In this post you’re going to learn how to let go of self-limiting beliefs, how to stop labeling yourself, how to stop getting stuck hating yourself, and how to find a healthy sense of self.
“You are not fat. You have fat. You also have fingernails. You are not a fingernail.” -Unknown Author
Have you ever seen a cattle guard? Where I live out in the west, there are open-range cattle. That means that they are fenced into huge areas, and the road crosses through their range. When a road crosses a fence line, there are a couple options to let the cars through but keep the cattle in.
The first option is a gate. This keeps the fence continuous, but the driver has to stop their car, get out, open the gate, get back in their car, drive through the gate, stop their car, get out of their car, close the gate, and get back driving.
This is kind of a pain for drivers, but it can be a bigger pain for ranchers, because some drivers get lazy. They don’t close the gate and the cattle get out, get lost, get hit by cars, etc.
So option number two is a cattle guard. These are deep concrete pits built into the fence line, and they are crossed by heavy steel beams that are about four inches wide and four inches apart.
A car can easily drive over these at low speed, and there’s no need to open or close a gate. As for cattle, they can’t walk across them; they’d break their legs. So they just avoid them and stay in their area.
So sometimes out on these desert roads and ranches, they’ll simply paint a cattle guard on a solid piece of asphalt.
The cows, who don’t have incredible vision and have already been conditioned by real cattle guards, are scared of it. They won’t walk across it. They believe they can’t walk across it or they’ll break their leg and die.
These cows have set limits on themselves by labeling these parallel lines as dangerous, even when they are just painted and pose no physical threat. But that limitation is all in their mind.
The labels you give yourself, whether you call yourself broken, stupid, bad, or even if you give yourself positive labels, these are just like painted-on cattle guards — they are self-imposed limits. And today, I’m going to teach you one way to let go of them.
You Are Not Your Thoughts, Emotions, or Actions
One of the most crucial skills that one can develop is the ability to separate themselves from their actions, thoughts, and emotions.
One of the most common traits of people who have mental illness is that they see themselves falsely. They often believe thoughts like “ I am such a failure” or “ I’m a bad person” or “I’m so weak” or, occasionally, “Everyone else is an idiot. I’m the only one who knows how to do things right!”
For some reason, thinking like this comes naturally. Parents slip into it too, saying “Have you been a bad boy?” instead of saying “ Did you do something bad?”
Some people try to counteract this way of thinking with all-out acceptance of every behavior, trying to convince people that no matter what they do they are fine and shouldn’t feel guilty. I haven’t ever really seen that work; the sense of guilt remains and unhealthy behaviors still lead to negative results.
Choosing Who We Are vs. Finding Who We Are
There’s this weird idea out there that to be happy we need to “find out who we are” or “be true to yourself.” I think it’s been the theme of every Disney movie for the last 10 years.
A lot of people get confused by this, feeling a sense of predestination, that deep inside them they are either a bad person or a good person, and that when they find out what’s inside of them, then they will have to be that person.
This idea is often connected with thoughts like “I’m just an angry person” or “I’m just rebellious; that’s who I am.” When we think of ourselves in this way, we tend to limit our free will and our ability to create the life we find worthwhile.
The reality is that we have many deep and conflicting natures. Drives toward love and service and drives toward selfishness. Drives toward peacemaking and drives toward anger. We have seeds of all types of inclinations inside of us. The question is, which ones will we water?
I can choose to invest in the angry, self-protective instincts that I have, or I can choose to invest in the loving and peacemaking instincts that I have.
ACT is all about creating flexibility. One of the ways it does this is through exercises that help you let go of rigid labels and create a sense of choice about who you are.
3 Senses of Self
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, there are at least three senses of self: the conceptualized self, self as experiencer, and self as observer.
The conceptualized self is the one you are probably most familiar with. This is where all your labels come from: “I’m cute,” “I’m ugly,” “I’m smart,” “I’m female,” “I’m depressed,” “I’m anxious,” “I’m kind,” etc. etc.
