ID-10080657My favorite part of junior high school, was the walk to school on the very first day. My friend, Judy, and I talked nonstop about the exciting life we were about to start. We weren’t little kids anymore. We were thirteen with so much to look forward to – freedom, adventure … and boys.

As it turned out, my social life made taking biology and physics in the same semester, a breeze. I entered junior high with braces, glasses, and something brand new – acne. My best friend had a clear complexion, a bit of a weight problem and a keen fascination for science fiction. Let’s just say the boys weren’t beating down our doors.

Reality was a let-down. I scored high on tests, but low on the popularity meter, and I didn’t know how to cope. The only way I knew how to deal with disappointment was to go inward.   I became quiet and timid. The more I stayed to myself, the more I taught the kids around me to expect me to be shy.

My uncle noticed my new behavior and said, “If you keep on being so quiet, you’ll never have any friends.” He meant to help, but his words hurt. I hurt, and I didn’t know what to do about it.

My few attempts to try a different role fell flat. Like the time I volunteered to make paper flowers for the school float.

I was sitting at a table with the cool kids. That was promising. Then, Dan, the most popular boy in school said to everyone, “Did you hear? Cal is going out with Judy.”

He was talking about my best friend! She and Cal met during a field trip, and held hands that day. Just before I chimed in, he said, “What a joke. He must be crazy.” Everyone laughed.

How could they all laugh about my best friend, and in front of me? I wanted to scream, but it was too out of character for me, so I didn’t. “I’m invisible,” I concluded, and I felt my heart break a little. In that moment I accepted my role and lowered my expectations.

The summer before high school, it dawned on me – I had a chance to break free. Four junior high schools fed into my new high school. Most of the kids wouldn’t know me. They would have no expectations of how I was supposed to be. I finally had a chance to be seen differently, and I was going to take it.

I could be quiet if I wanted to, but maybe I could be outgoing too. I traded in my glasses for contact lenses, started seeing a dermatologist, and since they were still attached, I embraced my braces.

Taking a bold move, I walked into the student activities office on the first week of school, and signed up to run for class treasurer. The teacher who handed me the form said, “Good luck.” He said it as if I had a chance of winning. Did I?

I had to collect 50 signatures to run for student council, but I didn’t know 50 kids. Ugh! Why was I doing this to myself?

My moment of truth came in Spanish class. The only girl I knew was Sue, and she hated me. She had been typecast as a mean girl in junior high, with no tolerance for shy kids. I looked down at my blank student council petition, took a deep breath, felt the fear, and asked her anyway. “Sue, would you please sign my petition so I can run for student council?” She had pin straight blond hair and icy blue eyes. It startled me because until that moment, I hadn’t looked directly in her eyes before.

I braced myself for a no, but she said yes, and the ice melted. She even smiled. Maybe she was breaking free from her old role too. Before lunch, my petition had all 50 signatures on it. I was doing it. I was going to run for office. Wow!

I turned in my form. Then, soon after, something crazy happened. I became class treasurer. Not because I was voted in, but because no one else ran against me. I didn’t expect to win, I just wanted the kids to see my name on the ballot, which in my mind, would break me out of the “shy kid” role forever. Shy kids don’t run for student council.

The new officers were named on the morning announcements. Everyone in my classroom congratulated me. Then, the most shocking thing happened   something that shattered my old way of thinking forever. A group of popular kids from my junior high were walking down the hall in my direction. Julie, the ring leader, a gorgeous replica of a Barbie doll said, “Congratulations Marilyn.” So did the others. Their eyes were shining with genuine goodwill.

They knew my name. I couldn’t get over it. Then I woke up, of course they knew my name.  I wasn’t really invisible in junior high, it just felt that way. Back then, I behaved the way I thought an invisible person was supposed to behave. Now that belief was gone, I was free to express myself differently.

My next insight came from Cindy. She had stellar people skills and tons of school spirit. She said, “Marilyn, I’m proud of you. I would have run for class treasurer, but I was too afraid of losing.”

I knew a lot about feeling afraid, but I didn’t realize someone like Cindy felt that way too.  Since I was already at the bottom, I had everything to gain and nothing to lose by running for class council. What a surprise to realize that some kids were so afraid of losing their wrung on the social ladder, they didn’t even try. No wonder I ran unopposed. In that moment I took Cindy, Julie and all the others off their pedestals, and realized that fear and doubt aren’t unique to me. It’s a normal part of being human.

Things changed for me from then on. I was visible. I didn’t hang with the popular crowd, but I had friends – great friends, and felt happier and more self-expressed.

It’s human nature to notice a pattern and label it. Act a certain way long enough and you get labeled. People look for behaviors they expect to see, and disregard anything that doesn’t match.

When you see Donald Trump on TV, you expect the expensive suit, comb over, and bold opinions. Watch a comedian like Robin Williams and you’ll find yourself smiling before he says something funny. Your expectations of certain celebrities can typecast them, making it hard to be taken seriously in other types of roles.

Are you locked in a role? Are you labeled the bulldozer? The doormat? The killjoy? Are you feeling trapped by other people’s expectations or your own? The behaviors you expect from yourself will influence you far more than anyone else’s expectations.

Here are some tips to help you let go of limiting labels, step out of your role, and be who you really are:

Labels are inaccurate. You may or may not have behaved in a way that got you the label. Though, either way, it’s not who you are.

Labels define your expectations. Your own expectations can block you from branching out beyond your label. Recognize the label, and you free yourself past it.

It’s challenging to break free from a label. Once you’re known as pushy, distant, or sensitive, others tend to keep the label in place. To break free often involves a period of confusion or discomfort.

Good labels are limiting too.  The “responsible” person feels pressure to perform and never mess up. The “perky” person feels pressure to always be upbeat, even when she doesn’t feel that way. The “nice” person may be reluctant to stand up for himself for fear of losing a positive label.

Labels stick. Some last a lifetime. We use labels like stupid, lazy and careless as weapons against ourselves, damaging self-esteem and limiting our full potential.

Labeling is like looking at someone through a filtered lens. If you expect to see a negative behavior, you’ll find evidence to support your expectations. If you take the filter off and start looking for something more, you start to see that too.

What’s your best tip for shifting out of a role that no longer served you?

This article by Marilyn Suttle is also available in an adapted form at 

photo credit: njaj at