Our stories are important. The labels we use to describe ourselves - make a difference. How we combine our labels into our stories - make a difference.
Understanding how labels and stories shape our identity is vital to our growth and development.
Here's a story (my story) ... See how this process works....
Growing up, I loved to make things. I did a lot of crafts in school, and soon discovered I liked to knit and crochet. My teachers didn't like it, because by the time I was in junior high (a/k/a middle school), I would bring my knitting to school and do it in class. One year I made a sweater a week. That was the first time I learned I had such high achievement needs.
At home I started to make clothes. Not just make them. Design them. I'd buy a pattern and fabric, and then work with the basic patterns to transform them into something different and much more wonderful than what appeared on the pattern package. This is where I learned to design and to create wonderful things that didn't exist before. I loved my crafts and I loved my designing, and knew it was a part of who I was and who I would become.
But not everyone saw it my way. My parents didn't understand my joy and my passion for designing. They used to say that when I worked in my room for hours at a time I was 'escaping reality' and was 'living in a fantasy world.' They saw this as bad and wrong, and even when I wore my beautiful designs, I knew they still labeled me as 'escaping reality'.
Over time, I assumed my role in the family. I was the rebel and outcast. I didn't feel appreciated for what I was or who I was becoming. In my reaction to the labels, I challenged authority - especially parental authority - learning more about ways one child could get punished than most would ever want to know. Now I see, looking back, why I have such a need to understand positive psychology, and appreciative inquiry. The good can come from the bad.
Things That Stick
Being labeled an outcast, or a problem child sticks really hard, as all pejorative labels do. When parents - or teachers - or bosses label us judgmentally, negatively, or harshly it sticks. It doesn't roll off our backs so easily. Negative labels actually create the same reaction in the brain as when we break a leg, except social pain stays longer, and takes longer to go away. It stays around and we ruminate on it, we build stories around it, and others build stories around it. The gossip mills are filled with larger than life stories that started with one person labeling another person harshly.
Until I was 16, I was the outcast and rebel. I got into lots of trouble, and got punished regularly. I didn't see my future as quite rosy or bright. While I wanted to be a designer, or an author or artist (had I the talent), my parents saw my future as schoolteacher or mother, summers off, raise the kids, stay home. Being an artist or designer was like being a beatnik or bum.
Then it all changed...
One Friday night, my dad, who was a dentist, brought home a patient to join us for Friday night dinner. This patient was special. It turns out, she was Claude Reins wife, the wife of a famous actor; but she didn't treat us different, and we didn't treat her differently. We just enjoyed her enjoying us.
To tell the truth, that dinner was more than a dinner; not at all because she was famous. It was the conversation we had that night. I still remember where I sat, and what she said.
"Judy, what are you going to do after graduation?" She asked. My eyes opened wide, my heart started to beat. It was the horrible question that everyone asked me, that I didn't yet know how to answer. I knew what I liked, and knew what I loved, but these things were labeled bad.
"I'm not sure yet," I told her. "I'll figure it out." Thinking I could move the conversation over to something else, I said, "Could someone pass the potatoes." "Well, what do you like to do, she asked?" A question I didn't expect. "Well," I said quietly, "I love to design clothes." "And where do you do this designing," she asked.
I looked from side to side to see if my parents were frowning with dismay. Seeing that their glares were a bit more neutral than usual, I told her that I had a room upstairs where I did my work. "Can you show me?" she asked.
Before I realized it, we were climbing the stairs to my special room. I had half finished dresses hanging from the closet doors, always left ajar. This day I had more works in progress laying on the floor and others on the small sitting lounge.
My sewing machine was active with a skirt in progress, things were all around, and she could set it first hand... This was my joy.
"Wow!" She said, "This is amazing. You are truly a designer, young lady. Show me each one at a time. I am quite impressed."
I don't remember much more of our conversation, or how long it lasted. What I do remember is coming down the stairs feeling different, feeling like I was walking on a cloud, feeling so warm and good inside.
"Your daughter is a fashion designer," she said. "You should be so proud of her! I would be."
That was when everything changed. For the first time, the negative label just fell on the floor, like dropping a frock, and I could step into another dress that made me beautiful - mostly in my own eyes.
"You should send her to Toby Coburn School of Fashion Design," she blurted out to my parents. It's the best in the city." I saw my parents blank stares back at her. They either didn't know what she was talking about - or were shocked that she adorned me with such positive praise. The conversation went on; I don't remember much more after that, except everything changed.
Labels - How do they help you see? What do they help you see?
What are the labels we use with each other - with our friends, with our colleagues, or with our family? How do we see each other - define each other - think of each other? Labels give definition to our relationships. They set into place the parameters, of how we will engage - or not engage. They create blind spots - true blind spots - and cause us to look for more proof that our labels are right.
- What labels do you need to examine at work?
- What labels need changing?
- What would happen if you changed a label - reversed a label - or took a label away all together?
Try it at work! Try it at home! Do your experiment, and then let me know what happens!
The more we see each other in positive terms, the more we enable each person to step into their most positive self. The more we see each other through negativity, the more we feel unfairly judged and feel resentful. Resentment breeds resentment and turns into toxic places to work.
Use the labels in your life to create a palette of colors in the world you want to live in. Design your world. Create your world...and make it the best you can!
Judith E. Glaser is the Author of two best selling business books:
Creating WE: Change I-Thinking to We-Thinking & Build a Healthy Thriving Organization - winner of the Bronze Award in the Leadership Category of the 2008 Axiom Business Book Awards, and The DNA of Leadership; and the DVD and Workshop titled The Leadership Secret of Gregory GooseContact: 212-307-4386
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