Why People Are Not Adjectives

So I hear there’s this big thing about time flying when you’re having fun? I think this must be a bad Google Translate from some Swedish proverb that actually translates to “Time flies when you’ve got a lot to do.”

I honestly have no idea where on earth September went. I can tell you what I did yesterday, and the day before that. Probably as far back as two weeks ago. Where September went I don’t know. We are now well into the school year, I’ve got my first midterms in about a week and a half, I’ve managed to spew textbooks and notes into every corner of my house, and I haven’t been this tired since last April. And aside from missing reading for pleasure, I’m loving it. Anyone suffering from insomnia pick up any textbook, I guarantee you’ll be out before the third page. It’s not that the material isn’t interesting, it’s just that most of the time the authors manage to bore you with details and otherwise suck the life out of the material. It’s the profs that bring it back to life. Really those folks are miracle workers. Though I have had a few that just beat the dead horse.

A big topic lately that seems to have come up in class and for me personally is labels. Not the helpful kind that, for example, tells you that the door you are approaching is a push door not pull, but the kind that applies to a person. That people use to be miserly and presume to know people without actually knowing them. Or that takes a behaviour and turns it into a trait.


In my classes, we’ve talked a lot about the pros and cons of labeling someone with a mental illness. Theoretically there should be all or mostly pros – the person can get the love and support they need, doctors and therapists know what to do to help you. But there are also a lot of cons – people look at you differently, like a giant post-it note has covered your face. That label can follow you, you may become isolate and ashamed. The cons are mostly a product of our society, and to give it credit we’re working on breaking down the stigma. We’re getting better at opening up, which maybe eventually will break down the stereotypes.

For now, I’m going to stick to my guns. Labels are only useful for inanimate objects. If I admit that labels have a use why do I hate them so much?

labels and understanding

I get it. We as humans seem to have this idea that if we name something we can understand it. We can know exactly what to expect. Like when you get a new prescription and it comes with the possible side-effects bible. While all of the side-effects are extremely unlikely, we know what could happen and what we should panic about.

This theory works great usually, I mean you label a box “cereal” and you can expect there to be cereal in the box. Label a lecture “chemistry” and odds are carbon and oxygen will be mentioned at some point. Does it work with people? Not so much.

Saying two people are a couple tells you next to nothing about their relationship. You can’t even conclude how they necessarily feel about each other. You don’t know what brought them together or what they enjoy doing on Sunday afternoons. All you really can say is that they have apparently made some sort of commitment to one another. But we think we get what their relationship is like.

Saying someone is Anorexic doesn’t mean we know anything of their own personal brand of hell. You don’t know what their trigger foods are, what their safe foods are, if they have either, if they are restrictors or binge/purge subtype, if their vice is exercise, or how they feel about their family. You don’t know how they got there (odds are neither do they really, it’s kind of complex and sneaky). But you know the stereotype, so you assume they’re crazy, they’re just doing it for attention, they could eat but don’t want to, they don’t eat at all.

Calling someone selfish helps us come to terms with the fact that someone didn’t help us and allows us to place the blame on their defective character. Maybe they were behaving selfishly, maybe so were you, but it doesn’t make either of you selfish people. Maybe you were both just standing up for yourselves.

Problem is that once you know the label, you assume you know the person, and interpret everything in light of that. For a slightly humorous example check out the Rosenhan experiment.

labels and self-fulfilling prophecies

I could explain the social psychology behind labelling and what the way we describe ourselves supposedly says about your values, beliefs, and attitudes are. I could also tell you the social psychology of why people will change to fit labels, especially those that they have identified with. We assume that others see us better, so they must be right, and we will change to fit their beliefs. Guess Descartes was right… cogito ergo sum.

If you tell someone they are crazy, they will start to act crazy. Eventually they may actually become crazy. Yes this can also work in a positive light, but it’s much more potent in the negative. Once someone has adapted a negative label, it’s a lot harder to get them to believe the positive. Or that you were wrong. Words can do a lot of things, choose wisely.

