“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” – Oscar Wilde
Complete this sentence quickly: I am ____________.
What is the first response that popped into your mind? Did you choose your occupation, financial status or some role in life, such as mother, father, spouse, significant other, sibling, student? Perhaps a physical condition or temporary emotional state? How many “life labels” do you cling to? How do they influence you? What are they and on what are they based? How do you apply labels to yourself? To others? And why?
The mind has a natural tendency to apply labels to people and situations. Just as clothing labels give us necessary “care instructions,” life labels can sometimes be useful. For good or ill, they strongly influence, sometimes even determine, how we see ourselves, how we behave, and often, how others perceive and treat us as well. Some even believe they define one’s place in society.
Beginning early in life, others label us. Long before being aware of such, babies are called active, cute, chunky, sickly, fussy, good, and various other things. As we grow, we gradually become increasingly aware of many other labels: shy, sweet, witty, curious, pretty, responsible, unmanageable, talented, obedient, aggressive, smart, outgoing, dishonest, reserved, loner, dreamer…the permutations are endless. We internalize these labels, perhaps believing them the sum of us, because, at this point, others are our primary source of feedback about ourselves. These stated opinions help form those thoughts that become our own, as we strive to be pleasing, to fit in, to avoid conflict or trouble.
Just as we internalize labels others apply to us, we also learn to label others and form opinions based on the labels given them. Whether valid or not, we may use labels to justify some of our beliefs; putting people in certain mental slots and leaving them there; as a “warning system” or other self-protective mechanism; and as social masks, which at times, leads to pretense and duplicity. In adulthood, especially when meeting new people, many place high value on occupations and titles, one’s address, appearance, “connections” or “status.” This sometimes is revealed in initial questions or focus such as “what do you (&/or your spouse) do for a living?” or “where are you from/do you live/go to school?”. Some pose such questions immediately upon initial contact, before even knowing or asking one’s name. In doing so, more value is placed on perceived prestige or image (of self and/or others), rather than getting to know new acquaintances, learning what may be shared in common, what contributions can be mutually made to each other in healthy ways or other aspects that might actually reveal more truth about people. The more we label one another, the more we define ourselves – and others – by externals, and the less likely deep relationships are to develop.
Because our minds attach significance to unpredictable things, and even though labels are not always reality based, we give them weight and power to influence our thoughts and actions, even when they cause suffering, to ourselves or others. We label ourselves by adopting labels others have given us over our lifetime, and sometimes, also because of aspects, thoughts, feelings we alone know, or even imagine, about ourselves. But you know how sometimes the label in an article of clothing or a new purchase is so irritating you are eager to remove it? Likewise, personal identity labels sometimes need be released, discarded – both those we apply to others, and those we internalize about ourselves. Labels may serve us at times, but they can also be restrictive and misleading, and they are never as multi-dimensional as the person. They diminish and damage others and us. Sometimes we even give them sufficient power to defeat us. Yet every day we often judge others, and ourselves, by external perceptions alone, be they real or imagined.
The difficulty is magnified when people or things are labeled automatically, making snap judgments, putting people “in their place” in our minds. It’s our belief in the validity of labels, rather than the labels themselves, that give them clout. Just as labels can be wrong from the start, likewise they can be outgrown or altered. We have options and opportunities to stop labeling automatically but it’s not always easy to let them go; we become indoctrinated, accustomed to relying on them, whether they actually serve us or are self-defeating. But since we both wear and assign labels, we can release them or change them whenever we like. When we begin to seek facts and truth, we see situations, others, and ourselves differently, and reclaim more of our true selves.
Labels are just that, be they real or imagined. They can become public pretenses and costumes, self-adopted or assigned by others. Even though we allow them to define others and ourselves all too often, they are nothing more than our choices, perceptions, and perhaps bias. They are not the essential parts of us. Listen to the still deep part of you that resists labels, that part of your spirit that refuses to be destroyed by them, the part that knows your self-worth is not actually defined by status or social mask, real or imagined: the part of you that knows and remains true to your principles and core values, regardless of labels, loss or profit, pain or joy, popularity, disregard, scorn, or even disgrace.
When we know who we really are, we release others and ourselves from preconceptions, prejudice, and props. We become more relaxed, more welcoming, more forgiving, more authentic, and less apologetic. We become more capable of having fun and being happy, right now, in the moment. And we give others permission to do the same.
So, just be your authentic self: there is no one better!