Human beings love to label themselves. Woman. Married. Coach. Buddhist. Dog lover. Coffee drinker. We also love to label others. It's easier to remember people when you have a way to sort and categorize them. It's just human nature and our brains are wired to do it automatically. But, even though it's the way we operate, and there's no doubt that putting labels on people makes it easier to sort and file them than just trying to recall every single individual characteristic, there is a great big downside to this whole labeling phenomenon.
We come to think of these labels as our identities and the identities of others. We become attached to these labels and we think we know who we are and who other people are, on the basis of these labels. But how much do we really know about someone on the basis of the labels black or white, gay or straight, atheist or believer, Republican or Democrat? Not as much as you might think. Because at the end of the day, these labels, all of them, are limiting. They put us in a box and they confine us as much as they define us.
When I was a teenager and a bit mouthy, I would talk back to my mother from time to time. I remember one time, in particular, she fired back "Who do you think you are?" at me. At the time, I took that sentence to mean "How dare you to talk back to me when I am the parent and you are only the child?" And I am pretty sure that is exactly what she meant, too. But when I think of this sentence now, I interpret it in an entirely different way. Who do you think you are is more of a reflection of the fact that we really only know who we are based on what we are focusing on and paying attention to. We think we are our thoughts, our emotions, our habits, our routines, the places we go, the people we associate with, the clothes we wear, the color our skin happens to be. But is that who we are, really?
Let's say that one of the words we use to label ourselves is "active." Maybe we use that word as a form of shorthand to let other active people know we are like them. It could describe our lifestyle, our habits or even our career path. If it's very important to us, we might only seek to associate with other people who are also active. We may use it's opposite, inactive, as an insult, a form of criticism or a way of distancing ourselves from them. Labels can create boxes that keep us in and others out.
But what about a label that is given to us by others and we don't identify with it? Or a label that might be accurate, but it is also hurtful or stigmatizing? Mental health diagnoses fit this category. My family tree happens to be quite heavy with these kinds of labels. We have members with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and those who struggle with chemical dependencies. What happens when who we think we are is shaped by one (or more) of these labels? Is who we think we are then deficient or disordered, broken or abnormal? And what do we think of our potential in life and what we are capable of, as a result?
Well, I can tell you from first-hand experience that growing up knowing I was adopted, who I thought I was less than others who knew their biological parents. Who I thought I was was someone who wasn't wanted and who wasn't supposed to be here. Later on, in my career as a therapist, I worked with abused and neglected children in the foster care system. Who they thought they were was someone who deserved to be beaten or locked in a closet or sent to school hungry. I saw countless clients struggle with their self worth as a result of who they thought they were based on the labels they had been given by others and those they had given themselves.
Words are potent and powerful. The children's rhyme, "Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me" just doesn't ring true. Words can, and do harm people, sometimes for a lifetime. When we label ourselves and others, we limit them. We shrink them down to less than they are and are meant to be with words. Sticks and stones create wounds that can heal. Words go far deeper and create the kind of wounds we can't see, but which are far more hurtful. So, who do you think you are?