How Labels Transform Our Experience

Photo by Jon Tyson on  Unsplash

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

How would you describe the nicest vacation you have ever taken, if you could only use one word? How about how it felt the first time you got your feelings hurt? What word would you use to describe your earliest positive or negative memory? Chances are you cannot remember and describe every detail about these experiences, but the labels you have given them are probably firmly etched in your mind. When you think back about these or other memories, the first thing comes to your mind is the label, and your mind then uses that label to fill in the blanks around it. The fact is, this doesn’t apply only to memories, because we are constantly applying labels to every experience we have. The labels we choose—or let other choose for us—are what ultimately determine the context and meaning behind everything we experience, good or bad.

To answer the questions I asked in the beginning, I’ll provide a few examples. One of the nicest vacations I have ever taken was to Phi Phi Island in Thailand. I would describe it as “spectacular.” I remember going snorkeling in the “clearest water” I have ever been in with “most colorful varieties of fish” swimming below. My first memory of the lowest point in my career is that I felt “betrayed” by my boss for whom I had worked so hard and made so many sacrifices. I remember the feeling of “pure joy” that came over me when I went to my car after work and saw a pair of baby shoes dangling from the side mirror on my car, indicating that we were pregnant when we had all but given up on it happening. I can’t remember the specifics of any of these experiences, like what I was wearing or what day it was, but because of the labels I had given them, these experiences are still vivid and powerful, in that they can still elicit a reaction all these years later.

Labels are what we have left of our pleasant experiences and the way we keep them alive so we can go back and dwell on them anytime we want, even after the details have faded away. The same is true with our painful or unpleasant experiences. The labels we have given those experiences are what we remember them by as well. In fact, what ends up happening is that over time, we tend to embellish and intensify the positive or negative experience as we dwell on them over the years, until our best and worst memories essentially become fantasies of our own creation.

The above is literally true, by the way. Neuroscientists have found that, contrary to popular belief, memory doesn’t work by accessing something already there, like playing a perfectly recorded video. Rather, whenever we remember something, we are actually fabricating that memory from our previous experience of it, kind of like telling reciting a story we once read but without the book in front of us. And as we continue to revisit the same memories, we continue to slightly reinvent them until we are remembering the memory of a memory, and so on. As Elizabeth Loftus put it, “We simply seem to reinvent our memories, and, in doing so, we become the people of our imagination. We make memories what they are by…being what we believe [about them].”

One of the reason that labels are so powerful is because they act as shorthand for our minds to assemble all sorts of distinct characteristics and feelings around these memories, with little to no conscious effort. Labels color our experience like filters on a spotlight. If I say that tomorrow you are going to have a “horrible” day, that probably already conjures up several images in your mind: cloudy and rainy, bad traffic, forgot your coffee in the morning, your boss decides to dump unpaid overtime on you, etc. Our minds work in pretty much the same way, because the labels we use serve to attract together all the experiences that we associate with that label. In fact, labels can even go back in time and change the past. Because we recreate our memories when we remember them, even if the experience was good at the time, applying a negative label to it after the fact can change the memory from a positive one to a negative one.

When it comes down to it, the labels we choose determine the quality and meaning of almost everything we experience. How? Because nothing we experience has any inherent meaning, everything we experience is more or less ambiguous until we decide what it means to us. I don’t believe it is incorrect to say that there are no inherently and absolutely positive or negative experiences. Most experiences, outside of those of extreme pleasure or pain, are open to interpretation depending on the context we give them—although we don’t always realize this because we often apply labels unconsciously. As Shakespeare famously put it, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” For example, getting a promotion might seem like something positive, but for someone who doesn’t want to take on extra responsibility, it is something negative. Taking a vacation sounds great, unless you’re someone who hates traveling or derives great satisfaction from their work. Even pain can be recontextualized by the labels we give it, for instance in the context of an exercise program or as a way to sacrifice to help others.

What if we could harness the power of labels to frame even the most challenging experiences into stepping stones toward a favorable outcome. What if we labeled our setbacks as “learning experiences” rather than “failures?” What if we stopped using dramatic language to describe our situation to others and just stuck to the facts? It is one thing to say, “I only have $50 to my name,” which could be a fact, but it’s entirely different to say, “I’m broke and will never get out of this rut,” which is a story we have made up about our situation. It is one thing to say, “I didn’t get the promotion I thought I deserved,” which again could be a fact, but we choose to make up a story about the situation and say something like, “I am in a dead end job and I will never get anywhere!”

The same is true when it comes to labels we give ourselves or allow others to bestow upon us. The self-deprecating comments we make about ourselves amount to how we see ourselves and what we come to expect of ourselves. The seeds that others plant in our mind about who and what we are have the same power over us. And in a phenomenon called “stereotype threat,” we begin to start behaving in line with the labels we apply or accept for ourselves, even if we personally don’t think they are true! Incidentally, as I began to write this post, I received a text message from a friend who made a comment about his perception that I seemed to be “overwhelmed” and I chose to immediately respond to let him know that I had a lot on my plate and was behind on a couple of fronts but I was not going to own that label!

The labels that leaders create in the workplace have even more far reaching implications on the context that gets created and the lens through which people look at what is going on and what they can expect in the future. When we lose a sale, we can either declare a “disaster” or a “temporary setback.” The former creates a perception that there is something to be worried about and the latter acknowledges that what just happened was not favorable, but there is still the opportunity to improve in the future. People don’t react to what happens in the workplace based on the absolute meaning of the event, but based on the meaning they give it based on the context they create for what just happened. And one of the most important functions of a leader, by far, is to determine the context for their people by carefully choosing the language they use to describe what’s going on in the organization.

What context are you creating for the current state of your business or life? What labels are you giving your experiences? Do you find the context or labels you use empowering of disempowering? Are they serving you or holding you back? Do you simply acknowledge the facts and resist the urge to resort to attaching dramatic labels to what is going on? Why or why not? You may not always have total control of what happens to you, but you most certainly have the choice to create the context for it. Harness the power of labels and choose to create an empowering context today.


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About the Author: Amir Ghannad is an international keynote speaker, author of The Transformative Leader, leadership consultant, culture transformation champion, and founder of The Ghannad Group. He has made it his life's work to guide leaders and equip them with the tools, skills, and the mindset necessary to create extraordinary workplace cultures that deliver breakthrough results. Download his free e-book, titled 5 Practical Steps to Make Your Culture Transformation Stick by clicking here.

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As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary!

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