Well-being Wednesday: What is your relationship with labels?
People seem to love labels – finding a name for something that was unnameable or not recognized until that particular word existed in our awareness. There is a satisfaction in naming something that we identify with – the word is bidirectional, creating the thing and contributing to ourselves. Which makes sense as we create and are created by language, and language reflects our world view. Example, when we name, we help normalize something that perhaps before was seen as deviant or divergent, and we construct a new understanding of ourselves and the world1.
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”–Ludwig Wittgenstein
Labels present a problem too. We may over identify with them, closing ourselves off to curiosity about our own experiences2 and assuming the label is finite and immoveable for life. Labels can also lead to othering – by seeking the very people and groups that share our labels and by our neurobiology, we risk being suspicious of or less open to those that don’t. The want to be seen and held by a community also makes seeking validation and sharing of labels with individuals that perhaps don’t deserve that vulnerability and trust risky3.
How do you use labels for your self-awareness, your sense of community, even your biases towards those that don’t share your labels? Can you hold a label, but loosely? How attached are you to your labels (how adaptable can you be if they changed, for ex a new diagnosis?)?
For me, I am not a fan of labels. I love that language exists to name and share experience and understanding of our selves and the world. But labels can feel rigid to me. They are policed by some and thereby comparitive4, they also, to me, represent a sense of finiteness or cessation of change. But, as the cliché goes, the only constant to me is change (and paradox). While I have labels, self-chosen or given to me by others, I hold them loosely and instead identify more with the fluidity of our human experience5. The adaptability of our labels and identities doesn’t make them any less important or serious; I believe the flexibility of labels allows us to continue to grow into ourselves while reducing the tendency to “other”. When people ask me about my labels, this is part of why I sometimes use terms like evolving or fluid. My identities feel like movement.6 I have labels, but I am not my labels.
Even though labels reflect culture and language, they are lived and defined on the personal level, and it is on all of us to honor our individual needs around these labels while respecting the needs and desires of others. A both/and – fluid and flexible. Whatever label/s you chose, you deserve affirmation and a sense of belonging – to your shared group as well as by all that don’t share your label/s.
Thanks for reading, community. Wishing you well-being on your journey.
- Think of all of the fringe individuals, marginalized identities, the -isms, traumas, and systems of oppression. Claiming an identifier or words, we find groups of similar individuals and we can help others blind to that identity or experience see ours and see each other. Naming something creates a kink in the narrative of normalcy and conforming and disrupts the perpetuation of things like heterosexist, white supremacist, capitalistic patriarchy. In this way, labels can help create belonging and dismantle systems of oppression.
- As in “Oh, I am this thing now. That part of me is complete, tidy, has a bow on it. The end”
- Do you have people in your life that you can trust with your identifiers? This trust speaks to the problem with the closet (as in the closet associated with the LGBTQIA+ community). Assuming people have to come out of a closet and proclaim identity reinforces social norms (here, hetero and cis normativity). Instead, as I wrote about here (https://www.patreon.com/posts/58734068 this piece is accessible to Patreon ), we should think of inviting people in to understand us and our identities verses feeling called to state them if they are other (reinforcing the norms). Inviting people in to our identities also respects the vulnerability, safety, and politics around identity – the onus isn’t on an individual to risk over-sharing, but to tailor their shares to the trust and belonging of the relationship and context under consideration.
- An example of the policing of labels is in the bisexual community. There is a bias against bisexual individuals as not being real, not being gay enough or straight enough. Or, another example, if a person identifies as a lesbian but slept with a cis man in the past, others might accuse her of not being a “real” lesbian. These are examples of label policing and with words like “real” and “enough”, they are based in comparison. Comparing situations is part of the human tendency, but it can create competition no one agreed to and also limits our access to compassion towards one another. Stop comparing and trust in the individual to express what they wish to express and know their own experience.
- Some of our labels are changeable. Our bodies, abilities, diagnoses change. Our sexuality, orientation, gender, and relationship status may change. Our ancestors and heritage might stay the same, but perhaps you learn about additional ethnic contributions to your heritage, so self-concepts and identities here can change too.
- As a wellness provider, I have to be mindful of my identity disclosures. This is complicated and I wrote about it here: https://ignitewell-being.com/to-disclose-or-not-there-is-no-right-or-wrong-answer/
The above content is written by Dr. Allison Mitch, PT (DPT), RYT500; sex-positive, trauma-informed sexuality counselor and educator (she/her/they/them); copyright protected, please cite accordingly. The picture is from Pexels; thank you Sharon McCutcheon.
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