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September 27, 2010 / Jenny Ann Fraser

Limiting Ourselves With Labels

It’s a not so warm Saturday afternoon,but it is warmer than it has been for weeks, and you are one of only 15 people determined to make the most of this afternoon’s weather,, because despite the fact that the sun is falling behind the clouds for up to 45 long chilly minutes at a time, it very well might be your last chance to sit outside for many months.

You are having a nice afternoon with your spouse, a first date, a second date, or just a good time with a few friends.

The drinks are good and the food is enjoyable. You are determined to tough it out, and relieved to see that the waitress has turned in her tank top and short skirt for a long-sleeved t-shirt and a blanket sarong pinned in place with a large safety-pin.

Still, you can’t help wondering about the 15th person on the deck.

This is the woman who has been sitting here since before you and your partner/date/friends showed up. This woman sits all alone with a notebook and a pen, fervently writing, occasionally picking up her cell phone and sending a text message.

She must have been stood up.

Maybe, she’s having a text message fight with her significant other who is not coming to meet her as planned and she’s trying valiantly not to look like a loser.

That poor woman. She must feel awful right now.”

I wonder what she’s writing?”

Maybe, she is choosing to be here, and having just as good a time as everyone else? Maybe, she is feeling truly inspired right now and wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else?”

This weekend I ended up having to go in to work for a few hours to finish a small side project. I decided that I would finish the job and then move on to a near-bye pub that had wi-fi where I could sit on a cozy couch and type away on my mini-notebook until I felt like doing something else. But the pub was closed.

All of the coffee shops that I checked out were too crowded and noisy so I ended up on a 6th storey rooftop patio that was open probably for the first time in weeks.

Sadly, I can’t use my mini-notebook outside since I can’t see the screen so I began to write the old-fashioned way.

The previous couple of days had been oddly full of inspiration. I had written more than a few ideas in my tiny little idea book. I love what is pouring out of me almost as much as I love the fact that it is pouring out of me.

I decided to make an effort to tackle an idea that I contemplate often.

I’m talking about the concept of labels and the fact that how we define ourselves and others plays a massive role in how we live our lives.

It is difficult to avoid labelling and yet, I can’t help but see it as something that we need to become aware of so that we can learn to stop doing it altogether. Even though I don’t see how necessarily, I do know that if I am unable to see a solution to a problem, it doesn’t mean that the solution doesn’t exist. It might just take time on my part, or an entirely different mind to see it.

There are so many moments in life when we find ourselves in a position where we have to explain “who we are,” to someone or other. We do this when we are meeting new people for the first time, dating, job hunting, or simply trying to be understood by partners or friends. Labels simply make sense. I am not sure how to have these conversations without them.

And yet, I am becoming more and more aware of the power that these labels have to limit who we become.

I wrote recently of how I sometimes have thoughts that seem to originate from outside of me that always form tiny life-defining moments.

These are not moments that I can create, they happen on their own, although, I know that the work that I am doing will help to develop that intuition. The point is that when they occur, they create space for new possibilities that force me to question my current assumptions about everything in life.

One such thought happened about 2 ½ years ago on a January afternoon as I was walking back to work after lunch.

I was contemplating, as I often did, my crazy ADHD brain as well as my anxiety disorder and how both were sabotaging my efforts to learn to sing.

The thought that came to me as I looked for a solution to this long-term, life-limiting problem was “If I am this person with ADHD and an anxiety disorder that limits my potential, then how can I ever be anything else?”

I seriously didn’t understand in that moment what that thought meant. But, a couple of months later, it began to make more sense. (Sometimes we have to be willing to spend time with a question before we are ready to comprehend the answers.)

I at one time, was diagnosed with ADHD an anxiety disorder, and depression, but if I make those labels a part of my identity, then I will never learn how to be anything other than scattered, fearful, depressed and stressed. That is not how I want to live.

However, if I identify as a work in progress with unlimited potential to learn how to solve problems, then clearly, my diagnoses do not have to be the defining factor in who I become or how I live my life. Instead, I can use them as signposts to help me to understand myself better so that I might be more effective. It would be so easy to spend my time focused solely on my deficits and miss out entirely on my gifts. I don’t want these labels to limit either my future, or this moment if I can do anything about it.

We are what we think. If we choose to live in the realm of the tangible and the proven, rejecting any notion of a higher power, or metaphysical reality, still, we are what we think.

