If you saw a bottle with the label poison and another with the label water, which would you drink?
The answer should be obvious (I hope). Drink the water. 🙄
Labels play an important role in directing our actions, not just with what we consume, but with everything we allow into our lives.
The other day, I was having a conversation with a friend who was struggling with two relationships in her life: one with her neighbor and one with her ex-boyfriend.
Her neighbor lived in the apartment below and complained about every step she took. If she came home late, she’d complain about the doors opening and closing. When she had friends over who laughed or talked loudly, she would complain about that. If she was sick at night and made multiple trips to the bathroom, she would complain about footsteps. Any movement resembling the normal life of a tenant seemed to disturb the neighbor and she would immediately send a text to make it known that she was bothered.
Her ex-boyfriend expressed his concern with his own comfort in a different way. He was no longer interested in the committed relationship she desired yet didn’t hesitate to reach out when he couldn’t find someone else to satisfy his physical needs.
I’m not sure if either of these examples are something you can relate to. I can relate to both, and in terms of the ex, I have been on both sides.
Now, I don’t usually have a difficult time dealing with people in a manner that is reasonable and accommodating while also respecting my boundaries. So, I started wondering why her situation was different and why she was having difficulty prioritizing her personal mental and emotional well-being.
I finally realized the problem was with the labels she was using.
Labels are important
She described all of her actions to appease and satisfy her neighbor’s demands as being considerate and compassionate. And she continued labeling her ex’s outreach as thoughtful and caring. Her desire to be a good person and have good people in her life made it unlikely that she would stop “being considerate and compassionate” or create distance with someone who was “thoughtful and caring.”
But by conflating appeasement with consideration, and selfishness with caring, she was acting against her values and her best interests.
Labeling toxic actions and behaviors, our own or someone else’s, as benevolent in nature, makes it harder to put an end to them.
Using the right label
My suggestion to her was to re-label those behaviors correctly. Not living her life as a normal tenant but tiptoeing through her apartment like a mouse everyday for years is not being considerate; it is attempting to appease an unreasonable neighbor with unrealistic expectations of a multi-unit building.
Labeling her ex’s calls to hook-up as caring and thoughtful outreach is not holding on to a loving friendship; it is perpetuating an unhealthy relationship that causes her pain and emotional distress. One of the reasons I’ve stayed in toxic relationships long after they should have ended was because I used to make the mistake of labeling abuse and manipulation as love.
Labels are not permanent
Assigning a label is not a life-sentence. They can change with time, with behaviors, and with circumstances. However, to guide our own behavior in a way that aligns with our values, we need to be mindful of how we label the people, things, and actions in our lives. Failing to do so is often the reason for our unhealthy levels of tolerance, accommodation and acceptance and the subsequent pain, discomfort, and stress we experience.
We may think we are respecting our boundaries. We may pretend we are respecting our boundaries. But by assigning the wrong labels all we are doing with those boundaries is letting the bad things in and keeping the good things out.
Labels, and the way they guide your actions, can benefit or damage your relationships and your health. Fortunately, it’s always within your power to keep them or change them.
- Are you aware of how you use labels in your life?
- Have you ever mislabeled someone’s actions or behavior?
- What were the consequences? How did you act? How did you feel? And for how long?
- Are there situations in your life today that could benefit from a change in labels?
What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below. (Scroll to the bottom)