Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Why Labels Suck

Labels. They are EVERYWHERE.
why labels suckLabels are affixed to our clothing and glued to the sides of our food packages. They are displayed on the front of buildings, in our online dating profiles, and on our driver’s licenses.

Most of all, they exist, prominently and for most of us, for the balance of our natural lifetimes, inside our heads.

They separate you from me, and us from them. They train us to see opposite genders, differing sexual preferences, and different faith backgrounds as separate and apart, desirable or undesirable, dangerous or safe.

In all of these labels, we are frequently so busy staring at what we think are different species of trees that we miss the unified forest we form together in our shared humanness. Beneath all those labels, underneath all of our individual surface differences, what we will universally find is a single human being deep inside each of us – a human being who feels, thinks, fears, cries, loves and dreams right alongside ourselves.

On the one hand, labels can be helpful. For instance, it can be mighty uncomfortable (and all too, um, revealing) to misread the labels displayed on the front of a set of twin public restroom doors. In the same way, if you are allergic to a certain food, you for sure want a label on what you are about to consume that clearly states “don’t eat this!” – that sort of thing is life-saving to my precious two-year-old nephew, Gavin.

Perhaps most interesting to note, labels are not bad, harmful, or unwelcome on their own.

They are just words – just phrases – just sentences – until we add meaning and personal opinion to them. It is only at that point that they have the power to become unifying or divisive, welcoming or threatening life-expanding or (more often) life-limiting.

Whether the labels we are dealing with at any given point relate to the sizes on clothing or the nutrient content on food (just for the record, these twin devils used to drive me CRAZY during my eating disorder recovery years) or reference instead genetic or emotional bonds (more commonly called “family” – a label which is delightful to some and rather less so to others), they do have the power to alter our experience of ourselves, our life, and our dreams in a very concrete and long-standing way.

As first and foremost a mentee (god save my long suffering mentor, Lynn) and now a mentor myself, I can say from long years of experience that breaking down the meanings behind labels is a big part of the mentor-mentee relationship. Another equally important but infrequently discussed aspect of mentoring is identifying words and phrases that we may not see as labels, such as “I can’t”, “I can”, “I should” and “I shouldn’t”.

These are labels, pure and simple.

While we may cling to these, calling them beliefs, and even assuming they are a part of who we are rather than an expression of what we currently think, they are nothing less nor more than opinions at their core. When I believed I couldn’t recover from my eating disorder, I continued to struggle. When I began to believe I could recover, my recovery efforts strengthened and so did my results.

In this I keep very good company with folks whose efforts to have a child, beat cancer, start their own business, get married, climb a mountain, be happy, and other major life goals yielded positive results once the labels they placed on those goals changed.

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