Growing up, were you labeled the “sensitive genius”? The “rebel”? The “problem child”? The “nice guy”? I’ve especially enjoyed sporting the “smart aleck” persona, which is just one of the many identities I’ve walked around with, or have been dragged around by, over the years. Some were self-imposed, others gifted to me from hither and yon. Labels come and go, and they are incredibly subjective.
For instance, where one person might find me “a good listener,” or “kind,” another might label me “controlling,” “impatient,” or “obsessive.” Whether we recognize them or not, we all move through our lives wearing a hodgepodge of sticky labels. And these labels frame our experience in a powerful—though not always helpful—way.
It’s not all bad. Labels can help us bring order to chaos in an instant. The challenge is that each person and situation is more than any one label you might give it. Nothing and no one is only wonderful, or only terrible, or beautiful or ugly or right or wrong. Ignoring this fact can make a big difference to our overall experience of life.
Recent research from the University of Pennsylvania suggests that we may actually ignore information that does not support our ideas about “who we are,” and our behavior follows suit. We can essentially get stuck with a confirmation bias toward our own selves, where we receive information in a way that confirms our preexisting ideas and beliefs, and we don’t investigate any further than this. So, once we determine which category something falls into—including our own personality—we lose all curiosity. Living with blinders on limits our potential for growth and well-being. When we become too certain or fixed upon any given label, we restrict our chance to experience life’s vast array of surprises and opportunities.
LABELS CAN HELP US BRING ORDER TO CHAOS IN AN INSTANT. THE CHALLENGE IS THAT EACH PERSON AND SITUATION IS MORE THAN ANY ONE LABEL YOU MIGHT GIVE IT.
Try this: Grab a piece of paper and a pen and write down some of the labels you hold tightly to as truth, starting with your early years. Most of us encounter labeling within our own dear families. Do you think your mother labeled you with the same labels your father used? How about your siblings, or your grandparents, or your nieces and nephews?
Now go beyond your home and consider your friends, teachers, romantic partners, employers—think about the various labels you’ve wound up with in all facets of life. How did these spoken or unspoken labels affect you? Did you try to live up or down to these labels? Did you fight them or embrace them, or even notice that you were letting yourself be typecast?
And how about your present situation? Have you taken on new labels? Are there old ones still peeking out from the past? Imagine your life as a sitcom, with you as a central character. Who’s in your main cast? Who have you tagged as trusted friends? Nemeses? Love interests? As you move through your daily life, notice how quickly you label and are labeled. If you can, go a step further and consider: Which labels are you taking on yourself? Which labels are you imposing—perhaps unfairly—on others?
Then imagine all those labels falling down around you like rain. See if you can let yourself be present without any labels at all. Just here. Just now. Breathing. Being.
Once you’ve spent some time getting to know your labels, having a little fun with them can be a great practice. For instance, if you’re the quiet one, see what happens if you label yourself outgoing and start a conversation. If you identify yourself as a “Type A” person, what happens if instead you label yourself as laid back, and slow down on the freeway? We don’t have to like how it feels. We can try on different hats, exploring as many experiences as we can.
We aren’t likely to ever stop labeling. It’s so automatic, and it’s completely natural. But we can take time to notice, to see what we lose or gain when these labels remain unexamined, and through that we can gain an exciting new perspective on ourselves. We can break free from our personality prisons—even if just for a little while—and with that new freedom we can open up to a life of discovery, richness, and fresh possibilities.
Elaine Smookler is a registered psychotherapist with a 20-year mindfulness practice. She is a senior faculty member at the Centre for Mindfulness Studies in Toronto. ■