No Human being alive will set a goal to accomplish anything that he or she truly believes is impossible, and yet over and over there are always those who achieve what most don’t believe in. Could that be because the majority of us are too attached to our limited thinking and definitions of ourselves?

This is why I think we would all do well, if we figured out the answer to the question, “How do we become aware of, and begin to let go of our labels so that we may expand our personal limits?” And while we’re at it, we can also begin to learn to stop labeling and limiting others.

I suppose the key is to become comfortable with the questions, not just the answers. Losing labels leaves us with the great question “Who Am I?” and I imagine that it would take some work to learn to be comfortable with that. But at the same time, I also imagine that it would be a great comfort indeed.

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20 Comments

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  1. Emily Jane / Sep 27 2010 11:53 am

    Amazing post – I have something going up on Wednesday about how what we think has such a great impact on how we live our lives. It’s a really hard habit to break, to stop labelling, but I think as long as you catch yourself slipping into that habit, you can make an effort to stop. Each time your awareness of doing it is heightened, that can remain in your memory as something you’re “not supposed to do”. Kind of like conditioning. With enough practice and reminders, I think we can definitely break it 🙂

    • Jenny Ann Fraser / Sep 27 2010 1:13 pm

      Thanks Emily,
      It is so true that we can learn to catch ourselves and then begin to break the habit. I’m still stuck with the “how to explain myself,” question… but luckily, I enjoy questions.

  2. TUNER / Sep 28 2010 12:05 am

    BRAVO Jenny! What a great post! (I especially loved the lead in scenario). The power of our minds is so great that we can’t comprehend it. I used to ‘think’ that I wasn’t good enough, or strong enough or..whatever my fears were feeding me. I have anxiety, or I am poor. Then I realized how those labels only make you think more negative thoughts, and you subconsciously train your brain to exagerate the negatives. I tell myself they are just words. If I write them on paper, I can erase them and substitute a better, more positive word instead. I dont have ‘anxiety’, instead I get ‘excited’. Excited reminds me of fun things I like to do. I am not ‘poor’, I am exceptional at saving money and making wise purchases’. Who doesnt feel good after saving money? So, I erase those not-so-good words out of my mind, and always try to put the positive word in its place. I then noticed myself seeing others in a more positive way. Labels will always be there, in all situations, but they don’t have to be negative ones !

    • Jenny Ann Fraser / Sep 28 2010 9:03 am

      Yes, you are a genius!
      I love the idea that the labels don’t have to be negative!
      Life really, really, does change when you change what’s going on in your head. It can be difficult to erase those old thought patterns but it can be done and the rewards are huge! We do subconsciously train our brains, so we can consciously re-train them too!

  3. Shiona / Sep 28 2010 8:03 am

    We all receive labels in our early childhood. Just as you overheard those people saying you couldn’t sing, I heard my P.E. teacher say that I didn’t have the right type of body for rhythmic gymnastics. My dream was shattered, my enthusiasm flopped and my loathing for my body became the center of my universe. This is what a carelessly dropped nonchalant remark can cause to a sensitive child.

    Labels do have a formidable effect on our lives and I witnessed it in my practice as a teacher too. Students who were misbehaved and called names by both teachers and other students more often than not became worse; they actually began to live the roles that were attributed to them, contrary to all expectations. It can take years to realize that as a human being you cannot identify yourself with a definition given to you.

    And yet, under certain circumstances, labels can have a positive effect. I will again quote my teaching practice. Sometimes kids lack self-confidence and perform below their level. Then I deliberately but subtly commented on certain characteristics of theirs, so that they can change their own view of themselves. Probably what I was trying to do was substitute one label for another, but with many students it worked well.

    The most dangerous labels, however, are those that come from within.

    • Jenny Ann Fraser / Sep 28 2010 9:12 am

      Beautiful Shiona!
      I suppose that the issue is negative labels and what to do with them.
      Yes, we can be truly damaged as children, but I wonder if that is avoidable. The person who mentioned that I couldn’t sing was not trying to discourage me in any way, and in fact would never have said what they did had they known I was there. Sometimes comments are made on purpose, but ultimately, I think that most if not all of us will grow up with these experiences. It’s what we do with them as adults that matters.
      If we understood both the power of our thoughts and the fact that we can learn to control them so that they don’t control us. The key would be coming to an understanding of what they are.
      Thank you for the stories regarding your teaching experience. How lucky your students were to have a teacher who is truly understanding.

