On the use of labels

Having just read an article about bisexuality, I began thinking about labels which can be informative and useful, and sometimes restricting and harmful, depending on the circumstances.

Some people love clarity and certainty, the more black and white the better. Categorizing and organizing help us understand our worlds and the people within them. Naming people, places and things helps us feel safe and secure in a world where there is much chaos and confusion. But, these same labels may also lead to rigid, irrational stereotypes.

Using adjectives, descriptors and labels help us communicate with each other. But, we may miss out on getting to know and understand all kinds of people because of our quick, initial impressions and assumptions.

For instance, the bisexuality article points out that if one describes herself as bisexual, that does not necessarily mean that she likes threesomes though some people interpret the label that way. Some also think that bisexuality means that a person is wishy washy wanting to sample many tastes in a cafeteria of choices instead of sticking to one theme, or type of person.

When labels produce inaccurate assumptions, they can result in narrowly stereotyping in a world where people can be full of many colors, tones and shades instead of being only black or white.

We gravitate toward descriptors in order to identify ourselves to each other and we like to belong to some community, some tribe. But, in fact we belong to many communities.

I am a psychotherapist, a mother, a daughter, a wife, an activist, a friend, all at the same time. But, which labels do I use when presenting myself to you? Which descriptors will you use when you help me learn more about you and your life?

And, let’s not over-categorize or stick people in boxes by viewing only one part of them and not the full, whole person who has many parts.

I try to be open to learning more about people before I judge them (especially) harshly, but it is a struggle. It is so much easier to label and cross people off my list than to spend the time and energy it might take to see if we have any similarities, anything at all in common. We might even explore our differences and be intrigued about each other’s uniqueness.

How do we slow down our rapid judgements of ourselves and others, so that we can be more like children, just being curious in open, non-judgmental ways, without limiting people to just one part? How can we wonder about new ideas before rejecting them quickly out of fear or anxiety?

Instead, we often create divisions, disconnections and separations based on minimal data, while there are already many lonely people in the world. Rigid beliefs can be distorted or inaccurate leading to inappropriate and unhealthy actions. For instance, maybe we don’t need to rush to halt all immigration just because a certain faction of people has committed horrible atrocities.

Perhaps without the need for such restrictive labeling, we can realize we are all connected, and maybe we can love one another and ourselves just a little bit more easily, even if we object to some of our parts.

Barbara Sanders, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Nashville: BarbaraSandersLCSW@gmail.com




graphic via WhaleOil

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