What Labels Do We Wear?

Did you ever read the book “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne? I read it in high school. Although my high school career was many years ago, one of the lessons in this book made a deep and lasting impression on me.

Artwork by Jonathan Alumbaugh

Artwork by Jonathan Alumbaugh

For those not familiar with the story, it is set in seventeenth-century Boston. A woman named Hester Prynne has been found guilty of adultery. Her punishment entails wearing a scarlet “A” on her clothing and enduring the scorn of all the townspeople. In order to avoid as much ridicule as possible, she settles with her infant daughter Pearl in a cottage outside of town.


Hester lives a quiet life of service to her fellow man. She eventually wins many of the people over, as her behavior demonstrates that she has moved beyond the label still affixed to her clothing.

Hester’s Lover

Meanwhile, her lover has never been named. It turns out that he is the local pastor, Arthur Dimmsdale. He has the reputation as a godly man, as is accorded much respect and love. However, he knows that he has sinned, and is ashamed that he does not have the courage to admit it. He becomes ill and gets progressively weaker. No one knows why.

The Power of Labels

Here’s what struck me when I read this book and still haunts me whenever I think about it.

Hester had the letter sewn on her clothing. But she used the Adultery label as a catalyst to change her life. She did not let that label limit her. It had no power over her. She made a life beyond her label.

Arthur, on the other hand, had the letter “A” emblazoned on his heart. No one could see it but him. No one knew of his guilt. But Arthur internalized the label, and it ate away at him. The label had power over him, and made him sick. Eventually he died.

What about us?

What labels have others given us or have we given ourselves? How do they define us? Are they even true? Do they help or hinder us? Are they making us sick?

Have we given labels to our friends, co-workers, or children? Sometimes it is just one comment that sears the heart of a child and implants a label there. I vividly recall one such incident in my own life. I was probably about 10, and very awkward. I had really thick glasses. My pants were always loose around my waist and too short because I was so thin. We went to the eye doctor to get glasses for several of us. As I descended the stairs following my sister and mother, the optician said, “Well, we can see who got the looks in this family.” I assure you that he was not speaking about me. He was talking about my younger sister. That day reinforced the UGLY label that had already taken root in my heart. It took years of reassurance from my husband and a deep realization that my true beauty came from being a child of God to loosen the grip that label had on my heart.

What labels have you taken into your heart that are holding you back or holding you hostage? Here are some possibilities:

F – failure

G – guilty

I – ignorant

L – loser

O – obese

S – silly

Just like Hester, we can stop being defined by our labels. We don’t even have to own them at all. In fact, we can choose new labels: helpful, life-affirming labels. When others attempt to label us, we can use that as a catalyst for growth.

Bringing It Home

Identify some negative labels that you have internalized. Name them specifically. Tell the story behind the labels if you know it. Then replace those labels with another word that starts with the same letter and affirms what is good about you. For example, Failure could become Fabulous. Tell that story. Then believe it and act on it. It doesn’t happen overnight, but eventually those negative labels can loosen their grip and the positive labels take root and grow.

Question: What labels are hidden in your heart and holding you back? What labels do you choose to accept instead? Leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Fascinating article Kathleen. It reminds me of how powerful labels from childhood can be as well as the potential we have to break free.
    Also the Scarlet Letter book illustrates how we cannot his from the truth that will eventually catch up with us.

    • Kathleen Thompson

      Indeed, Sunil. The truth will eventually catch up with us. And, although Arthur Dimmsdale died, he was set spiritually and emotionally free when he finally owned the truth.

  • Kathleen, thanks for the great post. A great way to start my day not only for the way I treat others but, more importantly, the way I treat myself today. Love Sunil’s comment about how powerful labels from childhood impact our lives. So true!