Have you ever given much thought to how often you use labels to navigate through your day?
Have you ever given thought to how often we fit others and ourselves into nicely organized boxes or categories?
I am referring to a label as any word or phrase we use to describe something or someone.
Some broad examples include diagnoses, sexual orientations, political affiliations, religious affiliations, professional affiliations, astrological signs and so on.
In and of themselves, these words are neutral. Unfortunately, the history of their use and overuse has given each of them an emotional charge that often comes attached to a fixed belief system about them.
Let’s do a little test. What comes to mind when you read or hear the word “conservative”? How about “liberal”, “disabled” or “gay”?
Did you get an image in your mind with each word? Perhaps one word more than the others? Could you picture a person or group of people and their associated behaviors with the words?
If you had a particular emotional or physical reaction to these words, did you notice your beliefs associated with them?
Even the most aware and conscious of humans use labels and categories. While I dislike them, I also spent most of my professional life doling them out for pay!
I have also spent many years of my life identifying so strongly with a label or diagnosis that I lost sight of who I was without it.
Some of those labels included adult child of an alcoholic, depressed, eating disordered, married, divorced, disabled, etc.
Before my actual diagnosis with Primary Lateral Sclerosis, I realized that adjusting and adapting to life in a wheelchair was not dependent upon a diagnosis. Of course, even the physical therapists refused to treat me or help me without a label!
What I came to realize was that my own over-identification with any of the above was limiting my growth, potential and quite honestly my ability to function.
If you are labeled disabled, for example, and strongly identify with this label, then there are also some pretty fixed ideas and beliefs that naturally go along with that label.
This happens whether we are aware of it or not. You can fill in the blanks:
Disabled people can…Disabled people cannot…Disabled people are…If you are disabled, then…
You see where I am going here?
Not only did I limit myself based on what I believed about my own labels, but I also limited others.
My beliefs about marriage, to use another example, do not just apply to me. Those beliefs also are projected onto others, whether that is my intention or not.
This idea of marriage (or whatever) is what I know as my truth about it. My truth becomes fixed and then became a point of reference for comparing/judging your idea/truth about marriage.
When our ideas become fixed, they can be likened to being wrapped neatly and tightly into a box. You can put a pretty bow on the box, but that does not necessarily make it any prettier.
We exclude and discriminate in the name of our boxes.
By the time we reach the age of 20, we have hundreds or more of these nicely wrapped boxes based on our experiences.
Each box serves to help us to filter the rest of our experiences. I am certain my boxes were wrapped prematurely because I have learned a lot more about everything since I was 20!
It is easy to get comfortable within the coziness and illusion of safety that our boxes provide us. Often these boxes are our identity and without them, we don’t know what we truly believe.
I am still unwrapping the boxes I wrapped up in my 20’s. One of my least favorite things is to be placed into someone else’s box of presumptions.
Of course, each time it happens, I feel grateful. It helps to keep me on my toes so that I keep unwrapping.