Beware of Labels

2016-02-19-1455844757-3455957-Shining.jpgImage Alena Ozerova

Many of us have people in our lives -- family, friends, coworkers, neighbors -- whose choices in life have led them down a dark path of self-destruction, often in the form of substance abuse or other addictions, self-neglect and sorrow, sometimes leading to deep depression or worse.

Recently my husband was contacted by an acquaintance who mentioned his good friend had experienced an alcoholic episode that saw him spiraling into a dark place -- darker than usual -- and was distressed as he felt that he should be able to help this friend in practical and tangible ways that would help him cope and provide solace.

Notwithstanding the professional help that needs to be sought in cases of addiction and other such critical issues, family and friends frequently find they must offer some response of support and will be on the front line to many a crisis.

My husband is like many good men out there in the world today -- he is a problem-solver and he loves to help people with practical and inspired solutions to issues they struggle with. He is also sensitive enough to only offer such solutions when asked, and so when this acquaintance told him of the incident with his good friend, his desire to help was tempered with a lack of ideas since the words that came to his mind sounded hollow and inadequate.

He asked me what I thought. I said that it was a tricky situation -- the friend who had the alcoholic episode was clearly using a strategy that he thought would make him feel better, although on the outside it looked like pure destruction. And the tendency for the world to label this man an alcoholic was not really doing him any favors -- I have noticed myself that once a person is given and accepts a label then it's as if he has a duty to live up to that label. That goes for positive and negative labels alike.

Instead I asked him to consider this idea -- what if every person on the planet began their journey here as a shining soul with a purpose to experience life with all its emotional range and a willingness to overcome any difficulties that such a life presents, and yet by the time they are born, each soul also forgot they had made this decision. On their journey through life they made a series of decisions which took them from a state of pure potential in the beginning to the life they experience today. Whatever your beliefs about such things, it is an interesting perspective to take, if only for a short time.

What if our perception of those people in our lives as broken or wrong or any other label that we are tempted to use is doing a great disservice to them? What if, instead, we decide to view them as the shining soul that is underneath all the labels that family, community and their own self-talk have gifted them, and by so doing help to recover the strengths and potentials that have existed within them from the beginning, now buried underneath the weight of negative expectations?

In 1965 an interesting study by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsen involved elementary school students randomly being classified as intellectually gifted or not, and the positive expectations that their teachers had of the students labelled as gifted had a corresponding positive effect on the students' subsequent academic performance. This has become known as the Pygmalion or Rosenthal effect.

Conversely, the Golem effect is said to occur when the expectations of a person are low (for whatever reason) and the person appears to live up to (or down to) those expectations. 

Just like the teachers in that study, what would happen if you chose to see the shining potential in those people in your life who are having a tough time or who appear to be on a self-destructive path? What else is possible if you began to talk to them and view them only in terms of their abilities and strengths instead of their perceived shortcomings?

This strategy is not a quick fix remedy for all of life's problems, of course, but it is a door opening to different possibilities that are available to everybody -- everyone deserves a chance to shine.