I recently went to a meeting with an acquaintance. Before we sat down in the chairs around the table, he paused. He stood there for an extra few seconds and pushed on the seat with his hand.
He saw that I noticed, so as he sat down he quietly said, "I was a fat kid, and my biggest fear was that I'd break a chair. Old habits die hard." Now in his 40s and physically fit, his childhood label of being "the fat kid" prevented him from sitting down in a chair without checking first to be sure it wouldn't buckle under his weight.
Some people feel uncomfortable outgrowing their label, because being "the athlete" was part of their identity. Others grow to recognize how their being labeled something like "the bad kid" turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It's incredible to think how much that label you were given at 7 can still impact your life. But there's a good chance your childhood label plays a role in your adult life in one way or another.
Labels Shape Your Core Beliefs
During childhood, you develop core beliefs about who you are and how other people see you. You begin to see yourself in a certain light--and that impacts how you feel about yourself and how you portray yourself to other people.
Maybe you were called a "class clown" because you were good at making people laugh. That belief may have helped you act friendly toward new people, which made it easy to make new friends. It may have even shaped your decision to go into sales, because you knew you were good at establishing trusting relationships.
Or maybe you were bullied a lot as a kid and you were labeled a "geek." You may have grown up believing you were socially awkward and unathletic. Now that you're an adult, that label might be affecting everything from how often you work out to the city you choose to live in.
Even a label that was meant to be positive, like "jock" or "piano prodigy," could have had a negative impact on your identity. You may have felt you had to live up to that label and it may have limited your interests and activities.
Other People Might Still See You That Way
Even if you know you've outgrown your label, it may take other people longer to recognize the shift.
That's been my experience with my sister. I was a really shy kid. Although I couldn't stop talking when I was around people I felt comfortable with, if you put me in a big group or introduced me to someone new, I didn't say a word.
My friends and family members not only accepted this about me but they also usually spoke for me. They'd order for me in a restaurant or ask a question on my behalf when I didn't dare speak up.
Fast-forward two decades. I'm not shy anymore. I give speeches on stages to 10,000 people.
But I was at an outdoor restaurant with my sister a couple of weeks ago. They seated us at the one table that didn't have an umbrella. Knowing that I'd get sunburned within five minutes in the hot Florida sun, she immediately asked if we could move to a table with an umbrella. It was like a flashback to childhood where she thought she still had to speak up for me.
I laughed, because I knew what she was doing. When I pointed it out to her, she laughed too. But it was one of those reminders that sometimes, no matter how much you've changed, your childhood friends and family members may still see you as your label. And that can make it harder to be the real you when they're around.
Think About Your Label and the Role It Might Play in Your Life
While it's not healthy to dwell on the past or blame anyone else for your adult problems, thinking about how your childhood label (or labels) may have influenced your life can be a helpful exercise.
Acknowledging how one little word or phrase influenced your core beliefs might help you gain more insight into yourself and the choices you've made.
When you recognize the impact that label has had on you, you can begin to break free from its grip.