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Labeling yourself has risks. Give yourself space to change and grow.

Recently, after I gave a virtual presentation on my book Indistractable, a listener wrote something in the Zoom chat that drove me bonkers: “This is great but wouldn’t work for me. I’m a Gemini.”

Insert face plant.

You’d be surprised how often I hear this rationalization or something like it. Sure, only hard-core astrology followers would find any justification in that listener’s statement—but the sad thing is, to some degree, we all use a form of it. Most people hawk “This just wouldn’t work for me” as a valid explanation for not trying something new.

Ironically, the Zoom listener is right. If she thinks she’s incapable, she’ll prove it correct—whether it has anything to do with the stars and moon or not. Her inflexible self-identification denies her the chance to improve her life.

Another rationalization I frequently hear from people is, “I’m so OCD.” However, that’s both grammatically and literally wrong—and, if they haven’t been diagnosed by a medical professional, just plain wrong—because a person can’t be a disorder; it’s incredibly self-limiting.

That’s why we should stop defining ourselves as fixed identities, nouns, and instead start describing ourselves using verbs.

Language Shapes Our Reality

Words are powerful. Linguistic research shows that language shapes people and culture; it can also give us insight into ourselves and our behavior.

For example, research about children and the labels we ascribe to them shows just how influential words can be. Labeling not only affects how children see themselves and how they are treated but also limits their potential.

In a well-known study, researchers Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsen focused on teacher expectations and students’ intellectual development. They had all students in the same elementary school take a standard IQ test. Then Rosenthal and Jacobsen randomly selected a group of students, regardless of their test results, and told teachers the group would show “dramatic intellectual growth.” Eight months later, those students scored significantly higher on an IQ test.

The study concluded that teachers’ positive perception of students correlated to those students’ high performance on intellectual and academic tests. In contrast, teachers’ negative perceptions would lead to low performance from students. The labels the children received became a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

That’s because language shapes expectations, which shape our reality. If we have experiences that lead us to label ourselves in specific ways during our life, then we are likely to stick with those labels and the behaviors that go with them.

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Verbs Allow You to Evolve

Using verbs to identify ourselves is an effective method for releasing “trapped priors”—a term in psychology for a perception of reality that’s tainted, or trapped, by past experiences.

Verbs are action words well suited to portray transient behaviors that can and do change. They don’t lay claim to our entire identity, but they acknowledge that we are people first and foremost, not whatever a singular noun may say we are.

So, instead of saying, “I am [insert overly simple noun here],” we should say, “I am someone who [verb].” You are not a procrastinator. You are a person who often procrastinates (but can stop if you want!).

For years, experts in addiction research have known the detrimental consequences of identifying as nouns, and they are phasing out calling people “addicts.” Instead, they call them “people who are struggling with impulse control” because it reduces stigma, separates people from their diagnosis, and reframes the addiction in their mind as something they can overcome rather than who they are.

By focusing on our behaviors, not fixed characteristics, we can release harmful perceptions of ourselves that hold us back from trying methods that might improve our lives—like those that can help us achieve the critical skill of being Indistractable.