It’s really normal to categorize yourself, but this labeling is also the most likely way to trap yourself. These labels provide you with reasons for why you do the things you do, which can be comforting but also suffocating. The labels we give ourselves lead to more of the same.
Have you ever noticed how if someone believes themself to be the victim, they somehow keep ending up (in their mind or in reality) in more situations where they are victimized? Or if someone believes that they are capable and successful, they seem to keep having one success after another?
But if we aren’t aware of these labels, they can be quite limiting. So for example, when many people over-identify with a diagnosis like depression or anxiety, they create a story for themselves that this is who they are and there’s little they can do about it, leading to more of the same.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t some truth in any of these labels. It’s just that when we cling too tightly to our stories, they limit our ability to see other aspects of the truth too.
So for example, with depression or anxiety, there is a biological aspect to them — but that’s not the only side of them. Most of us have immense potential for growth, for learning, for change. Neuroplasticity gives us room to change our brains. No one knows what our full potential is. But when we cling too closely to any label, that can limit us.
So I tend to be very cautious about what stories about myself that I believe. I try to stick to self as experiencer as often as I can. “I am experiencing anxiety, but that’s not who I am” or “I am experiencing sadness” or “I am struggling right now with depression” and “What else can I learn?”
Self as Observer Exercise
Here’s an activity straight out of Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life. I want you to look at the wall for about 10 seconds. Just look at the wall. Notice that you are not the wall. You are the one looking at the wall.
If you have thoughts pop up, like “What’s the point?” or “This is stupid,” just thank your mind for those thoughts, and bring your attention back to looking at the wall.
Now do it with another object. Look at some other object in the room. Look at it for 10 seconds. Now can you notice that you’re the one looking? There’s a part of you observing yourself. Look at this object. If you didn’t get a sense for it yet, try this exercise with 5 to 10 objects. Just look at it, then notice that you’re looking at it.
This ability to notice what you are experiencing is called self as observer.
Self as experiencer says “I’m the person who’s having these experiences, but I don’t have to decide that they are my identity.” My experience is separate from my identity. I’m the place where these thoughts and feelings are happening, but I am not my thoughts or feelings. I’m just the one experiencing them.”
For some people, giving themselves the label “I am depressed” may be helpful for a while, helping them not beat themselves up for feeling the way they do, helping them be more compassionate towards themselves or others, and letting go of judgment.
But as they keep working and learning and growing, they may come to a time when the next step for growth requires them to let go of that label and choose a different one — “I experience sadness and struggle with energy, but it’s not who I am” — and this new concept of self frees them to learn new skills.
Self as observer is one step further back: you notice yourself as the one who is having experiences.
Self as experiencer and self as observer allow us to step back from our labels and our self-limiting stories and choose what we value the most and how to act on it. Basically, you ask yourself “Is this label helpful to me?”
My Personal Identity
There are some areas that I do choose to call my identity, but I’m very selective. And I step back into self as observer to try to get the big picture, to see all my options, before I decide on any labels to give myself.
The two that I generally stick with are (1) I am a daughter of God and (2) I can learn and grow.
These two give me a lot of space to grow and a solid foundation to determine my actions.
Unhelpful Ways of Labeling Yourself
There are some really common ways of labeling yourself that are like those painted-on cattle guards. They feel like reality, but they aren’t; they’re just words or beliefs you have.
1. I’m Just a Bad Person
One of the most common self-limiting beliefs that I see among my clients is “I’m just a bad person.” This belief can become completely disabling. It’s a thought. Is it a helpful one? Does it help you be better? If I think “I’m a bad mom,” does that help me be a better one? Usually not.
If you tell yourself that you are a bad person because of the things you have done, that means that you are inherently good because you want to be good.
