Why Negative Labels Don’t Motivate


Have you ever done something to lose someone’s trust, and worked really hard to regain it? You want so much to have them see you in a positive way again, and so you have to prove yourself. It’s not enough just to be trustworthy, you have to really go out of your way to demonstrate that you are truly a person who can be counted on.

Have you ever got to the point where you realize that it’s a lost cause? That no matter what you do, that mistake that you made is always going to be there between you. No matter how much you wish you could change that person’s view of you, you can’t. They will just always see you as someone who cannot be trusted.

It’s deflating. Why even bother trying. If they are going to always see you as a bad person, you may as well stop working so hard. If that’s who they think you are anyways, then you may as well be that person they already believe you are.

I’ve heard this a million times. She thinks I’m a cheater, so I may as well cheat. He thinks I’m lazy, so what’s the point of putting in a ton of effort? They don’t think I’m capable of being successful, so I’m going to give up trying.

It’s funny how we sometimes fool ourselves that if we confront a person on their behaviour by naming it with a negative, that this will somehow motivate them. We tell that child who took another child’s toy that they are a thief. We tell that teen that snuck out of the house to see their boyfriend that she is irresponsible.

But those labels can actually do the opposite. If you believe I’m a bad person, what’s the point in trying?

It was an Education Assistant who taught me this. She was working with a student that had been labelled as violent. Her job was to supervise his every move to ensure everyone’s safety. He also had some learning challenges, so they often did some life skills programming outside of the regular classroom.

It was a classmate’s birthday, and the two of them were in charge of baking a cake for him. As the class sang Happy Birthday, the student brought in the cake, while the EA juggled plates and cutlery. When he set down the cake, she handed him a knife to start cutting it up.

He looked at her in wonder, and said, “You are giving me a knife?”

He knew the label that was attached to him. And he was shocked that she had slipped up in this way. Nobody ever trusted him with knives.

But it wasn’t a slip up. I think she was actually quite brilliant. She calmly looked at him and said, “Is there any reason I would need to be concerned about giving you a knife?”

He considered. He said “No”, and proceeded to cut the cake.

It was only a couple of seconds of an exchange, but I think this moment was incredibly important.

For once, there was hope.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we go around giving knives to dangerous kids. But this EA and student had worked together a long time, and built a solid relationship. She knew him well. And she felt confident that there was nothing to be worried about in this situation.

And the gift she gave him that day was the knowledge that someone saw good in him. And because of that, there was a reason to keep trying.


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