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How The Way You Label Yourself Is Holding You Back From Reaching Your Full Potential

What's the key thing holding you back from being your best self? Letting other people define who you are is holding you back from reaching your full potential.

Sometimes, I wonder how other people perceive me.

It’s not that I want their approval. I just wonder how they label me.

My opinion of myself is quite simple. I don’t think I’m particularly smart or attractive, or that I’m especially special. I know I grew up differently than most people, and I’m more cultured and diverse than most of my peers. I’ve met very few other people that lived in three or four countries before they were ten years old.

In a way, I don’t fit in.

So I just live by my own rhythm. I don’t fit into society’s labels, so I’ve been making my own identity from an early age.

In a sociology class, we discussed labeling theory. This is where the labels given to people by society influences their behavior. They subconsciously conform to the labels arbitrated to them. This was a sociology class about crime, and their example was how child acts out once and is subsequently labelled a “problem child.” The child continues the expected “problem” behaviors, which can escalate into delinquency and even criminal activities.

The child isn’t actually a criminal, but the expectation of acting out from that one circumstance leads them to conform to the identity.

This is a more extreme example, though I argue labeling theory applies to all labels and even identities we give ourselves. Ramit Sethi described a similar phenomenon when he argued that our lives are dictated by invisible scripts. Labels and identities have “invisible scripts” that dictate our behavior, and also hold us back.

In high school, I found that people divided themselves according to different “groups.” There were the stereotypical jocks, the fine arts students, the AP students, popular kids, the “good” popular kids, nerds, and the “bad” kids. Some crossed a couple groups, such as smart jocks. Many of the “good” popular kids were also AP students, fine arts students, or athletes as well.

In college, I noticed similar divisions, though the boundaries were different. I went to a Big Ten school, so some of the most obvious boundaries were sorority and frat kids versus normal kids. Then there were the business frats and the service frats. Then there were divisions among the different colleges and majors as well.

This was also a result of business frats keeping business students together, and engineering kids being required to work in groups in their engineering classes. Though sororities and fraternities arguably crossed those boundaries by bringing different majors together. However, I knew there was one frat that had primarily policy students, such as political science and public relations majors.

These divisions created labels and identities that inhibit us.

For instance, my liberal arts peers tried to avoid math and science at all costs. Numbers and equations apparently weren’t for liberal arts students. Meanwhile, my business peers despised literature, or reading for fun. The engineers are amazing at solving problems, but aren’t good communicators or writers.

I realize that my statements are very stereotypical. I mean no offense, and there are always, always, always exceptions.

Take Exhibit A: Me.

I was a liberal arts student, but I took physics in high school and I learned basic computer coding in college. I can Photoshop and edit movies as well. I’m definitely not as good at physics or code as the engineers, and graphic designers can definitely Photoshop better than me. But I understand the basic principles. When working with them, I know what they need, understand what they can do, and they can effectively talk to me about their work.

But I know I’m not like everyone. Many people stay within their labels and identities.

Do business students actually dislike literature, or were was it just implied that they are not meant for literature? Do liberal arts students actually dislike math and science, or were they just constantly told that they weren’t good at it, leading them to give up? Why don’t we want to teach engineering students to communicate more effectively?

Are these dislikes and expectations built into our identities, or are we actually making that choice?

I know I’m a bit of an oddball. I never fit into any group. I’ve had to define my own identity for most of my life, allowing me to cross boundaries and learn from different fields.

I don’t know many other liberal arts majors that can code at all, and I know very few other fellow Photoshoppers. My international relations background helps with symbolic references in graphic designs. I find myself using computer coding principles to approach social science problems. My basic knowledge of physics helps me understand nuclear energy concepts in international relations.

The greatest gift from crossing boundaries, rejecting labels and shedding identities is the new perspectives and new ways of thinking.

I’ve learned that a surprising amount of knowledge from my different labels and identities is transferable.

If I had to guess how others would label me, they would include “smart,” “educated,” “athletic,” and “cultured.” Some may describe me as “pretty”. Others may describe me as “klutzy.” Then there are the less-flattering labels I won’t repeat that I’m sure some people have for me.

In the end, labels never paint the entire picture.

My lesser-known labels include being a “gamer girl.” Many are surprised that girls can play video games, and it’s even more fun when I beat the boys. But it’s usually surprising that I’m also “crafty.” No one expects a gamer girl to be able to knit and sew.

Don’t let your identity hold you back.

Gamer girls can be crafty, and crafty girls can be gamers. Smart girls can be pretty, and pretty girls can be smart. Klutzy girls can also be athletic. Athletic girls can also be crafty, and gamer girls can be pretty. It doesn’t matter what people expect of you, or how society decides to define you.

You choose the rhythm you live by.


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About the Author

Lindsey Zawila

Lindsey graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2015 with a B.A. in Global Studies and Communications. She studied abroad in Austria (Summer 2013), Switzerland (Spring 2014), and India (Winter 2014). Her previous internships include the World YWCA in Geneva, Switzerland, the Foreign Service Institute at the U.S State Department in Washington, D.C., and CNN International in Atlanta, GA. In her free time, you'll find her reading, writing, making jewelry or friendship bracelets, sewing or refining her photography skills.