Imagine these people: a professor at an elite university, a stay-at-home mother, and someone with depression. Labels like these are abbreviated ways of describing prominent aspects of ourselves and others, each one evoking a specific image in our minds.
Using labels in this way, as we all do to some degree or another, helps us make sense of a complex world. Yet attaching too much significance to these labels can limit personal growth and inhibit relationships. What is it that these labels really tell us about these individuals or, for that matter, ourselves?
How Labels Can Limit
Consider the professor who has defined himself largely through his career but is soon retiring. Perhaps the idea of no longer teaching and being viewed as a subject-matter expert elicits feelings of inadequacy. Or think about the stay-at-home-mother whose life circumstances force her to take a full-time job. Although her choice may be what’s best for the family, she may struggle with feelings of guilt for being less present for her children. Maybe the depressed individual has difficulty even acknowledging non-depressed facets of their life, such as moments of contentedness or even neutrality.
Impacts of Emotional Attachment to Identity
If the professor is unable to step out of the “professor” role, how might this impact his life after he retires? If the stay-at-home mom is unable to come to terms with her new role, will she behave differently? If the person with depression overly identifies with this label, how will this influence their behavior? At minimum, there would be some narrowing of choices, and perhaps losing touch with what’s actually important.
The tendency to label ourselves and others can blur the lines between truth and fiction. It can create tension between who we think we are supposed to be and who we actually are.
The tendency to label ourselves and others can blur the lines between truth and fiction. It can create tension between who we think we are supposed to be and who we actually are. If unchecked, it can lead to mental health issues that can compromise our quality of life and relationships with others. Any thought or emotion that opposes our self-assigned labels can trigger an avalanche of unhelpful narratives and actions.
The more emotional the attachment to the label, the more difficult it often is to act in ways that challenge expectations. Over-attachment to one’s own label is like putting on a pair of glasses that you can’t take off. If not brought into our awareness, this tendency severely limits our ability to choose more effective ways of responding. How do we cultivate that awareness in ourselves?
Examining Your Own Labels
The approach of one of the founders of the acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) approach, Steven Hayes, provides one helpful starting point. He suggests posing three questions to yourself to loosen the grip of self-perception. Using the stay-at-home mother label as an example, ask yourself:
- Am I a stay-at-home mother everywhere?
- Am I a stay-at-home mother with everyone?
- Am I a stay-at-home mother all the time?
For even the most dedicated caregiver, the answer to these questions is no—no one acts out a label, no matter what that label is, everywhere, with everyone, at all times.
This simple exercise helps to remind us that our identity is not nearly as fixed as we sometimes come to believe. In reality, each of us represents a sea of labels through which we shift fluidly on a daily, even hourly, basis. Over-identification with any one label can constrain possibilities and inhibit relationships. Building an awareness that allows us to identify this pattern of thinking is the first step.
Why Are We Attached to Our Labels?
The next step is learning to explore from a place of openness and curiosity what it is that compels us to over-identify with a particular label. Is it the power you can exercise or the competence you can exude when acting out your primary label that you find more difficult to project in other circumstances? Is it the fear of rejection from others? Finally, ask yourself: what values, rather than the shifting sands of labels, can serve as a guide for meaningful action?
This is not an easy process, but it’s rarely the easy road that leads to the beautiful vista. If you feel entangled by the labels you or others have placed upon you, consider seeing a therapist to explore the topic.
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