The topic of labels and being labeled has come up multiple times over the past two weeks in conversations and has given me some food for thought. We label ourselves – I am a…, I am too…, I am…. Others label us – you are a… Sometimes we are labeled by profession – I am a nurse; or family position – I am a mother. Race, religion, ethnicity, gender, birth order, financial position, ability, or disability – labels are inevitable, but our response to them doesn’t have to be.
In one conversation, a friend was describing a “minimalist” lifestyle without labeling it as such. Another person immediately countered with “Oh, so you’re a minimalist?”. My friend responded “No, I don’t label myself like that. I simply prefer this method of managing my environment”. She went on to further explain that she felt limited by labels.
Labels can have positive effects – sometimes profound. Think about children – tell them they are smart and capable and watch them be amazing. Tell them they are stupid and watch them die inside. As adults, we are susceptible as well – not just from what others tell us – especially from how we label ourselves.
Labels can lead to stereotyping and isolation. I grew up being labeled “smart” and “gifted” in school. I thought that was a good thing, and it seemed to be among adults. Among my peers, it was awful. I wasn’t “fun”, I was “good” and no one wanted to play or socialize with someone that was “good”. I enjoy running/walking/exercising. That comes with labels and stereotypes – the assumption that I am everything healthy, always training, and always judging people that don’t do those things. I try to be healthy, learned over time that always training is not healthy, and I do not judge people based on their activity level.
Labels provide a safe place to hide for some people. They will grab a label and cling to it – a ready made excuse to not have to engage in an activity. Others use labels to keep people at bay, or to project an image using a label as an identity they are desperate to embody.
Labels are like walls that can be built higher and higher to keep the world out. They can be hurtful and damaging. Even when used in an empowering way, they still provide the opportunity to cause isolation.
Labels and goals have similarities. It is easy to be seduced by labels and goals – and miss out on so much. You become so serious and focused on maintaining the label and achieving the goal that you exclude people and experiences. You lose a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world around you. And if the unthinkable happens – and you can’t/don’t achieve the goal or lose the label – it can devastate you.
Consider the possibility of choosing to be you. The unique, wonderful being that you were created to be. No masks, no labels. Set your sights high – call them goals if you want – but don’t let them control you. Don’t let labels create you. Choose not to respond to labels that are disempowering – or simply choose not to be labeled. If I need a label to identify myself – I need to work on accepting the idea the I am enough just the way I am. (And that doesn’t mean “settling” or not choosing to continue to grow and progress – after all, we are living beings.) If I need a label to impress you, or have a relationship with you – it’s probably not worth it.