Have you ever sat and thought about the labels you use in your life? I’ve heard it said that labels don’t matter but I have decided that is an all out lie. Labels DO matter. We might not want them to but they do matter. And I hate them….I hate them all.
My life, like everyone’s is full of labels. Some of my labels include; mother, Christian, autism, introvert, codependent, people pleaser, kind, shy, funny….etc. My kids have labels. Labels are how we communicate ideas to one another. Language is essentially just a complex series of labels made out of symbols that we use every day to explain, interpret, understand and engage with each other every single day. The problem of course is how our brain uses labels and the limits generated by that.
When I was in school and studying psychology, I had a professor that discussed how the brain organized information. You may have heard about it; schema? Well a scheme is basically the map we use in our brains to short cut thinking. I think of it like little boxes; you have an experience with a person and you notice or learn things about them. Each piece of data you learn about them is tucked safely away into a little labeled box in your mind; man, woman, mother, single, daughter, white, black, funny, arrogant, and the list goes on. Each of those boxes has been conditioned with attachments to previous experiences and feelings, some good, some bad, some completely indifferent, and from those attachments and labels we determine quickly what we know about a person or situation. It happens so fast we are usually not aware of it. It is way for our brains to be efficient with the huge amounts of information it comes across every minute. It’s a huge advantage so we can quickly make decisions about safety and other flight/fight circumstances.
Here’s the thing, we forget that people are more than labels. Even ourselves. We have an idea about labels; i.e. she is shy so she doesn’t like going out with people. But that idea isn’t always right; in fact, I’m finding that it often isn’t. Take a few minutes right now and think of one person you know kinda well…an acquaintance. Pick one thing you know about that person, it can be anything; the kinds of clothes they wear, their race, their sex, where they grew up, whatever. Now say a statement about that person you “know” because of that label. For example: “She lives in a big house so she has lots of money.” Now, is that really true about them?
Do this same exercise for someone you know really well. A close friend, spouse or family member. State a label, they are kind, funny. Then create your statement. Is that true for them? Was it true when you first met that person? Pick several labels; positive ones and negative ones.
Someone you don’t like? Is it true for them?
What happens when you do that exercise for yourself? I’m an introvert. Introverts don’t like to go out and have a good time – that is not true for me. I do enjoy going out and having a good time…but wait, I’m an introvert?
My son has autism. People with autism don’t like to be touched. But wait – my son would crawl back into me if he could?
I’m sure each person will have a different experience with this but what I found out about myself is that I try to live by my labels instead of allowing myself to just be who and/or what I want to be. I found that I was acting in some ways because of what I thought those labels expected of me. I found I was judging myself by those labels and they were definitive. They were the be all end all of who I was, and in some cases, the other people (and situations) in my life. And ironically, or unfortunately, finding out that they weren’t right or that I could change them wasn’t necessarily empowering. It was terrifying. Who am I if I’m not this?? Right now I’m just scared that I have to take myself out of the boxes. Boxes are safe. Labels are safe. But when we look at our world and we remove labels we must be more vulnerable to learn anything of Truth. We have to Love (capital L) enough to open ourselves to the possibility that something or someone isn’t limited to the label we have given it.
I want very much to be able to be the person that bravely meets the world that way but right now I just feel like I’m hiding in a corner. Right now that just looks like a bunch of pain and disappointment and I’ll be honest – I don’t want to hurt anymore. I’m closer than I have ever been to just turning myself off emotionally to the whole world because I just don’t want to hurt anymore. I told someone once I didn’t want to live that way, then I hurt again. I have faith that since my thoughts and prayers have brought me here I will transcend but well, I’m not over the mountain yet.
I would love to hear what those questions brought up for you if you are willing to share. Maybe we can get rid of the labels together and it will feel less scary.