The culture of labelling and how it limits us

Rules exist in the collective subconscious don’t hold space for the beautiful ways in which humans can be different

Dr Maria Iqbal June 07, 2022
The writer is a community mental health professional at the Aga Khan University’s Brain and Mind Institute and Community Health Sciences department

In our day-to-day lives, we play many roles — child, parent, student, colleague or employee. These roles may have expectations attached to them. Slowly, along the way, if we are not careful, we begin to lose parts of ourselves that don’t fit in with the narrative of what a good “daughter, father, son, or husband” is within the culture we belong.

For example, good children don’t talk back, good students sit patiently in class and score well on tests, and good mothers cook. But these rules that exist in the collective subconscious don’t hold space for the myriad beautiful ways in which human beings can be different from one another; and how these variances can help shape and build a thriving society. Instead, in growing up, we begin to attach shame to these parts of ourselves that go against how everyone else says we should be. As a result, we begin to judge and repress these parts of ourselves and lose how we might benefit from them. For example, ‘talking back’ or pushing back may be an essential skill in negotiating our needs in both professional and personal settings. Still, if this natural tendency is repressed, we will not be able to advocate for ourselves. Alternatively, while it may get us in trouble in the classroom if used right, mischief might help us connect with our kids as a parent or might support us in creative or innovative careers.

We may be called ‘lazy’ if we spend time on interests or rest, rather than chores or work; or ‘shaitan’ while we are going through the natural developmental stage of pushing boundaries or mischievous play; ‘badtameez’ if we say our parents are being unfair; ‘chalak’ if we are street smart; or ‘bewakoof’ if we don’t learn well in classroom environments.

Over time, these outside voices build a home inside our minds, and then we start labelling ourselves as these things. We become our own worst critics and may begin acting in ways that hurt our mental health in the long term. This can manifest itself further by not allowing ourselves time to rest or follow interests or hobbies, not advocating for ourselves or even not developing the natural talents or skills that may benefit us and society. Judging and repressing these parts may also lead to the development of low self-esteem or self-hatred. We may lose hope because the natural strategies and paths we see may not be culturally acceptable and may not feel natural or right for us. Over time, low self-esteem and hopelessness can impact our mental health.

Often, these labels are attached to us by peers, family, or teachers. We may even have used them in our kids, maybe in anger, out of frustration, perhaps because this is how we have learned to push and motivate ourselves. However, we can pay attention to the tone in which we talk to ourselves and the words we say and allow for a gentler, kinder approach to motivate us and others.

With our children, we can take time to understand which behaviours are part of their normal development, understand their unique personalities and ways of engaging with and being in the world and help them consciously develop both their strengths and growing edges. We can also be more careful in the words we use while communicating with children, avoiding labelling them as good, bad, badtameez, etc, but instead focusing on the specific actions and the real-world consequences of those actions. We can also try to separate our emotional responses from a child’s actions — e.g. realising when they are making us angry and taking time to soothe ourselves before responding to the situation. To do this, however, our state of mind needs to be relaxed, and for that, self-care and compassion with how we talk to the child inside ourselves is the first step.

Let’s take some time to reflect on how we talk to ourselves and others and move towards creating a culture that accepts, supports and nurtures each individual’s unique needs and strengths.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 7th, 2022.

Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.


Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ

Most Read