For another totally awesome psych example, Google the “Stanford Prison Experiment.”

people are not static

Every year who I am changes. A year ago, I didn’t really drink Starbucks, last week my Gold Card came in.

A year ago I wouldn’t have touched sushi, tonight I am going to sushi lessons.

Two years ago I didn’t even like coffee, now it is part of my daily routine.

Get the point? I have changed. I am always changing. Which is both terrifying and awesome at the same time.

People change. It’s part of our biology. Labels, to me, imply that a person is static and unchanging. People change and grow, just because Jessica from accounting was suffering from Anorexia, doesn’t make her anorexic, and it doesn’t mean she will suffer from anorexia forever. She is still Jessica. Names are the only static label allowed. People act differently in different situations. Behaving selfishly in one situation or context does not make someone a selfish person.

complete descriptions

After many years of clinging to one label or another I had no idea who Niki was. I only knew her in the context of other people, events, and self-destructive behaviours. So I shredded every label, or tried to, for a while there I was just stuck with a wad of sticky notes. And then I started to get to know me again.

Ask anyone to describe themselves and I can almost guarantee they will use multiple words. Be it describing social connections, hobbies, their career, their physical appearance, usually a combination of these things.

I am a runner. This doesn’t mean that that is all I do. I am also a girlfriend, a sister, an aunt, a daughter, a friend, a cousin, a niece. I do not fill any of these roles all the time, familial relations are somewhat more permanent, but being an aunt doesn’t mean I run around chasing everyone on campus threatening to eat them up or attack them with the tickle monster. I am a student, but I still occasionally have a life outside of my classes and textbooks. I am a baker/chef, but I don’t just sit around cooking and eating.

Only by combining all the pieces of the puzzle do you get the whole picture.

labeling yourself

A few days ago I got a nervous flurry of texts from a good friend back home asking if they were a good person? If they were selfish? Dramatic? Stubborn? Did they care about people? (Which how I was supposed to know the answer to the last one I’m not sure). The list went on. And after a quick response: Yes, no (though we can all be at times), occasionally yes, ditto, and I presume yes. I summed it all up with:

“[…] stop doubting yourself, you are a good person, capable of anything. Stop doubting and if anyone’s got a problem, f*** em. Who cares what people think? That’s what life comes down to. I saw a quote once, you could be the juiciest of peaches and there will always be someone who hates peaches.”

This makes me sound so invulnerable. I do care what people think, often times too much. But something I’ve learned in the last few years, is that the harshest labels are the ones we apply ourselves, and the labels that others apply that hurt the most, are the ones applied in the heat of the moment.

You are in charge of you, so if you think they might be right, change it, if you think they’re just being a cranky T-Rex, give em a mental kick in the shins and walk away. People should be judged on their global behaviour – not just the bad moments. Overall, I believe that people are generally good. I think there’s probably a psych principle for that, but it’s true.


Just because someone says you’re selfish. Or your introverted. Or extroverted. Or girly. Or obsessive. Or whatever else someone may tell you you ARE. It doesn’t mean it’s right. You can always reject the label. Or place conditions on it. Whatever floats your boat and makes you happy.

negative labels

Unless we’re talking the crazy psychopaths on Criminal Minds, people are generally good. Focus on the good. Let those be the static traits. And let those be the labels you apply. Rather than worrying about telling the jerk in line that he’s a jerk, tell the guy that held the door he’s a nice guy. Rather than tell yourself you’re a failure because you botched a midterm, realize that you are a smart person and maybe you just didn’t study enough.

The school system has this thing for report cards where they are supposed to list two strengths and an “area for improvement” on the report card. Seems like a fair formula. But remember, at the end of the day you are more than a word from the dictionary.




  1. It was Dita Von Teese who said the juiciest peach quote. It is one of my favorites, and I’m so glad you incorporated it into this great post!

    I get so mad sometimes that we always have to label EVERYTHING. Kind of off topic, but it’s just like labeling someone’s gender–are they male or female? If they’re anything out of the box, we don’t like that. We have to label them as MALE, or FEMALE. Why label them at all?

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