Could Your Nickname Be Hurting You?

Names are funny things. In simplest terms, names are simply a collection of letters (or sounds) that are used for identification, providing basic pieces of information, such as:

  • Family of origin
  • Family by marriage
  • Placement the family line (e.g. John Smith Jr.)
  • Religious affiliation

Our name is the primary way we have of stating who we are. Some people have one name, while others have many.

Nicknames tend to carry a more personal significance than given names, finding their origin from a variety of sources, including:

  • Physical appearance (e.g. “Red” or “Shorty”)
  • A family story (e.g. “My little sister couldn’t pronounce my name”)
  • A personality trait (e.g. “Tiger” or “Bulldog”)
  • The need for clarity (e.g. “Bob” vs. “BJ” vs. “Robert”)
  • Dislike of a given name (e.g. “TJ” vs. “Thomas Joseph”)

In general, nicknames have positive and endearing connotations. However, this isn’t always the case. In fact, sometimes we adopt a nickname or self-moniker to cope with a bad feeling we have about ourselves.

Recently, I was chatting with a client about a new fast food store opening nearby. She said she would like to go, but she shouldn’t because she is a “fatty.” I winced. I’d heard her use this nickname before. In fact, I’ve heard clients refer to themselves by a variety of derogatory nicknames, including “Lazybones,” “Packrat,” “the Late One” and “Stupid.” When I hear someone refer to him/herself in this way, I know that they are struggling with an area of insecurity. In some cases, a cruel parent or bully imposed the hurtful nickname, while in other cases it is the manifestation of self-recrimination.

Unfortunately, adopting a deprecating nickname can actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We internalize the shortcoming as part of our identity, rather than seeing it as a habit or trait that can be changed.

If you have fallen into the habit of labeling yourself with a pejorative nickname, here are a few thoughts I’d like you to consider:

No voice is louder in your head than your own.

If you repeatedly refer to yourself by a disparaging name, you are subtly weakening your motivation to behave differently. With the right support, we can learn new skills and develop new abilities. However, if we believe a behavior is part of our character, we are unlikely to even attempt a change.

Everyone has areas of both strength and weakness.

Typically, we undervalue what we do well, and compare our struggles with others’ strong points. The “Facebook era” has exacerbated this temptation, leading us to believe that we are somehow “less” than our peers. It is important to remember that you do many things well, some of which may be unrecognized by society but are nonetheless of incredible importance. I’ve never seen an awards show for “The Best Listener of the Year,” but I certainly know that a good listener is a priceless treasure.

You are enough just the way you are.

Your value and worth have nothing to do with the order in your home, the clothing you wear, the success of your children, the salary you earn, the title you hold, the number of organizations that you volunteer for, the number of miles you can run or anything of the like. You may desire to grow or perform better in a certain aspect of your life, and that is terrific. I am a firm believer in lifelong learning. At the same time, performance does not equal worth.

You can change your name.

Just as legal names can be changed, so can nicknames. In fact, the easiest name to change is the one by which you call yourself. You can choose a new nickname, one you want to be known by. Print the new name out and hang it up where you can see it multiple times a day. If appropriate, ask others to stop using an undesirable nickname, and audibly refer to yourself by the name that captures the person you want to be. Over time, you may find yourself changing your behavior to align with the new name.

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Have you ever had a hurtful nickname? Do you believe a new nickname could be empowering?