Are You Who They Say You Are?

27/07/2015 14:53 BST | Updated 20/07/2016 10:59 BST

Convicted murderer. Killer.

My friends shake their heads when they read or hear these descriptions of me in the media. Even positive articles feature bold headlines brandishing my past. I know that this is done for impact (as they say in journalism 'if it bleeds, it leads'), but I am fortunate to have a deep sense of self and have people in my life who do not let these labels influence their relationships with me.

But though I have developed a framework for dealing with these labels, I am not immune to them. An example that comes to mind is from a conference I recently was speaking at. While waiting at the back of the room to be introduced, some late arrivals snuck in. As one of the party turned to the others and asked "Where should we sit?", another responded, "He's a murderer so we don't want to be too close!".

Imagine having your personal regrets forever associated with your identity. For me, there is a precursor to every achievement I earn, to every public mention of my name. This, more than anything, has forced self-acceptance of who I am, self-responsibility for what I did, and compassion and understanding for how others see me.

I recently read a new book by Jon Ronson on the topic of public shaming; an unfortunate phenomenon with an impact and reach massively increased by the Internet. Now anyone can put a label on a person and announce it to the world. They can do it in the security of anonymity, take no responsibility for their comment, and be incredulously un-informed of the facts while doing so. The damage done by such labelling should be taken seriously as the effects can do immense psychological damage, regardless of whether the victim is guilty of misdemeanor or not.

Everyone creates labels for people, things and experiences. This is how our brain processes the world we live in. We create labels for ourselves to define who we are. We believe the labels given to us as kids. You were once called a 'promising athlete' or a 'troublemaker' at school. There were those labelled as 'gifted' who either blossomed in achievement or struggled to meet high expectations. Many are labelled 'normal' and told not to expect their lives to be anything special.

Labels can also be used as weapons. Unfortunately, I see this a lot within close personal relationships. A parent projects his own disappointment in life on a child by constantly calling him "good for nothing". A spouse keeps describing his wife as "lazy". These labels come from a place of fear; fear of rejection, fear of change, fear to face the deep truth.

You might say that labels are merely words, but words can be fences that keep us in our place. Sometimes these fences are akin to garden hedges that we live within to maintain a feeling of safety. We want to stay close to what we think we are. Other times labels have the characteristics of barbwire. We know in our gut that the words used are untrue, but they are self-defeating and prevent us from breaking free from negativity.

Studies show that the words we use to describe what we see, determines what we see. I encourage you to be mindful about the labels you give yourself and the labels you give others. They may be words, but these words transform into images in the mind, which can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Here are three takeaways:

Be kind to yourself

We need to encourage more kindness in the world, and that starts with being kind to ourselves. There are people who abuse themselves with derogatory labels, and in those cases no amount of treatment will alleviate their pain unless they stop doing so. To increase your self-compassion try asking yourself what would you say to a loved one in this situation?

Be kind to others

It can be as unsuspecting as a side comment, or an outburst fuelled by anger. If you give someone a label that is discouraging, even if it is based on a legitimate observation, this is not going to help improve that person's behavior or attitude. If your teenager is stealing and you repeatedly call him or her a "thief", they will eventually associate this term with who they are. There are other ways to deal with deeper issues and name-calling is not one of them. Try to focus on the specific behavior you don't like rather than discussing it as an enduring characteristic or trait of the person displaying it.

Create positive mindsets early in life

I write this as a parent of a young son. I may always be referred to as a criminal, but I hope to instil in him a sense of his own identity that is independent from my own. As parents, one of the best things we can do is give our young children a strong sense of self-esteem. Be encouraging. Treat them with respect. Praise their successes on the basis of effort rather than talent. We know that this will instil the growth mindset that will maximise the chances that they grow up to be adults who can really back themselves, take on challenges and turn adversity to their advantage.