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Updated: Oct 15, 2021

Earlier this week I shared one of my favourite quotes. I heard it during a TED talk. The speaker, Chimamanda Adichie, discussed how labels offer only part of any given story. She beautifully articulated the problem of labels being not that they are wrong, but that they are incomplete (if you haven't seen her speak yet I strongly recommend watching the video - link is in my feed, under the original quote).

Why do I bring this up?

One, I have a STRONG dislike for labels. I see people achieve to the labels given by tests such as Meyers Briggs or the Enneagram and actively try to depress or claim they are 'unable' to achieve in particular ways because they are 'just like this'.

Which is total BS.

While labels can give us an overview of SOME of the drivers that may influence us, they are in no way a complete picture. People have nuance. No single 'grouping' can accurately or universally diagnose the totality of our collective human experience.

Over the last few weeks I have been writing about internal communication and mental manipulations we use to build evidence in order to be 'right'. Labels are another manifestation of this behaviour.

Labels are a form of generalization - ways for us to paint an entire group with a single, simple brush stroke. ALL cats are evil. ALL men are narcissists. Certain cultures are ALWAYS late. ALL Democrats/Republicans are corrupt. ALL women are nags.

You get the idea.

Generalizations can also be acts of dismissal. They can strip the identity from a group and lump everything together as an inseparable whole. Aside from being patently wrong and statistically improbable, generalizations can be hurtful, ignorant and lazy.

So why do we do it?

In a nut shell - conservation of energy & speed. Our brain has several 'parts' which are responsible for different types of thinking or processing. The part responsible for analysis and deep thinking is called the Neocortex.

The Neocortex, although immensely useful for figuring out complex problems, is a HOG when it comes to resources. So our bodies, ever insistent on conserving, optimizing and improving, seek to avoid engaging this non-efficient area. To accomplish this, our systems have developed thinking hacks & shortcuts such as generalizations, which exist in a different, less resource-intensive part of the brain. The more we can stay in those smaller, more efficient parts, the easier it is for the body to conserve its energy.

The Neocortex is also quite a bit slower than the rest of our brain. Why? Because it is all about details and nuance. It is great for understanding complexities or digging into the abstract. This can be SUPER helpful when empathizing with someone's feelings or learning a new skill, but not so much when we need to run from a lion or avoid a falling object. Noticing a car swerving towards you is only helpful if you move quickly enough to stay alive. Pondering why the car is out of control, if the driver is having marital problems (or how they feel about it) or attempting complex calculations about the grip of the tires in relation to the trajectory of the car will not likely save your life.

On the surface, generalizations do help us conserve our brain energy by enabling us to make sense of multiple similar things in a quick and efficient manner. We can go to the store and know ‘cereal’ encompasses a whole category of items, without having to know each and every item individually. We know that ‘grocery stores’ will sell us food (again, thousands of individual and varying items within the category). On and on it goes. We can categorize specific things by grouping them together and thus conserve energy & time, making life easier.

The problem with labels (as mentioned earlier) is that they can easily and quickly become swooping statements of truth that are not completely true. Like saying all cereal is bad for you or all grocery stores underpay their employees. At this point, the label is no longer simply a way to organize. It becomes a way to judge and convict.

It's how we abdicate responsibility for learning the full story.

Saying, ”My kids always leave their stuff everywhere” is a generalization. Perhaps my kids often leave their stuff lying around, or my kids don’t always pick things up when I like, but it is unlikely they have NEVER done it. Sometimes is a far more accurate description than never. It is unlikely that every single time my child comes into any room (without exception), they leave something behind.

This is REALLY important because generalization can be incredibly disempowering to the recipient. Saying “My roommate always leaves the cupboard doors open”, or “My partner never cleans up after themselves” or “My co-worker never carries their weight in a project”, minimises those people and removes the possibility of a different outcome. The force and the gravity of your declaration leaves BOTH of you with no possibility of improvement.

Generalizations also erode trust (why would anyone trust someone who is judging them?). People whom you do not trust often do not receive 'gracious attribution' (you do not see or look for the positive side of their actions). When you only see the negative side of someone's words or deeds...well...things go downhill relationship-wise from there.

What to do?

Change your story.

Watch your language. Become aware of where and when you use generalizations. Ask yourself what benefit you are getting from the stories you are creating. Ask how your generalizations may be harming those around you and what the price you (and they) are paying for them is. Avoid the urge to justify your actions or be 'right'. Keep it about YOU (the thing you can control). Imagine people 'complexly'.

People, thoughts and ideas are not purely one-sided or without nuance. Generalizations may seem easier than thinking complexly, but they are often very limiting and can be extremely harmful. By facing them head-on and becoming aware of WHY you are generalizing in the first place you may not only find your world expanding and your relationships improving, you might find your anxiety & stress levels decreasing and your overall experience of life getting better as well.

Try it - let me know how it goes.



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