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Creating the Labels We Want

Creative Commons LicensePhoto credit: katja.torres

Labels are devices for saving the talkative person from thinking.

— John Morley

Labels are tricky things.  Sometimes we don’t even know the label that we have for ourselves until something brings it to our attention.

Over the years, one of the things I’ve learned about myself is that I’m persistent.  When I put it that way, it’s a good thing.  If someone calls me stubborn, it’s an insult.  I’m persistent without being stubborn!??  How do I do that?

From a very young age, we are labeled.  Our parents tell their friends – and us – that we’re “well-behaved” or “a challenge” or “into everything” or “curious.”  Even if we don’t know the words, we know the tone of voice and we adopt the behavior that seems to please.  As we get older, we tend to conform to the labels that have been applied – whether good or bad.

Keep On Keepin’ On

When we go to school, more labels get applied – smart, slow, mathematical, moody, artistic, creative – and again we fulfill the expectations that have been put on us.  As we make our way through school, each test reinforces the labels that we’ve accepted for ourselves.  And, for some of us, these labels last until we fail at something.  Then, we make a critical choice – Have we failed or are we a failure?  Our future may rest on our answer to that question.

In Blooming Where You’re Planted, I wrote about the interesting research being done on the effect of our mindset on our ability to flourish.  For those of us who have to work at maintaining an optimistic attitude, Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, reports some very optimistic news.

For those of us who upon occasion get a bit down, we know that one of the challenges with depression is that when you’re feeling badly, it can be hard to keep up with your responsibilities.  The worse you feel, the less that you do and the more you get behind.  The more behind you get, the worse you feel.  You might say that it’s an endless downward spiral.

But, surprisingly enough, there are some people who react to depression differently.  They feel gray.  They want to sleep a lot.  They want to avoid people.  They don’t want to fulfill their responsibilities.  But they do fulfill them.  They feel awful all the time that they’re working and dragging themselves through each day, but they get it done – maybe not in the way they would have done it when they were feeling good, but they get something done.  And when the clouds clear, they recover more quickly because they can pick up their lives and keep going.

It turns out that this difference in how people react to depression is linked to their view of their ability to learn and change.  Dweck did a study of students who struggle with depression in February and March of the school year.  The students who believed that effort mattered dealt with their depression by doing the basics; going to class, studying for tests, and going to work.  They didn’t feel like it, but they did it.  And, when Spring came, and the winter blues went away, they were able to deliver a semester that contributed to their success.

Unfortunately, the students who believed that the effort wasn’t worth it, further convinced themselves that they just didn’t have the talent… and sank deeper into depression.  It wasn’t so much that they felt badly about not keeping up as it was that they believed that if they had the talent, they should do well no matter how they felt. They believed that doing well should come naturally and since it didn’t, well, they just couldn’t get there.  And they applied that awful label – failure.  They took an individual situation and used it to define themselves.

In the End, You Will Succeed!

To me, there are two important messages from this study.  One: while depression may feel the same to those who experience it, each individual’s reaction to it is important to how they come through it.  Two: our other beliefs about ourselves either support or undermine depression’s effect on us.

Depression is a disease of gargantuan proportions.  Among my friends, almost everyone I know has experienced a depression at some time in their lives.  One of my friends has been on an anti-depressant for over 20 years.  She is one of the most cheerful people I know and she maintains a schedule that I wouldn’t even attempt.  It wouldn’t make me suicidal, it would make me homicidal.

For people who are of the fixed mind-set – those that believe that things are what they are and they must just live with them – depression can become part of their self-definition.  For those who believe in change – those for whom this is a phase they are going through – depression is a temporary condition, like a cold.  You may have a bad cold, but it’s still just a cold and eventually, with the right care, you get over it. The good news out of Carol Dweck’s book is that you can choose.  (Notice how I snuck that in?)  If you fail at something, that is the failure – not you.  You are the person who failed this time.  If you learn from your failure, next time can be different.  (Note:  This study focused on people with seasonal or situational depression – i.e. the winter blues.  It did not involve people coping with chronic depression.)

Each day, we do our best to be resilient and maintain an optimistic outlook.  Some days are better than others.  But, as long as we believe that we can keep learning, we will keep learning.  Each time we learn, we get closer to success.  We can succeed.  If we keep doing the work, we will eventually develop the skill.  Then the label we will apply to ourselves will be “resilient optimist”.  How cool is that?

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