You Are Not Your Label
You Are Not Your Label
By Christine Wright, M.A.
The human mind is designed for pattern recognition. That’s how we learn—that’s what enables us to navigate successfully in the world. We recognize the faces of our family members and friends, we are soothed by the familiar voices of loved ones, we are familiar with the landmarks in our neighborhoods, and we know when we’ve arrived at our homes. We use our senses of sight, sound, taste, touch and smell all the time to give us information about our world and our surroundings. Our mind is comfortable and we feel safe with similarities. When something, someplace or someone doesn’t fit into an easily recognized pattern to which our senses have become habituated we are fearful, cautious, curious or on alert in some way.
And so we’ve come to categorize things and even people in our environment. The naming of people by any number of factors is common, widespread and even expected. When we can name something, identify it in some way, put it in a nice neat category and label it, we can often feel comfortable, satisfied and safe. We enjoy creating our clear boundaries and definitive labels. We identify and label ourselves by race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, language, culture, appearance, ability and an infinite number of other criteria including our weaknesses, limitations and ways of being and behaving.
This can also include those things that need to be compensated for in some way. We measure how tall someone is, how smart, how athletic, how pretty, and we have a host of names and labels for those of us who have some characteristic or behavior that requires some special ways of interacting.
Our schools and institutions are now responsive and accommodating to those of us who have special physical or cognitive needs. Most of society is familiar with the terms used to describe those of us who have what we’ve labeled as a disability or impairment, such as autism spectrum, learning disabled, special needs, hyperactive, attention deficit disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder. But can any of the ways in which we describe, name and label ourselves ever truly define and describe all of who we are? Do we use our labels to limit ourselves or do we live above and beyond these names and distinctions?
In many instances, these distinctions may be necessary and helpful, but there are instances when they can be limiting, divisive and even harmful. Our labels become harmful when we use them to judge ourselves and each other. When we meet someone new, we often form our first impressions by sight; we then may exchange names and begin a conversation to gather more information to classify each other. This is natural and helpful in finding out what we have in common and what we might want to share with each other and learn from each other. And as we learn about each other, we will soon discover whether we might be friends or whether we want to discontinue the relationship and we may also notice our biases.
While we use our labels as a means to classify a person, we ought to also be aware that any one of us can act, behave and perform outside of the description of our label. Someone with a learning disability may be the one who offers profound wisdom. Someone with attention deficit disorder may be the one who remembers and notices a missing crucial detail. Someone from another country may know more about our national history that we do. We can and do often act outside of the names, definitions and labels that we use to identify ourselves and each other.
It can be all too easy to dismiss the totality of a person’s unique character and innate gifts solely on knowing the label used to describe some aspect of that person. To judge someone and to form an opinion about whom someone is or what their character is solely on a label does a disservice to us and to them. When we remember to do what we know to be good practice and be unbiased in our assessments of each other, then we can truly begin to be fair, kind and generous in our interactions. When we remember that we are much more than any label and when we realize that some of our labels may be incorrect, inaccurate, irrelevant or arbitrary, then we can interact with each other on the merits of our total individual character with the dignity of an open mind and an open heart.
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