When asked ‘Who are you?‘, what springs to mind first? Is it your name and age, job title and nationality, your role as a spouse or a parent? Listing these things is second nature to many and no wonder – we’ve all grown up in a world where labelling ourselves and others in a myriad of ways is so entrenched that we don’t bat an eyelid anymore when asked to tick boxes on yet another form. Add to that any medical diagnoses and traumatic life experiences that we may have gone through and we get what author and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle calls ‘a story’ about who we are. And a story, of course, can’t possibly capture all of our complexity and uniqueness.
While labels may not be ‘evil’ in themselves, the more we identify with them, and the more power we give them, the more we are at risk of limiting who we can be.
How labels may be holding us back
They can limit our growth
The risk of accepting and identifying with a label is that we can get unnecessarily stuck in one way of being, where we may naturally have kept evolving and changing.
The more we see ourselves through a particular label (be it ‘depressed’, ‘shy’, ‘old’ etc.) the less we focus on everything else that we are – and have the potential to be. We are not only multifaceted beings but also constantly learning, evolving and becoming… And being attached to a label limits that growth like a flower pot that’s too small to allow the roots of a plant to expand.
They can lock us into the past
Sometimes labels are born out of traumatic experiences we have endured in our lives. While it’s undeniable that such things shape and change us, we don’t need to hold on to them forever as our identity. Continuously identifying with a past experience and defining ourselves through it keeps us from living in the present moment and reaching for new territory.
They can distort how we see others
Labels also get in the way of seeing others in their full complexity – we make assumptions based on that one aspect. Often we see groups of people talked about as if they were a homogenous mass, when any label (be it ethnicity, religion, age, sexuality – you name it!) is only one facet of each individual in a vastly diverse aggregation of individuals. Labels used in this way pave way for stereotypes, discrimination – and missing out on the true beauty of diversity.
Diffusing the power of labels
A life completely without labels may not seem completely possible, but with some mindful attention to our own thoughts and words we can at least loosen their grip on us. Tolle recommends focusing on the question ‘Who am I?‘ by feeling rather than thinking about it.
The power of ‘I am’
Pay particular attention whenever you utter the words ‘I am’. Once we’ve accepted a label, we are often the ones who also keep reinforcing it. Using the words ‘I am [label]’ can have a powerful effect on us – for better or for worse – especially if we repeat them constantly. But what would we be without those thoughts? One way to weaken a label is to think in terms of experiencing something in that moment rather than being it. Saying ‘I haven’t been at my most organised today’ instead of ‘I am so disorganised‘, or ‘I’m aware that I’m having thoughts that give me feelings of stress’ rather than ‘I am stressed’ may not sound radically different, but already there’s a small doorway open to other possibilities. Where holding onto labels is more likely to inject apathy, avoiding them can open up the potential for something new and different.
And when it comes to depression, Matt Haig puts it beautifully in his book Reasons To Stay Alive:
Depression is also smaller than you. Always, it is smaller than you, even when it feels vast. It operates within you, you do not operate within it. It may be a dark cloud passing across the sky but – if that is the metaphor – you are the sky. You were there before it. And the cloud can’t exist without the sky, but the sky can exist without the cloud.
While it’s important to get the right support if diagnosed with depression, if this quote speaks to you, consider this question: “who would I be without the thought ‘I have depression’?” then feel the answer.1