We all label people. It makes functioning in the world simpler when the people we encounter can be placed in a category with which we are already familiar. We meet a Republican and we assume that she’s relatively conservative; we meet an obese person and we may assume that she’s lazy, we meet a woman wearing a hijab covering her head and we may assume that she is meek and subservient. Unfortunately, those labels can also be very deceptive – even dangerously so (a young man with the last name of Myers was murdered by some two anti-semites last October in Portland, Oregon because they mistakenly thought he was Jewish).

Today I’m going to be writing about the danger of labels to ourselves. When I say danger I don’t mean life-and-limb danger; I mean the danger of pigeonholing ourselves, narrowing the range of possibilities that we think is within our reach. Age is the most potentially limiting. Virtually every day I meet with clients who are holding themselves back because they feel that they’re too old (or, less frequently, too young) to embark on a career or relationship path that might enhance their live’s fulfillment.

Age is one of the most prominent labels we wear on the outside. It can be disguised to some degree (dressing more “hip,” coloring your hair, plastic surgery) but unless you’re George Hamilton you’re probably going to look within ten years of your age. How strongly will you let that outside label determine the inner contents and the path you intend to take forward? Let me suggest that it’s worth engaging in debates with the labels you affix to yourself (which generally originate in the labeling ideas of others).

Periodically throughout the last couple of decades of my life I have actively debated the notion that because I am the age that I am I should…….. name it: feel a certain way, dress a certain way, do or don’ t do certain things, even walk a certain way. It takes work to consistently engage in the internal dialogue, but I believe it pays off in my feeling a greater sense of freedom about what I can and can’t do, and of course that freedom gives me a greater sense of contentment with where I am in my life and where I may be able to go from here. Who says a 50 year old shouldn’t get a tattoo, or a 60 year old shouldn’t engage in horseplay, or a 70 year old shouldn’t wear gym shorts? Who says that because you’re a certain age you won’t be able to learn to SCUBA dive or use a Mac or take up salsa dancing?

“But” you may ask “don’t I need to be realistic about possibilities?” That all depends on what you mean by realistic. Clearly someone who’s sixty-five is not going to be able to become a professional athlete, but in my experience most people place unduly narrow definitions on the concept of “realistic”. Too often it means “average,” i.e. the average person who enters medical school is age 26, or the average person who opens a restaurant fails 75% of the time, or the average person who makes partner at a law firm does so in eight years. Who says you’re average (or if you feel you are now who says that you can’t change)?

Whatever outer labels ( whether due to age, weight, height, race, body type) you may be wearing, engage in debate with the ones that don’t feel good and look for ways in which the label is overly limiting. The same for any inner labels, general: (“I’m an introvert'”, “I’m a procrastinator” ) or specific: (“I don’t have a college degree,” “I should lose 20 pounds”). You can come back to the self-judgment a little later, and action if/when called for. But getting in touch with the YOU who you really are underneath all those labels can be a very cool thing.