We live in a society in which we are drenched in, and defined by, labels – both by others and by our selves. We are white, black, or Hispanic; upper, middle or working class; Catholic, Muslim, Evangelical, or Jewish; liberal, conservative, or libertarian; cool kid, jock, nerd, or slut; smart or dull; educated or uneducated; a success or a failure; soft and sensitive, or hard and determined.
The list is almost endless.
At one level, this labeling and categorizing is useful. It is a short hand way to understand people. If this person is white, working class and Catholic I can – hopefully in a preliminary and contingent way – fill in some of the blanks, thus getting a head start on knowing who she is.
In our culture, however, this tendency is way overstated and seldom challenged in any systematic way. The reason? Labeling is a superbly effective mechanism for extending and deepening the values that predominate in the mainstream culture: Compete and win; dominate and control.
Here’s how it works.
Unless it is used thoughtfully and with great care, labeling freezes time and diminishes our sensitivity and creativity in dealing with our self and others. Then, with these effects in place, it becomes the perfect prelude to the fundamental judgment that drives our “compete and win” culture: Is this person – or are these people – better or worse than me?
When “what” a person is becomes “who” he is, a set of perceptions are activated that, because of their long history in the culture, will not be changed in this moment. In “this” encounter, with “this” person, a knee-jerk liberal, or a jock, or a rural, Mid-western housewife, is a fixed and unchangeable concept. If our labels unthinkingly predominate, no new history will be written, in this interaction, with this person. Time will stand still.
At a more personal level, our labeling habits also deaden our ability to see others – and ourselves – as we really are.
Imagine, for example, a conversation about politics with a new person? Very early on, with subtle (or not so subtle) cues, each person will reveal his position on a current, hot button issue – abortion or Obama care, for example. At that moment, the other person will “know” with whom she is dealing: “He is a fellow social conservative,” or “she is libertarian ideologue.” From that point forward, more times than not, an argument, rather than a discussion, will ensue that flattens the other’s position back to positions that typify people who fit that label.
And, in the typical case, it is not just the other person who reduces us to a stereotype. We, too, are fully complicit engaging, with little or no awareness, in the following thought process: Since the person I am talking to is an ideologue on the “other” side, I need to assert – in defense – the arguments that best support “my” position. What is lost in this process is any instinct to share or even, in the moment, to be aware of:
- The ambiguities that color my support for my side’s bottom line positions; or
- Any sympathies I might feel, if not for this other person’s ultimate positions then, at least, for the values that inform them.
Reflecting the win/lose instincts so deeply embedded in all of us by the mainstream culture’s competitive mindset, I feel impelled to avoid these complexities, believing that – if I acknowledge them – I will “lose” the partisan argument that this labeling process has set up.
Needless to say, labeling and self-labeling is not limited to political discussions. So, for example, she wants to clean up to prepare for guests and he wants to watch the ball game. Think how quickly he becomes a selfish jerk (in her eyes) and she becomes a controlling bitch (in his). And then, all too often, these labels – through sheer repetition – are internalized, becoming part of how the husband and wife view themselves as well.
This process shows up with special poignancy in my psychotherapy practice. It is amazing to me how many people will tell me, in our first conversation, that they are an obsessive-compulsive, or an abused spouse, or a social misfit.
Notice how, with this simple, culturally engrained act, this person has reduced himself to a self-labeling symptom? While the bad things that the label identifies are undoubtedly important, you can be sure that – having been labeled in this way – our social misfit (for example) spends far more psychic energy noticing the behaviors that confirm her diagnosis than she does on those that contradict it: The upside of the emotional sensitivity that also causes her social anxiety; or the many moments of intimacy that she shares with herself and others, notwithstanding the label she has learned to accept and live with,.
To resist and counteract this endemic labeling tendency, what is required is a fundamental reorientation in the way we view ourselves.
Labeling turns us into things or, at best, a series of things. I am (or you are) a college educated, middle class, church-going lawyer who is married, lives in a suburb of Houston, and loves to play tennis. (To confirm the power of labeling, change one or several of these variables and notice how quickly your image of this person changes).
So if we are not a series of things what, then, are we?
My answer: We are biological beings constantly in the process of becoming. From birth, we are exposed – and react – to an endless variety of events. And who we are now, in this moment, reflects the accumulation of these events to this point in time.
This does not mean we are free to become whatever we chose to be. To the contrary, because we are hard wired to be creatures of habit, the past powerfully affects what we might hope to become. But while the work is hard, change – even fundamental change – can take place.
And this is where possibility comes in. The future is uncertain. Many things, known and unknown, planned and cosmically unexpected, will determine who we become. But we can be active agents in this process, developing an ongoing vision of the person we hope to become and, then, with this vision before us, acting – trying this, trying that.
Then, we can repeat this process, reaffirming or modifying our initial vision and making our next choices on the basis of the realities – internal and external, emotional and practical – that define this new moment in time.
So who are we? We are a process that, over time, is “moving in possibility,” a wonderful phrase first offered to me by one of my important life teachers, David Crump.
I close with an example of the downside of labeling – and how this habitual way of viewing ours self and others can be turned around when we focus on process and possibility.
Here is a typical description of narcissism, a label that is regularly applied to people both clinically and in ordinary conversation:
It is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy; a pattern of self-centered or egotistical behavior that shows up in thinking and behavior. Narcissistic people won’t (or can’t) change their behavior even when it causes problems at work or when other people complain about the way they act, or when their behavior causes a lot of emotional distress to others. And narcissists will never admit to being distressed by their own behavior. They always blame others for any problems.
This relentlessly negative description of a narcissist plucks very little that is positive from the accumulated life experience of the person who is given the label. But, in each instance, there are reasons of disposition and circumstance that would, if fully known, explain why these why these patterns emerged.
Needles to say, these explanatory reasons will vary greatly from individual to individual. We are complicated beings. But what is always true is that these entirely negative “symptoms” don’t tell the full story.
So, for example, one reality I have noticed with more than one narcissist is that he can be fairly viewed as a person with a very robust relationship with his own brain and who, on the flip side, has left his relationships with others undernourished.
Notice how, with this perspective in place, we have replaced the confrontational, negative, and possibility deflating narcissist label with a more hopeful story that offers “movement in possibility.” Embracing this nonjudgmental description of his “process,” our narcissist will be far better able to create a vision for the future – and make the day-by-day choices – that can lead to more mutually nourishing relationships with the people in his life.