Labels are important to my brother. He has autism and with that comes a lot of uncertainty about how he fits into the world. For example, if he says something funny and I laugh, he’s often surprised and asks me why. Was it him that was funny, the statement, both? Is he funny like someone else? What exactly did he say that was funny? In other words, the labels help him to understand himself better.
But there’s a down side. I often have to remind him that not everything has a direct link, he’s not funny because of something definable, or because he’s inherited that trait from someone. He’s just funny. And crucially, the joke stops being funny when he’s repeated it 20,000 times. It’s not a tick box.
Then I explain this, he’ll nod, and we’ll move on. Then, the next time he says something funny and I laugh he’ll ask all the same questions again.
Are you putting a label on yourself?
Take a moment to think about it, I’m sure a label has popped straight into your head as your read this. The thing is, by putting a label on yourself you’re going down a narrow path. Labels can stop us living up to our true potential and they stop other people from seeing who we really are. Think of the shy child again, when does shyness become a reason (or excuse) for avoiding socialising or trying out amateur dramatics? Considering how humans seem to be hardwired to seek out labels it’s surprising how readily we accept the negative ones and let them define our choices. I know that’s the case for me.
Even ‘positive’ labels can have a similar effect. Being told you’re good at handling stress or that you’re brave, for example, can make it hard for you to be vulnerable and ask for help. Having to live up to a label, whether the connotations are positive or negative, puts a huge amount of pressure on us.
Due to the black and white simplicity of these tags, it’s all too easy to forget that you can be brave and great at handling stress sometimes and be the opposite at other times. The same as you can be shy, in general, but become the life of the party when you’re talking about something you’re passionate about.
It’s easy to say ‘stop putting a label on yourself’ or ‘live by your own standards’ but is that really possible? As I’ve learned with my brother, he always needs the reassurance of the label. He’s tall (label) funny (label) full of himself (label) loud (label) but also kind hearted (another label) and insightful (label). These reference points are useful but they aren’t defining.
However, for the sake of this article the first thing I told you about him was that he has autism. The most defining and complicated of all his labels. Why? Well, it helped you to understand him a little bit better didn’t it? But it also comes with a hell of a lot of preconceived notions .
Perspective is Key
Putting a label on yourself can sometimes stop people looking any further beneath the surface. So often when people find out that my brother has autism it’s like a barrier goes up and they begin to act differently around him. This is neither bad or good, I think a lot of people just don’t know how to approach a person with autism. But sometimes it’s like people forget that there’s a person behind the autism. The label becomes all-encompassing. That makes me unbearably sad because he’s so much more than a diagnosis. Autism, just like his many other labels, makes up one facet of who he is. Just like you’re more than whatever label you have in your head.
What I’m trying to say is that perspective is key. It’s impossible to pick just one label to define ourselves by. Humans are amazing, multi-faceted creatures that cannot be limited. I’m not, by any means, a gold standard for marching to the beat of my own drum and eschewing all labels. Quite the opposite in fact. But I am slowly realising that putting a label on yourself just creates a lot of self doubt. It’s funny that it’s taken so many attempts to teach my brother this before it finally sank in with me!
Sometimes it can feel like society has so many ready made labels for us that are impossible to avoid. But it’s always your choice how to react to this, and you don’t have to add your own labels to the clutter.
We’re more than a bullet point list and we can’t sum ourselves up and stop developing. Life isn’t static. It’s a continual process of changing and growing. But, if labels really are your thing, it’s important to remember you can pick new ones any time you want.