Been There, Done That: Branding Exercise #2 – Labels are for Cans, Not People

For those of you who are new here, I’m doing a five-part series on personal branding and why it’s important, especially for people who sell their work and services for a living. You can check out Exercise #1 here to get started.

In today’s post, I’m going to be talking about labels versus narratives. As you can guess from the title, I am not a big fan of the former. Labels are damaging, and I’m not just saying this because of some hippie belief–the dangers of labelling have been extensively written about in child-care articles, but I’ll sum it up for you: if you get labelled, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Otherwise, you spend your time fighting back against that label. Either way, that label takes control of your self-perception and your ability to control your own narrative freezes. I think it could be related to the anchoring effect, where we become fixated on a reference point.

(As a side note to this: for God’s sake, don’t go around labelling people too. If you find that you tend to label people, it’s time to do some self-examination because it means you feel insecure about something and you’re labelling people as a means to cope. Otherwise, you need something from someone and you’re hoping that labelling them will help you get further, which is a really shitty thing to do.

You can see this when some men try to hit on women by saying, “You’re a good/bad/wild/sweet girl, aren’t you?”  or when terrible bosses say things like, “I thought you were a responsible employee” to make you stay at work late. Enough of this nonsense!)

When I read Bessel Van der Kolk’s wonderful book about overcoming trauma, The Body Keeps the Score, I was really struck by one of the insights that he had: many people can’t move past their trauma because they can’t imagine a narrative where they are better and not consumed by their pain. Their perception of themselves is frozen at the moment of trauma, and thus they can’t move forward because they can’t visualize themselves as healed persons.

When you label yourself, you’re doing something similar. You’re freezing your personal narrative, and you’ll find it hard to progress from that label. That’s what happens to child stars who are forever associated with one character, for example.

The best way to avoid labelling is to describe actions, not character traits like laziness or creativity. Here’s an example using the same person from Exercise #1:

A described her strengths as follows:
I’m a tough person. — LABEL
I’m a good listener.  — SEMI-LABEL
I’m good at generating ideas.  — SEMI-LABEL

What A needed to do was to look behind the label to identify the narratives. For example, by “tough”, she didn’t mean that she is a hard-ass. She meant that she is the kind of person who doesn’t mind sleeping rough, who isn’t afraid of getting dirty and hurt in the pursuit of doing something she believes in. See the difference between a label and a narrative?

For “good listener”, A meant that she is genuinely interested in what other people have to say, even if she didn’t necessarily agree with it. She isn’t necessarily swayed by their opinions, but she makes an effort to see where they come from and make a connection.

And finally, for her third answer, A meant that she enjoys brainstorming unusual solutions or answers to problems. She is curious about how things can be done differently.

Don’t you think you’re getting a better picture of who A is now with the narratives compared to the labels? I hope you can see how labels restrict while narratives open up all kinds of possibilities and potential. Now, if you’ve already done Exercise #1 and found your strengths and reframed your failures, take another look at what you’ve written. Are there any labels there? Go find the narratives behind them, and that will get ready for Exercise #3 next week.

And here’s the link to Branding Exercise #3!

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