Why Positive Self-Labels Can Damage Confidence

Why Positive Self-Labels Can Damage Confidence

Carla was always a high performer in academics, both at school and at uni.

All her life, people told her she was “naturally gifted”. A “budding genius”.

And she believed them.

Then, when she began her working career as an Engineer in a Fortune 500 company, her self-belief took a huge hit. Now surrounded by some of the most intelligent and accomplished people in the country, Carla went from being the best performer among her peers to being an ordinary new-comer.

No longer “the best”,  Carla began questioning her intellect and potential for success completely. Her enthusiasm plummeted and her anxiety increased.

Carla’s performance suffered as a result, acting to strengthen her self-doubt.

Unfortunately, Carla’s experience is not uncommon.

Most of us are raised in an environment in which labels are in abundance. We may have been a “good boy”, a “naughty girl”, “intelligent”, “stupid”, “annoying”, “passive” or “brilliant”.

Our subconscious mind’s job is to simplify and file away information…

And it likes to accept these labels as unmovable truths.

“Unmovable truths” cause 2 illusions.

Illusion 1

“Unmovable truths” are based on fact.

They aren’t fact, they are judgements – our own or others’ opinions.

These labels, that can have such a large impact on our lives, are often given mindlessly. Without much consideration about whether it’s even a true opinion!

For example, consider a parent’s response to a 3 year-old hitting his younger sister. He’s told “Naughty boy”. Really what the parent means is “Please be gentle with your sister.”

This 3 year-old now files this information away. “I am a naughty boy.”

So what effect might this have on the child’s future behaviour? And what about his self-esteem?

Illusion 2

“Unmovable truths” can’t be changed.

This belief denies the important role of effort in performance.

If I think of myself as being “useless at art” and if I believe that this is a fixed truth, then I’m likely to feel discouraged from trying. After all, what’s the point? It’s still going to be terrible.

As any artist knows, developing artistic ability (or any ability for that matter) requires practice – lots of it. If I haven’t put in the work, then of course I’m not going to produce great art!

The belief that our qualities are fixed traits affects both effort and performance.

This is what psychologist, Carol Dweck refers to as a “fixed mindset”.

People with a fixed mindset believe that talent alone creates success. This overlooks the importance of effort, practice and experience in performance.

Contrast this to a “growth mindset”, where people believe dedication and hard work is crucial in developing our abilities.

A fixed mind-set is exactly what was causing Carla’s self-confidence to plummet in the opening story of this article. Carla had attributed all of her previous successes to her “natural ability”. When, all of a sudden, she found herself in an environment where her performance was inferior to others, she felt powerless to change her situation.

Once her intelligence was no longer her competitive advantage, her self-esteem began to crumble around her.

Thankfully, Carla’s mentor recognised her withdrawing behaviour and they began working on her self-limiting beliefs. Together, they set Carla challenging, but achievable goals and celebrated each success.

Because Carla focused on the process and recognising her progress, she was able to switch from a fixed to a growth mindset. Cultivating her strengths through effort, she was able to re-build her self-confidence and both her performance and life satisfaction sky-rocketed.

Carla’s experience demonstrates that even positive labels can be self-defeating with a fixed mindset.

By becoming aware of the lables we use to describe ourselves, we are better able to challenge self-limiting beliefs. If you avoid using labels to describe yourself and your performance, and instead emphasize and reward effort, you may find potential blossom in areas you never expected!


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