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No labels

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.   —Maya Angelou’

“Say something nice or don’t say anything at all.”

Chances are good you heard those words sometime in your life— and even better that you are following them. Or are you? How aware are you of the words you choose when you are speaking with someone? Or the impact on a person you might not intend it to have?

Let me give you one example. When we are referring to a person who did not continue studies beyond high school, we commonly say, “He (or she) is not educated.” Yet, synonyms for the word educated include informed, knowledgeable, enlightened, literate, and well-read. “She is not enlightened.” “He is not knowledgeable.” “He is not educated.” The choice of words with this simple statement places a label on a person that infers, “They’re not smart,” or even “They’re dumb.” We know this is not true. Some of the most successful people we know didn’t graduate college: Larry Ellison (Oracle), Steve Jobs, Ted Turner, and Michael Dell, to name just a few. Would you say that any of these are not knowledgeable? Not enlightened?

Learning transcends formal academic progression. It is a relentless curiosity that breeds the desire to grow in knowledge and wisdom and perpetuate the expansion of the mind. If one cannot get that in the classroom, they can still obtain it throughout their lives.

A better phrasing might be “He did not continue his education beyond high school.”

All this said, today’s message is for the person who is the recipient of the rampant carelessness that exists with communication. If you have been in this position, here are some things to think about:
  • You cannot choose how a message reaches you—only how you respond.
  • When a person makes an unexpected and offensive remark, it is commonly based on something they feel about themselves and are projecting onto another. This is not about you; it is about them.
  • Next, no earthly being has the right to judge you. Period. No exception.

So now you’ve been triggered. Someone has stated something that feels offensive to you, and THIS is where the choice in how you respond really begins.

  • You may choose to respond in like manner, saying or displaying through action, something offensive in return.
  • You may even decide to publish your reactive response in an online forum to your social media contacts. Here you may find validation, your contacts can add their own insults, thus creating a cycle of negativity that hangs like a toxic cloud around all involved.
  • Recognize that being wrongly labeled has no power over you unless you give it the power. This usually happens when you believe there is truth to the words.
  • Try to pay attention to your emotional response and use the awareness of it to determine what exists within you that would give the label you just received a morsel of validity.
  • See this as a chance to learn, grow, and gain insight into an area within you that might need addressing. It is often in those adverse moments that the greatest lessons come.
  • If the label doesn’t resonate with you, then the most effective tactic is to ignore it altogether—swat it away like a pesky gnat. You see, there is still timeless truth to the saying, ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.’
  • You may also use it as a motivator to do or say something affirmative, like teaching others how to deal with a similar issue. This converts the negative into a positive.

As the late, great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” The only way to cancel out negative energy is to convert it to positive, or the cycle will continue endlessly.

Keep the positive thoughts flowing, and that label will not stick.

You will be amazed at how freeing it is to know that the choice is within your own control, and the power is not theirs.

In closing, never forget that in all parts of your life, in every thought you have, in every interaction, you are the chooser. Don’t let life’s choices come from the voices around you, let them come from the light and love within you — be a warrior for that light. Reject the label, make the choice that converts the negative to a positive, and witness the empowerment within you expand.


For more than 25 years, Keryl Oliver has worked with clients to help them define their goals and reach them. Her practice is based on positive psychology, with the belief that it is happiness that creates success, and not vice versa.

She may be reached at

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