Why might it be questionable to label others or label ourselves as… ‘you name it’?
I think we have been more alert to the dangers of labelling others. There is a discussion going on for quite some time on how polarizing discussions which divide people into groups usually end badly. It is an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality and the differentiation can be quite upsetting. The ‘gays’ vs. the ‘straights’ – (now what about the bi’s, the queers, the questioning, the … Oh OK! I meant the ‘straights’ and the ‘others’ someone might say).
These polarities can go as far as dividing people into two main categories. Someone might go about using “normal” and “abnormal” or the “good” and “bad” categories for fitting people with whom he feels a connection in the first category and others in the latter.
You can read more about how labelling others might be a self-defeating strategy in the relevant HuffPost article about mental health.
What is the risk in labelling ourselves only as ‘good’?
There is a serious catch in labelling ourselves as “good”. We are unaware of our own unconscious bias which is based on the way we were raised and conditioned to think. And this can be so tricky so as to have as an example gay people that are homophobic because homophobia has been internalised (you can read the relevant psychotherapy issue article). Or women that are prejudiced against women. This basically means that we have an unconscious self-loathing device that is active beneath the surface and that we are dangerously unaware of.
If you want to see how this might work in you, you can try the implicit project. This is a project that tries to help you measure and ultimately understand what some of your unconscious or uncontrolled reactions and hidden thoughts might be regarding race, sex, sexual orientation, mental health issues etc. Try this and you might be surprised.
Is there a risk in labelling ourselves as well?
There is a risk when we label ourselves as something. It might be difficult to go about life without any characteristics or identifications but still…
Let’s see an example here.
Take for example a person that says to themselves: ‘I am an HIV-positive person or a person suffering from a chronic illness’. As a person says that, if they over-identify with this label, their lens might also become distorted by their own perceptions and expectations from what an HIV-positive person is. It is someone who is sick from a virus. Other than that, this might go hand in hand with other assumptions society or themselves make. And in some cases, they become blind to their own being as a healthy person as they are becoming over-identified with being sick. This becomes limiting as to how I view myself in the world and what I consider possible for me in my life.
To say it in another way, it is how labels group characteristics that are totally irrelevant to the label. If being a man is only a signifier of someone’s sex, why do we consider that men are “typically” strong, they say what they have in mind, they can control their emotions and they don’t cry (as opposed to…). This is highly questionable and distorts the reality around us. At the same time, it influences and shapes this reality with men having to live up to certain standards – and women having another set of standards, that are not real, in terms that they are not individualised. They are imagined by previous generations and projected on to us.
Is there a way out?
I think the way out is the way in. Learning what we are unconsciously holding on to can ultimately liberate us. And this means that we can become more fluid and freer to be ourselves – whatever that might be taking also into account the context and time-frame.
Can we also become more at ease with not knowing? I will end this article by using a beautiful poem by Rilke:
“I am circling around God,
around the ancient tower,
and I have been circling for a thousand years,
and I still don’t know
if I am a falcon, or a storm,
or a great song.”
Photo by Antony Xia on Unsplash