Labels and Identity...
One of the hallmarks of the past decade for me has been a vast change in my own personal spiritual journey. I am not planning to elaborate on that in this post. However, deeply intertwined with that was my changing view on labels and identities – the subject of this post. First – I should describe what I mean when I talk about labels and identity in relation to this post. Identity is how I view myself, and how we view ourselves in relation to various external factors. Examples of this – I could have an identity as a dentist, as a friend, a mentor (or mentee), a sister, an aunt and so on. One of these identities may be stronger or mean more than another - I might be a mother, an attorney, a sister and a friend, but may feel that the thing that the strongest defining identity is that of a mother. As for labels – this is how I view someone else – so some of the words may be the same – friend, mentor, attorney – however I am using them to describe someone else. And it is important to note that I may have a label for you which you may not hold as an identity for yourself.
First I will talk about identities. I realized within the past few years how important our identities are to us, and how wrapped up we are in them, given how little thought we give to the concept. They are the basis of our place within our community and family, indeed they are often the very foundation of how we view ourselves. Which means that if anything happens to the thing on which we base this identity, it can leave us adrift, with a warped sense of who we are, and a feeling that we have lost our purpose which can lead to a whole host of negative emotions, including depression. Even when we aren’t particularly fond of our identity, or what we feel it represents, sometimes we have such an attachment to this identity that we throw up roadblocks in our own path and block our own way to progress simply based on our ideas about our identity. An example of this - I may feel that I am too old to pursue another career because I have an identity that tells me I am “middle aged”. As a result of that – what are the chances that I will pursue this with dedication and enthusiasm? Or that I may find an alternative path to achieve the end goal that I am trying to achieve? I used the example of career partially because that is a big one for me personally, but also because a lot of people have a deeply rooted identity within their career. As I mentioned previously, this is what gives us a sense of purpose and community. If I am a doctor, then I see myself as a healer, I may see myself as a leader in my community, and someone trusted. If something happens and I am no longer a doctor, I may suddenly feel lost – what is my purpose in life and so on.
As for labels- my biggest lesson around this I learned in relation to expectations. We give people labels, and we have our own pre-conceived notions about what these labels mean about how the person should behave and what we expect from them. Using an example from above – I look at my doctor, and I expect to be healed, to be cared for and looked after. I expect integrity. I might even expect that if I don’t have any money she will treat me anyway because her purpose in life is to heal. (I should say – I don’t actually expect that last one, but I had a conversation with someone recently who said just that! She had a bad experience with a caregiver, because she wasn’t happy that he no longer would give ongoing treatment to a patient when she didn’t have any money. Because of this – she questioned his morals, ethics, everything about him, and even began to doubt his methods!) Now the reality is – these are our expectations. And I find that often, when we give labels, and we lump our expectations in with these labels, then we may make the mistake of judging everyone who we gave that label to, based on the actions of one person who we gave the label to. So all doctors are dishonest because one or two are. All Christians are hypocrites. All lawyers are moneygrabbing. All politicians are evil. And so on. I see this daily in my work. The danger of it lies in the fact that we ignore advice which is in our best interest due to our preconceived ideas about someone based on the label we gave them. It affects our ability to listen to them, it colours what we hear when they speak, and it can lead us down a path of pain as we ignore their advice and counsel.
So what was my lesson when it comes to labels and identity? Well basically – get rid of them!! I mean – sounds easy right? It isn't the labels and identity themselves but how we respond to them. So I am not suggesting that we get rid of the thing which gives us purpose and meaning, I am suggesting that we realise that WE define our meaning and purpose, and not the identity which we assume. Perhaps we can start by getting a bit of distance from the identity. Instead of saying “I am an attorney” you could say “I practice law”. This leads me down the slight tangent of looking at the language that we use – “I am xxxxx” makes it so much harder for use to dissociate ourself from that identity. That too is another story for another time. Another option is to look at the identity and figure out what it is about it that we feel so strongly describes us. I am a doctor – perhaps that identity is about caring, nurturing and healing. If that is taken away from us, how can we express those in other ways? We can take a look at our deeper values, and ensure that we are able to express those. This is also very important – sometimes we get into a career with our values in mind - becoming a nurse because we want to help people for example – and them losing sight of this if we are drowning in paperwork. Once we have an idea about the values that we used to make that choice, we may make a decision to do some voluntary work where we can use our nursing skills to help persons outside the workplace and achieve additional fulfilment. We need to be careful about assuming an identity and then letting it define us so rigidly that we become paralyzed when change comes.
As for labels – again I think we need to take a serious look at our expectations based on the labels we give, and think about each person as an individual, looking at their motives and actions as that of an individual, and not lumping together a whole group of people based on our perception of one person. More importantly we need to be careful of our preconceived notions themselves. Who are we to set a standard for persons based on our label of them? If we look closely we will see that we often judge people by our own standards, which are shaped by our experiences, culture, upbringing and values, and the labels we give are also a product of these. We need to consider people with empathy, and understanding, and perhaps put those labels on the back burner (and perhaps ignite them!!)
For me the lesson was clear. Instead of being attached to my identity, and to the labels I give others, instead I open my mind and I might be surprised at the person that I see in front of me!
Big love from a small island
Ps - the photo above is of a beautiful beach I visited when I lived in England. I never thought there were nice beaches in England - another useless label. Please note - I did not swim!