This is a question that arose in a therapy session recently as the person in front of me was determined to pigeonhole themselves by using all sorts of labels to describe the person in the mirror. None were affirming, a few were neutral, and most were disparaging.
When I started considering all the ways we label ourselves: parent, partner, friend, employee/employer, gay, straight, bi-sexual, asexual, cis-gender, transgender, rich, poor, tall, short, thin, fat, old or young, that I had the thought that, indeed, we can put severe constraints on ourselves. What if, instead, we threw off those mantles and experienced the freedom to create ourselves anew each day?
For many, the stigma of mental health diagnosis comes courtesy of the DSM-V with its labels of depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. I recall a poignant moment in a mental health focused 12-Step meeting at an acute care psychiatric hospital where I worked. The patients went around the room and introduced themselves. One said, “I’m so and so and I’m bi-polar.”
When they were all finished, I chimed in and reminded each of them that although their charts indicated certain disorders, it didn’t mean that they were those conditions. Instead, I suggested that they might say that they had those conditions. Without the pejorative terms, they might feel a bit more hopeful. The same is so when people attend Alcoholics Anonymous and declare, “I am an alcoholic.” For some, it is a means of claiming their behaviors fueled by addiction, and then the healing can commence. For others it is a weight around their ankles that prevents them from moving forward. I have a dear friend who does not say she is recovering, but rather, that she has recovered. She has been sober for many decades but continues to work her program and attends meetings at least once a week.
When I was a child, I was diagnosed with asthma and needed to take medication and engage in pulmonary strengthening exercises, including swimming. I didn’t want to feel limited in any way, so I pushed beyond capacity at times. People with that label were often called “asthmatics.” Not me, no way was I going to accept that designation. I would think that while I had asthma, it didn’t need to have me.
Five years ago, on the way home from the gym, I had a heart attack at age 55. Although it came out of the blue, given so many factors, it might have been predicted. Family history of cardiac disease, my own penchant toward workaholism, poor sleep habits, co-dependent caregiving all added up to that moment in time when my heart said it wasn’t having it and took a hiatus from its normal rhythm. A stent was inserted to prop up the fully occluded artery, dietary change, a med regimen, naps, supervised cardiac rehab, boundary setting, and exquisite self-care became de rigueur.
I knew I couldn’t “get back to normal,” since “normal” almost killed me. Instead, I had to create a new normal, as would anyone whose life was shaken to its core. To this day, I maintain most of those changes with the occasional slip into co-dependent caregiving and burning the candle at both ends.
Back then, I referred to myself as a “cardiac patient,” to keep myself focused on healing. These days, I have taken off that label, since I don’t want to see myself as being limited. I celebrate each Cardiaversary. I think of myself as someone who needs to hold her own heart sacred. I have started using the mantra, “It does my heart good,” to reflect anything I want to reinforce.
As much as I want to eschew labels, since I don’t want to be limited, I embrace more positive appellations such as teacher, world-lover, Hug Mobster Armed With Love, healer, Inspirista, Creativa, journalist, therapist, kindred spirit, human and soul friend.
When asked about the topic, the responses were varied:
“I appreciate labels as they allow me to assess my strengths.”
“I am what I am. No labels needed.”
“Good and positive labels that we are and that we attain towards, I think are rewarding.”
“We are constantly evolving… we may outgrow a label as soon as we’ve earned it.”
“If I label myself a super-hero, then the sky’s the limit.”
“Have never liked labels — they put you in a box and when used, creates all kinds of bias.”
“Labels help us find our soul people and are useful in that way until we change ourselves to match the labels. As with literally everything it’s dual in nature. Like knowing I’m in the LGBTQ+ community let me find others who understood me and related to me. But I also don’t have to change certain parts of myself just because I’m in that community.”
“Kierkegaard said, ‘When you label me, you negate me.’ I think he’s right.”
“Labels give us a language that allows us to find others we resonate with. Like I label myself polyamorous. This helped me find other polyamorous folks. This tribe had some overlapping qualities and shared experiences that opened avenues for learning and support that felt easy. There are times I want to share about my life and not get the 20 questions about what is polyamory and how does it work? Conversely, when others have labeled me, I feel judged and confined. But my nature is to not fit in a box, rather overfill it to the point of breaking it.”
“When we label anything, we think we know what it is, and we close our view, for better or worse. People included.”
“Isn’t the problem also the answer? Labels have power, no matter positive or negative. Attachment can also be a contributing factor. A wise person suggested a wise way to navigate labels is to not label self but label circumstances and behaviors accordingly. I could say I am awesome and while great it also is constraining at the same time, while the words I am being awesome allows for the same construct and also to change accordingly and empowering depending on what is desired.”
“Yes and no I often say, remember I’m not a smart man, it’s a prelude excuse for when I actually do something very dumb and people act surprised when I do something stupid. I look at them say I told you so, what?”
“Labels can be doorways, pointers or prisons. I think it’s not the labels but how we cling to them or the power we give them that becomes the issue.”
“I’m not a fan of labeling; Although, it’s helpful to understand myself or another more deeply. It’s a tool, not a sentence.”
“I have less of an issue for self-labels. It is when others incorrectly label me or put me in a group I don’t fit in where I am uncomfortable.”
“I spent half my life (or more) finding my labels and the other half shedding them. No longer feeling the need to fit into any labels. At least that’s where I am now. Ask me again in 10 years.”
“I think labels are wonderfully descriptive in the moment. I have never found labels to be limiting, since I use more than one at a time and often feel free to modify them as I change and grow.
“Yes and no. I think sometimes labels can mean connecting with a history or historical movement — such as ‘feminist’, ‘progressive’, ‘socialist’, etc. — aligning ourselves with a larger group with similar ideals. It makes a difference whether we give ourselves labels or whether they are imposed by others. On the other hand, Peter Alsop speaks eloquently about how we are better able to come together when we focus on what we each care about, or what we do, as opposed to assigning labels, which tend to divide people.”
“Sometimes labels can help us understand ourselves better. Giving an act or idea a name can give it purpose or permission to be.”
Labels can be positive too.
Finder — rather than seeker
And so on.”
“Every definition contains limitations. but they are still important when navigating a world full of duality.”
“Labels are for products!”
How can you relinquish labels that limit you and embrace those that reinforce the person you most want to be?
A resource to open minds and hearts is called Love Has No Labels.