Dumb. Smart. Lazy. Driven. Whore. Virgin. We are all guilty of using labels, yet so often we let labels define our lives and expectations, even if we’re not fully aware of it.
There’s a famous study by Dr. B Rosenthal, where 20 mice were randomly allocated to two cages, one cage with a label ‘smart mice’, the other cage labelled ‘dumb mice’. Twenty participants were then given a mouse each and given a week to train the mouse to run a maze. Those running the study didn’t tell them anything about the mice; the only thing that differentiated them was the label on the cage.
At the end of the week, the most surprising thing happened. The mice that were in the cage labelled ‘smart’ ran the maze twice as fast than the mice in the ‘dumb’ cage. Twice as fast! Scientists found that the participants in the study saw the label and unconsciously changed their behaviour toward the mice. Those with the ‘smart’ mice took more care, handled the mice more and this provided better feedback for the mice.
It’s funny but so often we do the same things in our own lives. We label ourselves and unconsciously change our behaviour so that we become a self-fulfilling prophesy of our own expectations.
One powerful tool that we use when working with clients in our Women’s Space program is a strength wall; this involves building a wall that is filled with positive labels. Abby*, one of our clients, has major issues with poor selfesteem, and as a sex-worker feels worthless. She has felt labelled and looked down upon by society, strangers, friends and even herself. When I told her we were going to create a wall with all the positive and wonderful things about her, she scoffed at the idea. She said she would only be able to come up with one or two words.
Fifty words later we finished. Abby looked at me with satisfaction and amazement. Her whole countenance had changed and she now stood tall, confident and proud. We carefully took down the words and put them into an envelope so she could re-build her strength wall at home, and start to speak the positive words over her life. It’s one small step in restoring her self-esteem and creating a resilience tool.
Creating a strength wall isn’t going to magically fix someone’s self-esteem or instantly give them the ability to overcome whatever challenges they encounter. It is about changing the labels they put upon themselves, it’s about changing their expectations and it’s a step toward changing their behaviour. This powerful tool also reminds me to be aware of the labels I create for myself and those I attach to others. More than anything it reminds me about the words Jesus speaks over us: Redeemed. Anointed. Called. Strong. Valued. Commissioned. Loved.
These are perhaps the most powerful labels of all and the very labels that should define us.