Labels & self-esteem (ii)

The material in this series of 22 x blogs (of which this is number 4) with this similar format were originally published by the now late Ivan Sokolov and his wife Jacquie Pearson under the auspices of The Parent Network.  They are re-published with the permission of the authors for which we are most grateful.

Labels & self-esteem

The deep down feeling that we are worth being loved and valued, comes about through the quality of the relationships we have with the important people in our lives.  While it is impossible to fill these needs for ourselves in a direct way, we can do so indirectly by creating a wholesome climate for the significant others in our lives.  It is an amazing fact that when we help others feel better about themselves, they quite literally can’t help responding in positive ways, which in turn helps us feel better as well.

We can create this wholesome climate by focusing on strengths rather weaknesses, on successes rather than failures. Most of us are expert at finding fault, expecting the worst and dwelling on mistakes.  This can lead us to anticipate failure from others, which creates an atmosphere of tension and mistrust.

Expectation of failure encourages failure.  Just as “Don’t spill the milk” makes it easier to spill the milk, expecting the worst creates increases the possibility of the worst occurring.  Stating things in the positive is therefore of great importance, but going ‘over the top’ even in terms of positivity can have its dangers as well.  If we set up expectations of a positive outcome in someone in an area where the target task or activity is well beyond present capability, the inevitable result is failure, and the result will be a double negative – dealing with he failure itself and dealing with the expectation.

Encouraging someone to do something of which they are clearly incapable (at the moment) is as great a dis-service as  expecting them to fail.  It may be better to focus on the individual skills needed to achieve a particular task, and work our  realistic programme to help acquire them.  For example if someone wants to run a marathon, we may need to encourage them to get fit in manageable stages.  We would not say “You will never run a marathon”.  We may say “I’m sure you do well  next year if you start training now”.

“My father only ever gave me attention when I did something that he approved of.  Because I loved him so much I ended up only doing the things I knew he would like and I hid lots of things about myself from him.  I wanted to be ME and I wanted his love. Because I could’t do both I stopped being me. I wanted to be loved for me.  I wanted to be encouraged and supported in my own hopes and dreams.  He died and I never got what I wanted from him.  Only now, years later, am I beginning to be able to give those things to myself.  If only he had been as happy with me as I was”.


A common danger is comparing the performance of one person to that of another.  For example, we might be tempted to say “Jones manages to get through that pile of paperwork in one day, so can you.”  Sadly, in the real world these situations occur on a daily basis.  Worse still, very often someone’s performance will be deemed unacceptable on the basis of the perceived performance of another.

In industry, where results are all that matter, people are expendable, and their sense of their own worth is considered irrelevant.  This is a short term view, and situations where people find themselves often unfairly compared to others arise due to management problems.  If people are wisely placed in positions which offer them a realistic chance of success, the increase in their sense of self worth will translate itself into increased productivity, which is the what industry wants in the first place.


Praise and Encouragement

Positive labels can be as unhelpful as negative ones.  Praise, like criticism, is a judgement made from outside and imposed on the individual.  It is often used to manipulate behaviour to fit a certain set of external criteria.  The ‘danger’ of constant raise is that it encourages behaviour for external reasons, and discourages  self-referral, or reliance on the self to determine behaviour.  Looking around us, we can see what effect this need for external reward has done to the state of our world.

We all need positive messages about what we do, who we are and what we create.  It is possible to give and receive encouragement without the use of labels.  If we describe behaviour and say what we feel about it, we can give a positive message without the risks involved in labelling.

 Some drawbacks of praising

  1. What you are praising the other person for may not be valued by them at all; it may even be meaningless or annoying to them.
  2. People know that if they can be praised they can also be blamed and, if praise is used a great deal in a relationship, the lack of it can be taken as criticism.
  3. Praise is often used as a form of manipulation to try and get someone to do what you want rather than as a genuine compliment.
  4. Being praised for things that aren’t valuable or important to you can make you feel that the other person doesn’t understand you.
  5.  Being praised can deeply embarrass some people, especially when it is done in front of an audience.
  6.   People can grow to depend on praise and begin to demand it as a way of getting attention and approval.


