This is Why I Don’t Like Labels

Don’t you just hate it?  When you state something as a fact, and then the fact changes?  Here is a case in point.

Throughout my book From Type A to Type Me: How to Stop “Doing” Life and Start Living It I talk about why not to label things and people, yet I start off the book labeling myself and others as Type-A personalities since we exhibited the behaviors Drs. Friedman and Rosenman uncovered in their research. These doctors created the labels of three personality types (A, B, C) and their research showed how those labeled as Type A had a greater risk of heart attack. I had heard a great story about how the doctors uncovered this link. It actually wasn’t their medical or research skills, but a perceptive janitor. The story goes that the janitor for the heart doctors’ office noticed that the chairs in the waiting room were always needing to be replaced. The individuals with heart issues who needed to be in that office were impatient, high strung, and stressed. They couldn’t stand waiting for the doctors and therefore they were constantly picking at and wearing down the arms of the chairs. Great story, right?  Unfortunately, it is probably just a fable. And it turns out, Friedman and Rosenman’s research may be a bit of a fable too.

type a cigaretteThe first study the doctor’s conducted in 1959 found a correlation between heart disease and personality. However, the results of this study have never been replicated by any other medical researchers and the research is inherently flawed as only Caucasian American middle class men were part of the study. But then it gets better. The tobacco industry, looking to keep their revenues coming in, gets wind of the study. For a good thirty years, tobacco companies provided millions of dollars to the Meyer Friedman Institute to continue this misguided research and the belief that your personality, not smoking cigarettes, causes heart issues. You can read the whole story here.

If we all agree, we can still call people with a list of behaviors like being a perfectionist, taking everything too seriously, and constantly feeling rushed, Type A. The truth is many of us may have certain tendencies that fall under the Type-A behavior umbrella. But having a label does not make it a fact. It just helps us communicate. We all agree a plant with bark, roots, branches and leaves is called a tree. We do this to improve and simplify our communication. When I need to tell the fireman my cat is stuck in a tree I don’t have to have to say, “If you look between those green petals you can see my cat sitting on the long brown wooden arm coming out of that vertical wooden pole.” When I am being stressed out and controlling, my husband can just call me Type A instead of going into the laundry list of how I am acting.

But just because we decide to call these behaviors Type A, it does not mean that we are sentenced to forever be a Type A. No matter what the label we need to treat it only as a means of communication not an absolute unchangeable truth. Labels are based on perception not hard cold immutable facts. A multitude of personality tests exist and each one is based on the perspective of the person who created the test. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, founded on the work by Carl Jung, is probably one of the most well-known tests and ranks people based on sensation, intuition, feeling, and thinking. A plethora of business focused assessments are also available these days including the Personality and Preference Inventory career compatibility test. Whatever the assessment test, when we are labeled by one, it only means our answers are being categorized by specific criteria and labeled for easier communication. It does not mean we are one thing or another. It simply means in this specific context we exhibit these behaviors or traits and therefore we have all agreed to a certain label.

It is important to not hold tight to any label because when we are labeled it is only one point in time. Think about taking a personality test when you are ten years old and then again when you are fifty years old. Do you think your behaviors, preferences, skills, and perspective would be identical on both tests? I would imagine not. One of the risks of creating labels is we think it is a death sentence. “They say I am a Type A and I will always be a Type A.” Wrong. Labels and test results are a point in time. They show us where we are now. They can point out things we like and want to keep. They can also point out habits or behaviors which we would like to change because they don’t serve us.

Think about the ways you label yourself and others around you. Is it helping in communication? Is it making you feel stuck to being a certain way? Is it causing unneeded and possibly untrue judgment?

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