“Be your authentic self; don’t live by external rules just so you can be cool, accepted, and a member of the herd.” DKT

Label, as a noun, is defined as, “a classifying phrase or name applied to a person or thing, especially one that is inaccurate or restrictive,” and as a verb, it means “to assign to a category, especially inaccurately or restrictively.”[1] Another definition reads, “a word or a phrase that is used to describe the characteristics or qualities of people, activities, or things, often in a way that is unfair.”[2]

When a man uses “I am [something],” his ego or ahaṃkāra(अहंकार) is restricting him to a set of arbitrary and restrictive descriptors, and rejecting the freedom to be, to change, and to grow. He is literally packaging himself in a container and applying a label listing the commonly accepted ingredients to being that something, and then becomes that.[3] This is the birth of the paśu (पशु) or herd-man.

As nouns, the difference between label (L) and stereotype (ST) is that a label is a tag or signal giving information about the something to which it is attached or intended to be attached. A ST is a conventional, formulaic, and simplified depiction, metaphor, or image of something labeled.

As verbs, the difference between label and stereotype is that to label is to attach a tag or sign on someone; to stereotype is to create an oversimplified generalized image of someone belonging to a group of similarly labeled persons, or those stigmatized by a label.

In sociology, the word label[ing] is used more often as a metaphor, than as a discrete concept. The general function of a label is widely recognized and exploited as a way of categorizing that helps people recognize one social “product” from another.[4] In social terms, labels are a way of differentiating and identifying people, and that is a form of prejudice and degradation.

The most familiar ‘labeling’ of people results from a general, global perception of members of a certain religion, ethnicity, gender, or some other group. When a group of people hold a certain conceptualization of another group based on certain traits [labeling], that concept becomes a stereotype.

Target Group

The stereotype affects the way other people perceive the group, and the ‘label’ is surreptitiously attached to the members of the target group. A member of a targeted group is thus ‘labeled’ by society, and the nuances of the label, whether positive or negative, support the creation of the sociopolitical stereotypes.

Your label may be a fair distillation of the person you are in a particular situation but it may also represent the belief that your label is your essence.

The danger becomes acute if you use a label to describe yourself or another person; you may believe that the label really defines you or him, and that it is permanent and unchangeable (cf. Entity Theory);[5] such a belief will become stressful, because beliefs are fixed and require energy to fuel them. The source of the stress is the fact that people are extremely complex and reactive, contradicting the label and causing paradox, uncertainty. For example, you may think, “He’s gay; how can he like cars?”

If you can dispense with the labels and recognize that a person is much more than what you think you know about him, you may be able to decrease your own general stress level.

stress level

There is good evidence that if you believe you can change your thinking or your behavior (cf. Incremental Theory), or both, that you will be less adversely affected by labels or labeling. Yes, the evidence shows that believing you can change your label[ing] behavior can positively affect your resilience. If you bring yourself to accept that you can change your label or the label you apply to others, you can reduce your stress, experience better health and well-being, and perform better at the things you enjoy most.

The take-home message is that you should realize that you can’t define yourself or others by applying a simplistic, convenient shortlist of overly generalized qualities; that is, by labeling them.

In Part II, I’ll go into greater depth about how labels are wrong and how they can cause unnecessary suffering.