Labels – barriers or empowerments?

[Reading time: 5 mins read]


Whether we are given one or self-define ourselves with one, labels come with positives and negatives. Let’s face it, humans like labels. We love ‘boxing’, labelling, categorising, ourselves and others. We adore belonging to groups and collectives be it football clubs, horoscopes, nations or medical diagnoses.

Ok, we all know that labels are for jars, but let’s start with this quick exercise. When you think of yourself what are 5 word (labels) that come to mind? Make a 5-word list and write it down in a piece of paper. Then reflect on the labels you have given yourself.

HINT: Few people I coached, started this exercise by using their own name as the first word in the list, following by other labels they consider for themselves; essentially creating their own ‘tribe’.


Labels provide both an explanation and an excuse at the same time. They give us information about a behaviour or view we may have about an aspect of ourselves. Labels help us understand better why something is the way it is or why something is happening this or that way. We can compare such behaviour and acts with other peoples’ actions and behaviours and feel we are not alone. This makes us feel safe and in control and helps us deal with unexplained behaviours. Labels give us a reason for this or that feature of our character.

At the same time a label gives us ground and space to expand and grow into the defined space. For example, if you are left-handed you learn about other people’s habits and the way they use their left (or right hand) to perform tasks. You learn about the difficulties left-handed people might experience using specific objects (e.g. scissors or tin openers). You also learn about how your brain is possibly wired to the opposite side of our dominant hand and as a result if you are left-handed, you might be considered more artistic or creative etc. With all this information available to us, we grow to become more aware of such label and its characteristics; and as a result, this definition matters more to us and defines us more.

But are our behaviours determined by labels? Do we get imprisoned by labels whether they set to us by others or by ourselves? Do labels perpetuate something about us and ultimately limit us?

Let’s take for example, dyslexia in adulthood. So, you’ve been diagnosed late with dyslexia, but how have you coped over the years? Possibly, with great difficulty performing specific tasks. However, you’ve obviously been able to make sense all these years of spelling mistakes, word confusion, lack of focus when reading etc.; and you’ve managed to navigate the intricacies and logistics of dyslexia in your everyday life. What would’ve happened if you were not diagnosed late with dyslexia? Would you still feel dyslexic? And would you still be able to function without such diagnosis? And if not, then how such label has helped you in your life?

Here is the story of Daphne (not her real name), a woman I coached who have been diagnosed with dyslexia later in life. Daphne told me that her poor behaviour at school was a direct result of her dyslexia but at the time she didn’t know, and she simply thought that her classes were difficult, and that some people are simply born clever, and some people are not. Over the years, Daphne designed coping skills to get by, for example, pairing with a friend to work together; she used acting skills to help with reading and understanding something and humour to engage with the work she was doing.  Acting out in school can be a common response for children who struggle with reading and writing in class.

After she was diagnosed people were able to understand more in depth the nuances of Daphne’s dyslexia and adapt their working practice to facilitate Daphne’s participation, for example by using visual representations for the information presented.

But Daphne’s diagnosis also presented barriers to her and others around her. Daphne told me that the perceived barriers of dyslexia are barriers that she often inflicts on herself, and this automatically generates preconceived notions of her by others.

Sometimes I fall ‘victim’ of the barriers and I become complacent and stop pushing myself to strive and achieve more; my focus is more on what I cannot do rather than what I can do

So alongside, situational and institutional barriers, labels can often present us with dispositional barriers such as fear of performing a task, or low levels of confidence. Dispositional barriers relate to our own attitudes, perceptions and expectations, such as believing that we are not able to do something or lacking confidence or interest. These barriers prevent us from stepping out of the defined boundaries set by such label.

Daphne had to find the strength to overcome those barriers within, from valuing herself and her own ideas. Daphne says she’s wearing her dyslexia label with confidence everywhere she goes. As Daphne suggests, dyslexia shouldn’t be seen as a burden; rather, it should be seen simply as a different way of doing things. With the right strategy for facilitating learning, people with dyslexia can be just as able as anybody else.

Here’s another exercise called DESC+A (Describe, Effect, Solution and Consequences, +Action) to help you raise your awareness of certain behaviours and understand how to overcome those.

Based on the labels you have defined for yourself earlier, let’s try to see if you can change a behaviour and empower yourself to utilise those labels positively. Following the steps below, write down your answers:


  1. DESCRIBE what is happening i.e. the behaviour that comes from this label and causes an issue. State facts only. No opinions. No disapproval. Just facts.
  2. EFFECT that this behaviour has on you personally and others around you, if applicable.
  3. SOLUTION or SUGGESTIONS: what exactly would you like to have change? What do you want changed? Be specific.

+ What good things will happen if this change is made?

– What bad things will happen if this change is not made?

  1. ACTION: what do you want/need to do in the future to make these changes and keep up with your plan?


With this in mind, let’s all celebrate our chosen labels and try to use our awareness and knowledge to empower ourselves and change those behaviours that limit us.



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