Labels Are for Jars

One of my son’s favorite sayings is, “Labels are for jars, not people.” I like the sentiment, for when we label others, we are judging them—and usually harshly. But sadly, our world is too imperfect for that sentiment ever to become a reality.

As humans, we continuously try to make sense of the world around us. And one of the significant ways we do that is through labeling, organizing, and classifying. Not all labels are hurtful. Here is a list of some of mine that I find to be helpful: husband, father, grandfather, lawyer (okay, maybe not so much), movie buff, writer, sports fan, theater fan, friend, feminist, American, and male. If you knew nothing about me, and you read that list of labels, you would have at least a start of an accurate depiction of me.

But many labels are hurtful. A few of the negative ones others have pinned on me at various times during my life have included stinky, worrywart, uncaring, unemotional, unemployed, lousy with tools, and unfriendly.

I like this statement of Henry Longfellow: “We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done.” I believe Longfellow is telling us that it is important what we do with the labels others give us. So, in a moment of vulnerability, let me tell you what I did with two of the hurtful ones others have given me—with opposite results.

When I was in the seventh grade, I took a required woodshop class. One day the teacher reviewed one of my projects. Although he didn’t say these exact words, the look on his face was enough to shout at me that my work was unacceptable. Maybe worse, taking my project, the teacher said, “Here, let me help you.” He then completed the project for me. I believe he intended to help me by showing me how to do it, but I took it as his way of telling me that I was lousy with tools. And that self-perception of myself has haunted me the rest of my life. Now, anytime I attempt a do-it-yourself project, I wait for disaster to happen—and it usually does. I have turned that negative self-perception into self-fulfilling prophecies over and over again. On those rare occasions where things have turned out right, I attribute it to mere dumb luck.

When I was in second grade, my teacher pulled me aside and told me that I worried too much about things that either didn’t matter or that I had no control over. She then encouraged me to change. As I thought about it, I realized she was right. And I determined then and there that being a worrywart was not going to be a characteristic that defined me. Since then, I have tried to take whatever life has thrown at me, whether good or bad, with the attitude that it was just life. And since second grade, I often have had people compliment me on being able to maintain a calm countenance and steady approach to problems that have arisen.

Sorry for talking so much about myself, but I hope to make a point. We cannot stop people from labeling us. The important thing is what we do with those labels. If they are positive, do we accept them and make them a part of who we are? If they are negative, do we agree with them, or do we do something to prove to ourselves that they are inaccurate?

No matter who we are, someone will call us a “loser” at some point in our lives, even if they do not use that word. The same is true of many characters in movies. So, here are three of my favorite losers from some of my favorite “oldies but goodies” films.

Napoleon Dynamite.[i] No one in the film tells Napolean he is a loser. But everyone watching the movie knows that he is. Here is one of my favorite scenes illustrating that truth:

Happy Gilmore.[ii] Gilmore wants to become a professional hockey player but doesn’t have the necessary skills. Even his girlfriend calls him a loser:

George McFly from Back to the Future.[iii] George is the ultimate nerd and the easy target of the school’s biggest bully. When his son, Marty McFly (the furthest thing from a nerd), goes back in time, he is horrified at just how nerdy (and picked on) his future father is:

 In his book, What to Say When You Talk to Yourself, Shad Helmstetter, Ph.D., compares our minds to a computer that we are continually programming. He says that “as much as seventy-seven percent of everything we think is negative, counterproductive, and works against us.” What kind of effect might that negativity have on us? Dr. Helmstetter continues:

“Until very recently no one understood well enough the human mind—how it really works. The result was that without knowing what they were doing, and with us not recognizing the immense effect this [counterproductive] programming was having on us, [others] have been programming us in the wrong way…—and we took it to heart. Year after year, word by word, our life scripts were etched. Layer by layer, nearly indelibly, our self-images were created.”[iv]

So, what can we do about it now? We can start to reprogram ourselves. Tell yourself what you can accomplish. Better yet, tell yourself what kind of person you are, even if you’re not yet the person you want to be. From the moment I talked with my second-grade teacher, I began telling myself that I was not the type of person that worried excessively, and I visualized myself as a non-worrier.

Studies have shown that visualizing something is just as helpful as actually doing it. For example, one study looked at the improvement basketball players made in their free-throw shooting percentages. One group practiced shooting free-throws every day. The other group only visualized themselves making free-throw after free-throw without actually shooting any. Remarkably, both groups improved their percentages at the same rate.

Those same losers from the movies can also give us some tips.

Napoleon Dynamite was smart enough to recognize that to get girls, you had to have “skills.” So,  he taught himself the finer points of dancing. Here is the finished product:

His dance performance is almost good enough to make me vote for Pedro. Napoleon decided to tackle something and put in the time to learn the skill. And proving the saying that imitation is the highest form of flattery, moviegoers everywhere started learning Napoleon’s dance moves and showing their skills off to their friends. Although we might tell ourselves repeatedly that we are good at something, most of us also need to put in the time to learn that skill.

To help his grandma get her house back, Happy Gilmore joins the professional golf tour (using his hockey slapshot, he can drive a golf ball further than anybody). As Happy Gilmore prepared for the competition, he needed the help of an expert. And so he turned to Chubbs Peterson to help him with his putting. Peterson helps Happy refine his putting on a miniature golf course with this result:

Sometimes we need extra motivation to become the person we are destined to be. Often, when a loved one needs our help, we can do almost impossible things. And that brings us back to George McFly:

When Marty McFly returns to the present, he finds a father that he hardly recognizes. George has become super cool; even his high school bully works for him now. In that one moment in high school where George told himself he could do something meaningful to protect someone he loved, he changed his future forever.

Shouldn’t we do the same for ourselves? By picturing ourselves as having skills, practicing those skills until we become proficient at them (and bringing in experts when appropriate), and using those skills in times of crises, we can shed from our personalities those negative labels others have given us.

And while we are working on becoming our better selves, let’s help others to do the same by not putting harmful labels on those around us. Let’s be a person who touches someone else, but without leaving a scar.

Now if I could only get comfortable with all those tools.

[i] Napoleon Dynamite:

  • Production Companies: Fox Searchlight, Paramount Pictures, and MTV Films
  • Director: Jared Hess
  • Screenwriter: Jared Hess and Jerusha Hess
  • Starring: Jon Heder, Efrin Ramirez, and Jon Gries
  • Release date: August 27, 2004

[ii] Happy Gilmore:

  • Production Companies: Universal Pictures, Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, and Robert Simonds Productions
  • Director: Dennis Dugan
  • Screenwriters: TimHerlihy and Adam Sandler
  • Starring: Adam Sandler, Christopher McDonald, and Julie Bowen
  • Release date: February 16, 1996

[iii] Back to the Future:

  • Production Companies: Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment, and U-Drive Productions
  • Director: Robert Zemeckis
  • Screenwriters: Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale
  • Starring: Michael J. Fox, Chistorpher Lloyd, and Leda Thompson
  • Release date: July 3, 1985

[iv] What to Say When You Talk to Yourself by Shad Helmstetter, Ph.D., copyrighted 2011, published by Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster; e-book format by Park Avenue Press, page 9.

2 thoughts on “Labels Are for Jars

  1. Martie Mumford

    Warren! At the risk of labeling you, I want to state that I appreciate how SMART and PERCEPTIVE you are to draw these life lessons out of the films. Thank you for another fun and wise post! I love the idea of turning weaknesses into strengths, and re-framing our self-perceptions! And, YES, we do need to eliminate negative judging and labeling!



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