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?

28 thoughts on “Could Your Nickname Be Hurting You?”

    1. Names really do matter. We “buy in” to the implication of the name, often without even realizing it. It is helpful to remember this as a parent as well, and avoid referring to a child by a nickname that could impact their behavior. When my girls were little, I once referred to one of my girls as “the shy one” and another mother kindly suggested I not do this. I think it was good advice!

  1. Such a good point, Seana! I can’t think of any nickname examples right now, but I’ve definitely had clients who badmouth themselves. If they say, for example, “I’m so disorganized!” I make them stop and tell me five ways in which they ARE organized before we proceed. Or five things they DID accomplish when they are down on themselves about not having accomplished anything. Sometimes I make it part of their homework between sessions, to make a list for me, with which we start the next session. It seems to help.
    Hazel Thornton recently posted…Organized for Life….and beyond?!My Profile

    1. What a great idea to make it homework! Our clients can be so hard on themselves. I often tell them that I know they can do a bunch of things I cannot, and to try and celebrate all the little accomplishments. We really can make change, though it is difficult, but believing that we can is the first step!

  2. What an interesting post! It brings a different perspective to “negative self-talk” by focusing on nicknames. And those nicknames can be self-imposed or bestowed upon us. Some are harmless, but as you so eloquently pointed out, some can be down right damaging to our self-esteem. Taking a deeper look and changing the message from degrading to uplifting is a great place to start.

    1. Sometimes nicknames are given by others in haste, without much thought to the long term consequences. I feel badly whenever I hear these, especially when someone has grown up from childhood bearing this name. Names matter, so we need to be proactive in embracing one we feel good about!

    1. It may take a bit of courage to ask someone to stop using a nickname you don’t like, but it is worth it. We all have the right to stand up for ourselves, and sometimes others don’t even realize how a name is making us feel!

    1. Sounds like your mother was very wise! It is funny how critical we can be of ourselves, and how completely useless that habit is. The world is hard enough on us as it is, so don’t make it worse by adding to the negativity, right?

  3. This is great, Seana. I would call myself slow when I was growing up because others (teachers) would say that about me and to me. Until I went to college and realized that slowing down and truly understanding something is not a bad thing. It’s actually a great trait. It may take me longer to learn something but when I have it, I remember it for years. I found that many of my clients would call me years after organizing their home and ask me if I remember where things were in their home. And, 99% of the time, I did. They were so grateful because they couldn’t’ remember even though they were there and they placed the items in the place.

    I totally agree that these negative thoughts about ourselves will make it a self-affirming prophecy and we need to replace them with positive thoughts. I am going to share this with the teens in my life. =)

    1. I love this story, Sabrina. What one person considers a weakness may actually be a strength. I find that many of our traits have both positive and negative implications. I’m so impressed that you remember where things were placed even though people living in the space did not – what an incredible gift!

  4. Being a mom to a 5yo, I’m always reading parenting articles and books. Recently I read something that talked about this concept. The example they used was to not call your kid smart when they get a good grade because it’ll shape their thinking so that if they get a poor grade they’ll think they’re not smart anymore. The suggestion was to commend them for how diligently they studied or how dedicated they were to getting extra help rather than focusing too much on the overall outcome. Avoid labeling as it can be so limiting!

    1. That’s exactly it.. “labeling is limiting.” I love that brief summation. I’ve read this parenting advice as well, and I think it has merit. We don’t often control outcomes, but we can control effort and attitude, so why not encourage our children in a sphere where their choices have the greatest impact, right?

    1. Isn’t that the truth? We treat ourselves much worse than we would ever treat someone else. The way we refer to ourselves is powerful! Never underestimate the power of a name.

  5. Great perspective, Seana! I often would say to my daughters, “would you say to your best friend what you just said about yourself?!” We all need kind words and encouraging words every day. Even if you live alone, you can say kind things out loud to yourself. Also, I just love it when younger children and even younger adults, at church call me “Miss Olive” rather than just “Olive”, It carries a measure of respect, yet friendship. I was also “Miss Olive” to lots of library storytime children. It just makes my heart smile!! Even today, my adult children refer to so many older people this way.
    Olive Wagar recently posted…A Table is for Eating & Sharing & Talking & LaughingMy Profile

    1. I love that you helped your daughters see what they were saying about themselves.. sometimes we need a person who cares about us to point this out. We tend to discount the impact such habits have, but they really are powerful. Taking risks and pursuing changes takes belief in oneself, so we need to do all we can to cultivate confidence. How fun that the name “Miss Olive” evokes such wonderful emotions – that is a treasure!

  6. I love that this post shares the importance of self care from the ways others or we refer to ourselves. Nothing is more important than having a good self concept and this stems from what we or others call us.

  7. I absolutely think it can be empowering! I’ve always been Tammy, which is a nickname but not in the descriptive sense. Long after I had a mouth full of perfect teeth, the neighborhood boys called me “One Tooth Willie” after my brother accidentally knocked two of my teeth out.
    I would get self-conscious even years after I had perfect teeth, if I walked by them!

    1. Those names from childhood can be especially damaging. Even if they are used in jest, they still sting, and we tend to carry them around for a lifetime. As if the pain of having your teeth knocked out wasn’t enough, right?

  8. What a powerful post and such a great reminder of how our words can build us up or tear us down! While many people find self-depracation funny, it impacts them more than they realize. Thank you for the reminder to be gentle with ourselves and that change is possible for each and every one of us.

    1. I agree, Liana. We think we are being funny, but really we are just criticizing ourselves. At some level, we internalize that message and then it becomes a self-fulfilling belief. Be gentle!!

  9. Pingback: Nicknames For Linda • Japan Technology News

  10. I love this post! My nickname is “Marty”, so it’s pretty harmless, but I’ve heard worse. My sister used to call me “Stinky” ( I wasn’t too fond of that one) and I hate to admit it but I did name one of my chinchillas “Fatty Sissy” (because she kept stealing all the food from her siblings).

    1. I love Marty — that one is fun, with no associated implications! Fortunately, most chincillas don’e speak English, so I imagine Fatty Sissy wasn’t offended:) I think it is cool that you owned these…

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