by Sara Notenboom
Labels. We use them to order our experience. They help us make sense of our world, and orient ourselves in a seemingly unpredictable world. They provide us a sense of certainty and structure. They mediate our expectations of others and help us to formulate a sense of personal identity. These are all good things, and point to the use of labels in our lives. However, a problem arises when we become too rigid in our labeling. When the connotations of the labels we use perpetuate narrow mindedness and imprison us to a certain set of assumptions, which prevent from engaging in the process of personal expansion.
Labels themselves do not exist. They are social constructions. None of us were born with the labels we carry with us today. Rather, they have had them placed upon us, or we have placed them upon ourselves. Most of the time, they serve us well, but problems arise when labels become too rigid and narrow, for they can foster a sense of personal limitation and interpersonal disconnection. In other words, labels become problematic when we begin to see ourselves as being wholly defined by these constructed labels because we begin to fall victim to their various implications, relinquishing our sense of personal power in the process.
Let’s take for example, the label that has been placed upon me since the day I was born: Disabled. Some common assumptions that come along with this label include: Incompetent, helpless, powerless, incapable, confined, weak, defective, unable… The list goes on. It is true that I am disabled. My legs don’t move as fast as or work as well as those of others. I have fully accepted this as a fact of my life. However, I vehemently refuse to align myself with any of the assumptions that are typically associated with the label “disabled”. In no way do I view myself as weak, incapable, powerless, or helpless. I never have and never will.
Labels require a large degree of fluidity and flexibility. They require a willingness to abandon the barriers perpetuated by assumption and a willingness to approach oneself and others with an open mind. Labels undoubtedly have their place, but when we become too attached to them and their perceived meanings, a sense of disempowerment, defeat and judgement can manifest.
Labels of the human experience are inherently limited, because they can never give you a sense of the whole picture. They can’t be taken at face value, because to do so would be a discredit to your sense of individuality and to ignore the uniqueness of each individual who crosses our path. To adhere to a label is to miss the opportunity for true connection, because they can never tell you what’s going on beneath the surface. Suffice to say, if you are looking for labels to tell you what’s on the inside, they best be left to the jars on the shelf.
Sara holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and English Literature, and is currently completing her Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology. She has a particular interest in the area of grief and bereavement, and is an experienced bereavement support facilitator. Sara regards her work as her calling, and is passionate about empowering people to embrace their lives fearlessly. Follow Sara on Twitter @SaraANotenboom.