When animal trainers shackle a baby elephant’s leg to a firm stake, the elephant learns that it cannot escape the shackle. By the time it reaches adulthood, the elephant no longer tries. By this point the shackle suffices to keep the elephant in place, even without the stake. According to John T. Murphy, author of “Success without a College Degree” (Achievement Dynamics, 2001), people use labels to restrict themselves in the same way the animal trainers use shackles. By saddling ourselves with negative labels like “I’m no good in relationships” or “I’m just not that smart,” Murphy says, we frequently cheat ourselves of the opportunity for success.
Murphy identifies three key reasons why people adopt negative labels:
1. To Avoid Embarrassment
Past negative experiences – both real and imagined – lead people to label themselves so as to avoid reexperiencing the pain. If you blew your one line in your elementary school Thanksgiving production, you might conclude, “I’m just not good in front of an audience” and use that excuse to get out of any public speaking opportunity.
2. To Avoid Trying
Labels help us avoid activities we consider outside our comfort zone. Faced with a business opportunity that entails risk, a person may simply say, “I’m not very business savvy” and opt out. The more often we repeat a negative label, the more entrenched it becomes in our minds.
3. To Avoid Reponsibility
Labels can be remarkably handy tools when we’re looking to let ourselves off the hook. The classic example is “I can’t lose weight.” This label gives you license to grab that second dessert or order pizza instead of fixing yourself a salad.
To reverse the negative labeling habit, Murphy suggests replacing your old, restrictive labels with more positive identifiers. So instead of “I always procrastinate,” try “I don’t put off taking care of things that really matter to me.” Eventually you’ll be able to say, “I never procrastinate” – and mean it, too.
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