Stressed & struggling? How to retrain your mind with labeling

by Lydia Johnson, M.S. (Certified Holistic Career Coach)

man in black shirt sitting on brown grass during daytime

I attended my very first silent meditation retreat this past weekend.

Nestled deep in the North Carolina woods, I bid farewell to my phone and conversation alongside twenty other LGBTQ+ folks.

The goal? Practice staying fully present in the current moment while treating ourselves with compassion and grace.

One full day later, after many silent meditation sessions, I was experiencing something remarkable: A meta-like mental state where I could distinctly observe every thought that meandered through my mind.

It was almost as if I had become a detached spectator, stationed far above my thoughts and enjoying a panoramic view of my own mental landscape. Like an air traffic controller, I would acknowledge my thoughts and then gently send them on their way.

Unfortunately, this experience was short-lived.

Fast forward another few hours, and I was kneeling in front of the toilet in the bathroom of the group lodge, losing a brutal battle with the worst stomach bug I’ve ever experienced.

I would NOT recommend getting sick at a silent meditation retreat while sharing a room with a stranger and a lockless bathroom with a dozen other people. Not pleasant folks, not pleasant.

Nearly a week later, the nausea has passed…

But my meta-mental state has not, and I’m still reaping the benefits of this heightened awareness of my inner dialogue.

Psychologists and meditation practitioners often call this phenomenon “labeling.”

Labeling is an incredibly powerful tool that can heighten your self-awareness, empower you to make more conscious decisions, and reduce the intensity of negative emotions.

This tool isn’t just helpful on a meditation pillow or therapist’s couch.

It can help make your work life better as well. Here’s how.

Mentally Detaching from Work Using Labeling

Let’s say you suffer from something many of my career coaching clients complain of…

Constantly thinking about your work, even when you’re not supposed to be working.

You’re practicing for a big meeting in the shower.

You’re writing emails when you should be drifting off to dreamland.

You’re driving on autopilot while your mind worries about an upcoming deadline.

Labeling can help you notice when you’re having work-related thoughts and then allow you to shift your focus back to your present reality.

By the way, this will make you happier– research has shown that being present increases your happiness, regardless of the task you’re doing (Killingsworth, 2010).

I practiced labeling work-related thoughts myself at the retreat, noticing I was unconsciously entering into work mode when I was supposed to be meditating or paying attention to the yummy vegan food.

It’s quite simple in theory (but it takes practice to implement in real life):

  • Whenever a work-related thought pops up, label it “Working.”
  • Try to do this with kindness and self-compassion; no criticism is required.
  • Then, ask yourself, “Do I want to be working right now?”
  • If the answer is no, then gently nudge your focus back to whatever you’re doing in real life.

Eventually, you’ll be able to do this with less intentional effort, keeping you more rooted in the present moment and better able to enjoy your rich non-work life.

After all… you’re so much more than just your job, so let’s not let it overtake everything else, eh?

Addressing Your Signature Struggle with Labeling

We all have signature strengths…

But we also have a unique flavor of struggle bus that is a core part of who we are. Most of us are at least partially aware of our signature struggles, but there’s always room to continue learning and growing here.

This is why I always like implementing a personality assessment (typically enneagram) AND a saboteur assessment (measuring your negative inner voices/signature struggles) to my private holistic career clients. 

Unfortunately, your signature struggles are probably part of what is to blame for any challenges or stress you’re facing at work.

I’ll put myself in the hot seat.

The flip side of my signature strength of cultivating relationships is a struggle with people pleasing and approval seeking. This is something I’ve significantly evolved in over the years, but is something I will always be working on. Hooray, welcome to being a human!

My approval-seeking is something that has led me to burnout in past jobs.

My desire to be seen as an amazing employee led me to say yes to projects when I was already overloaded.

Striving to leave every client perfectly pleased left me overanalyzing, over-prepping, and stressing about an endless stream of tiny details.

On my retreat, I was using labeling to help increase my awareness of my signature struggle by labeling:

  • Thoughts focused on gaining others’ approval or acceptance as “approval seeking.”
  • Thoughts that were judging others (either positively or negatively) as “judging”. This is because I believe this tendency is essentially approval-seeking turned external and is part of the issue.
  • Urging to help someone with “helping” is like trying to decide if I should wordlessly wake my roommate (who is a total stranger) who didn’t hear the wake-up bell.

Bringing awareness to your signature struggles will help you better understand what is triggering these thought patterns and allow you to engage in new, healthier thoughts and behaviors.

Apply this IRL: Your Homework

The magic happens when you apply knowledge to your real life. Here’s your chance to do that:

  • For your signature struggles:
    • Take a minute to reflect on your top few struggles and how these typically manifest in your work life. Try to list specific and concrete examples of how these thoughts or behaviors may show up.
    • For one day, attempt to notice and kindly label every single thought or behavior related to your list.
  • For your habit of mentally working when you’d rather not be:
    • List every thought or behavior that counts as “working”. E.g.,: prepping for a meeting, writing an email, analyzing a client call, etc.
    • For one day, attempt to notice and kindly label every single thought or behavior related to working when you’d rather not be.
  • Important for both exercises: Remember to remember!!
    • Build a series of reminders during this day so you don’t forget! Phone alerts, a special piece of jewelry, a sticky note… whatever works for you.
    • Consider scheduling an accountability check-in with a loved one at the end of the day so that you know someone will ask you how it went. Accountability is magical–I swear it’s 50% of why coaching is so life-changing.

Want personalized help on your journey of making your career finally work for you? Let’s chat, that’s my specality!

I offer private holistic career coaching dedicated to helping ultra-busy professionals design a fulfilling and burnout free career that leaves space for the rest of their lives.

Design Your Thriving Career

Learn More: Additional Resources for Labeling

?Hi, I'm Lydia Johnson, MS

?Hi, I'm Lydia Johnson, MS

Holistic Career Coach & Founder of ThriveCulture Coaching

I’m a dual-certified career coach and Industrial-Organizational Psychology consultant on a mission to banish Sunday Scaries and help you reclaim your life from work stress. I specialize in helping ultra-busy people design a fulfilling and burnout-free career that leaves more space for the rest of your life. Whether you need to overhaul everything, find a new job, or make your current role work better for you, I’m here to help.

You can learn more about my holistic and evidence-based approach on my website or jump on the phone for a FREE 20-minute consult call to learn more about how career coaching can help you finally enjoy a fulfilling, burnout-free career.


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