Start listening to that voice and acting on it. Find a different set of words that are more helpful. “I made a bad choice as a mom. I need to learn more skills to be a better mom. Lots of parents struggle with parenting. Keep trying to improve, and be kind to yourself, Emma.”
2. I’m Broken
Here’s another label that’s not helpful: “I am a broken person.” It sounds like “I’m defective,” “I’m broken,” “I’m a failure at relationships,” “I’m broken because of what happened to me.” Believing this label leads to depression. It excuses not trying and giving up.
You may think these things, but the self as experiencer will notice these as thoughts. It’s just a bunch of words passing through your head. You may ask “Is it helpful to think this way?” or “Do I want to act on these words or a different set of words? What words will be helpful to me?”
What I believe the more truthful and helpful antidote is is to replace the self-label with a behavior label. So instead of saying “ I’m such an idiot” say “I messed that up.” Try to be as specific as possible. Avoid all-or-nothing thinking, exaggerations, filtering, or other distortions.
Even Positive Labels Can Be Harmful
How we define ourselves creates our power to act. Most of the labels that we give ourselves take away either our power to act or our power to grow. Even a “positive” self-concept like “I’m smart” can be limiting if we rely on that for our self-confidence. In order to preserve that way of thinking, we will avoid situations where we don’t feel competent — the same situations that help us grow in knowledge.
“I’m better than” can lead to comparison, putting others down or competing with them to feel a sense of worth. This leads to contention and isolation instead of love and connection. It might sound like “Everyone else is the problem. My spouse is the problem. My child is the problem. I’m the hard-worker, the right one, the good one.”
“I’m kind” can lead to not setting boundaries.
Instead, focus on ways of seeing ourselves that allow us to be agents who can act. We do this by separating ourselves from our actions and focusing our actions on our valued direction instead of our traits.
It’s better to say “I choose to be kind” instead of “I’m a kind person.” Saying “I’m a kind person” can lead to rigidity, not setting boundaries, or even using that statement as a way to justify bad behavior.
What kind of labels have you given yourself? Which of them get in the way of emotional health, behavioral change, or relationships?
Letting Go of Our Labels
Of course, letting go of your labels isn’t as simple as deciding you don’t want them anymore. The following steps will help:
- Notice how you label yourself. Write these labels down.
- Try to step back from them. Practice watching your thoughts with the Leaves on a Stream or other cognitive defusion activity.
- Explore your labels. Check them for rigidity, falsehoods, or exaggerations. Ask yourself which ones are helpful and which ones may get in the way of growth or change.
- Highlight the labels that serve as excuses for you, like “I’m just bad at math.”
- Consider replacing some labels with a growth mindset (“I haven’t figured this out yet”).
- It may be helpful to get the perspective of a safe friend or therapist so you can see your labels more clearly.
- Prayer: When we get in contact with a higher power and ask the question “How do you see me?” we can often experience a more truthful view of ourselves.
- Let go of false sources of self-worth. These will always let you down.
- Spend less time obsessing about your identity and your ego and more energy focusing on your values. When you confront a trait that you don’t like in yourself, ask yourself “What value does this represent?” and focus your energy on living that value instead of beating yourself up. For example, if you get so busy and wrapped up in thinking about yourself as a hard worker, you’re not focusing on the work. If you’re spending time bemoaning that you’re a mean person, you won’t have time to be kind to others. Focus on your work. Focus on being kind. Don’t get stuck on how you feel about yourself.
This is a complicated topic — if not cognitively, it can be difficult in practice to let go of our self-labels, the words we decide form our identity.
But when you learn to notice those labels, when you create a little space between yourself and your thoughts about yourself, you free yourself to choose which of these ways of seeing yourself is helpful. And that frees you to live a life you value.
It’s all about the direction you’re going in, the process of living a good life, instead of the labels you give yourself along the way.
By lining our actions up with our values we can create a fulfilling life, feel good about ourselves, and have a life full of purpose, meaning, and joy.