to do things or be a certain way that may be comfortable or convenient for us (even while it may not be good for us, or who we truly are).

The Disadvantages of Labels include:

  1. Labels keep our relationships shallow. We already ‘know’ who they are, and close our minds to other possibilities for that person in our lives.
  2. Labels can become limiting beliefs and keep us stuck. We can end up believing (implicitly or explicitly) that _____ is just the way we are. If being a Forgetful Nellie is just who we are, why bother trying to change?
  3. While labels help us avoid unwanted change, they can also limit us: we can use our label as an excuse for not moving forward.
  4. Staying stuck in difficult relationships and patterns of behaviour, often with other people who have been labelled.
  5. Labels make it hard to behave differently according to the circumstance. Even so-called positive labels like being “super-reliable” can mean we feel overly-bad when we make a mistake and don’t feel comfortable saying no.
  6. Labels can become a source of annoyance or frustration. We can spend a lot of time and energy trying to live up to them—or trying to live them down!
  7. And lastly, labels can mean that other people can avoid work or self-growth—at your expense. If you’re the “Office Mom”, no-one else needs to remember people’s birthdays, organize a card or gift.
Here’s some Easy Homework to Identify Your LabelsHand with Butterflies
  • Over the next week, notice how people refer to you—and how you refer to yourself.
    • You’ll notice this especially when you 1) do something well or 2) make a mistake.
    • Labels also come up when you’re making a decision—and when people ask or need you to do something.
    • Also listen for “You’re so _____” and “You always _____”
  • When you notice a label, write it down.
  • Aim for a list of 10 labels (both positive and negative) that apply to you.

    • Include current labels, but also include ‘past’ labels that perhaps only your inner critic uses…

OPTIONAL: You could also begin to ponder the impact these labels may have had or be having on your life.

Wrap-upFierce Kindness Logo

Labelling is something we all do. It’s a natural human thought process.

When we label objects it can be helpful: helping us get our message across more clearly and often faster.

But when we do it to people (or ourselves), labelling puts us in a box which can be hard to get out of.

So I hope this article has made you think a little bit. Were you aware of all the possible impacts of labelling people—whether yourself of others?

How might your own labels be limiting you? What possibilities are you missing out on—both in life and in your relationships with others?

Finally, watch for next week’s article where we have a journaling exercise to explore the impact of your labels more deeply, begin to look at how we might lose unwanted labels—and change our own behaviour for the better!

Labels are for filing. Labels are for clothing. Labels are not for people. Martina Navratilova

Change the world. Start with you!

Share your thoughts and what you think of this article in the comments below

If you liked this article on labels and limiting beliefs, you may also like:

Image of Two women holding signs with their labels on their including “Office mom” and “Chatterbox” by Dean Drobot via Shutterstock


  1. Grace Olson

    Brilliant and thought provoking article! I was labelled a Lazy Libran at school and a Day Dreamer. I was expected to be a low achiever forever,
    This annoyed me enough to become a very successful self employed therapist and now I am a very successful self published author! I also exercise a lot and keep fit – lazy I am not!

    • Emma-Louise Elsey

      Hi Grace,
      It sounds like you took those labels and proved them wrong!!! Good for you 🙂
      Sometimes we achieve a LOT when we push ourselves to prove people wrong.
      I wonder, if instead you had been encouraged, and supported/challenged in a good way, where would you be now? We might assume we wouldn’t have done as well, but perhaps also, we’d have done just as well—but without the angst.
      We’ll never know now! But I’m glad things worked out in the end!
      Warmly, Emma-Louise


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