Children know when they have done something well or badly.  You can see and hear their satisfaction when they have achieved what they have set out to do and also their dissatisfaction when they don’t.  As they grow a bit older they learn that if they do certain things they are “good” and approved of and if they do others they are “bad” and disapproved of. Gradually, because the approval of the people who are bringing them up is so important, they begin to lose their own “knowing” and rely upon their grown ups’ judgements of their behaviour.

Often this process through childhood results in us loosing our sense of knowing altogether and we come to rely completely on others to tell us who we are and what we should be doing.  We may completely bury our  “selves” and constantly check to see if others approve of what we are doing or wanting.  As adults may live out our lives doing what we think others want and never know what our own needs are at all.

The idea that praise may be just another form of labelling may seem a strange contradiction, because we have been taught that praise is ‘good’.  After all, it can’t be bad to say nice things to people, can it?  But, as with many things that started out as good ideas, the act of praising has become misused and misunderstood.

Praise is usually an evaluation of another person and their qualities and abilities; it does not show what you are really thinking and feeling.  The next time you have the urge to praise, stop yourself and ask yourself why. What is your real intention?  Do you really want to say something nice to that person?  Do you want to manipulate them into doing something?  Are you doing it to avoid acknowledging something else that is going on (e.g. jealousy, guilt)?


So what do we do instead?

Rather than using praise that judges, try using praise that describes.  So, instead of saying things like: “You are wonderful, good, lovely, brilliant or whatever (which tell the person nothing about why you think so), be explicit about what it is you like and how it makes you feel.

Here are some examples:-

 1.   I really like the way you help me wash up.

 2.   When you rub my neck like that I feel really cared for.

 3.   That cooker you have just cleaned looks spotless.

4.   I am really happy with the earrings you bought me.

Descriptive praise usually includes the following:-

  • An accurate description of the work, behaviour or accomplishment of the other.
  • How you feel about or value what you have described.
  •  And, if there is one, the positive effect that the behaviour has had on you.


Changing from judging to describing takes time to learn because praising in the old way is such a habit in our society.  Be patient with yourself while you are learning this new skill.


Praising in this new way quite often brings to the surface thoughts and feelings that never get expressed when the other kind of praise is used.  It lets the other person know more about you and the positive effect that they and their behaviour have on you.


 A 35-year-old doctor, with blonde hair, glasses and two children, spent six months training to run the New York Marathon. The great day arrived and he finished 999th out of 1000. He returned to the hospital on Monday to be asked by his fellow doctors where he came in the race, so he told them “Ah! You only beat one person,” they exclaimed. “But that doesn’t matter, I was best in my class,” he replied. They couldn’t understand. “What class was that?” they asked.  He explained:- “That was the class for 35-year-old doctors with blonde hair, glasses and two children.  I did my best.  I can’t compare myself with other people because then I am always going to lose – and I will probably get ulcers into the bargain.  I gave 100 per cent and that is all I can ever do.  I can only try to be the best person, runner and doctor that I can be”.



 Many adults and children have built large defensive walls around themselves and they ward off positive comments that they receive saying things like: “Oh, it’s nothing” or “I didn’t do anything really”.  These people are pushing away the very thing that they most need, positive attention, because they don’t trust or are embarrassed by the form in which the comments are made.

If someone responds that way to something you say, try repeating what you originally said in a descriptive rather than a judging way.  This may break through their defensive wall, because it is hard for them to dismiss as “nothing” something you have said about how  feel.  They may be able to accept and take in your words and then they may really glow!

Remember to use your voice, your body, and your heart, when you do it.

We feel good when others express their good feelings about us, and when we can accept our self-worth, we don’t ever need others to tell us that we are okay or to compare our achievements to theirs.


There are many things that will help you in Sue’s book “Peace of Mind – Pathways to Successful Living”.  Download chapter 1 free now!

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