  4. Astrid / Sep 28 2010 1:56 pm

    I am that woman at the coffee shop, restaurant, on a patio who feverishly writes in her black moleskin with her fountain pen (feels so nice) while answering her kids/friends texts once in a while.

    Not sad, not lonely, even if stood up by a friend. Hence why I always carry my notebook and my fountain pen. 🙂

    • Jenny Ann Fraser / Sep 28 2010 2:20 pm

      Welcome Astrid,
      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.
      Ah, I think you and I might be very similar… How lucky are we to be able to enjoy such quality time with ourselves. Yes, the favorite pen, and favorite notebook are my favorite must have fashion-accessories!

  5. Belinda Munoz + The Halfway Point / Sep 28 2010 6:20 pm

    As a parent of a young child, I can’t help but consider this post from a child’s point of view. I think labels can either be empowering or damaging for little kids. They are such astute and sensitive beings and they certainly pick up on the weight that words carry. Sadly, there are teachers who are unaware that praise or blame can stay with a child for a long time, whether or not they intend it to. Some adults use words as scare tactics to get a child to behave, forgetting that they are fragile and far from fully formed. (I’ve seen this on playgrounds; thankfully, have not witnessed any of my child’s teachers subject their students in this manner.)

    I wrote a post more about the positive labels that we ought to claim, regardless of how we’re perceived or anointed with by others. And from what I’ve observed, the way folks perceive us is largely influenced by how we define ourselves. (If I introduce myself to a stranger as a writer, he or she will label me a writer from there on out.) Most people don’t dig too deep, from my experience.

    • Jenny Ann Fraser / Sep 29 2010 8:49 am

      Thanks so much Belinda!
      You are so right, there are positive labels that help us rather than hinder.
      I am so glad that we’re starting to become more aware of how what we say can have a lasting impact on anyone’s lives.
      I also hadn’t given a lot of thought to how our own labels affect how others perceive us, but I think you are very right. That is how it works. I guess the key to all of this is awareness…

  6. Penny / Sep 29 2010 5:48 pm

    Hello! I stumbled on your blog. 🙂 Glad I did. This is a great post. It reminds me of a paper I wrote for one of my lit classes. Labels are everywhere. Great writing.

    Penny

    PS I love the blog look, too!

    • Jenny Ann Fraser / Sep 29 2010 6:25 pm

      Hello Penny!
      I am glad you stumbled on my blog too! Welcome, and thank you for the generous compliments.

  7. Andrea DeBell - britetalk / Sep 29 2010 6:54 pm

    Hi Jenny Ann!

    I agree that labels limit ourselves. We end up associating ourselves with these labels in a deep and definite manner. It seems easier to put ourselves and others in little neat categories. We can then comfortably live as if we were these roles. It’s then harder and harder to get rid of them so we can expand into a greater role.

    Once we become aware that we are associating ourselves with a specific role, it’s easier to release the label. It’s than that we can get closer to achieving our full potential. It’s a worthwhile process of awareness and self-discovery.

    Thanks for your thoughts and for making me think about my labels. 🙂 Loving blessings!

    • Jenny Ann Fraser / Sep 29 2010 9:01 pm

      Hello Andrea,
      It is true, that we do get confused about our roles. Having read your comment, it makes me think that I should be asking myself, “what role am I playing now?”. That would certainly help with awareness.
      Thanks for that!

  8. Ollin / Sep 30 2010 12:32 am

    Jenny, thank you so much for this. It made me feel very… relieved. Haha. No, but seriously, this post really moved me. Made me start to think of how I view my own limitations through the labels that have given to me, or I have given myself.

    I grew up in a working class family, and I often heard “there’s no money” more often than I heard even the words “I love you.” So I often label myself as somone who is always struggling to get by. So it is no surprise that i often do struggle with finances. I think growing up in the latino culture has it’s labels too. Latinos are often portrayed as maids, or janitors, or gangsters or drug lords. We have very few role models in the media that look like us. Few brown people who we can say really made it.

    As far as writing, I can count the number of Latino writers in the U.S. that have really made it big: Junot Diaz, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Rudolfo Anaya, and Sandra Cisneros. So there’s another label that limits me in the idea that I think that no one would publish me because they would think I wasn’t mainstream enough, or people wouldn’t identify with my writing, etc.

    Then of course there is the gay label, that is similar. The idea that an openly gay man writer can’t really have mainstream success. Although there is some evidence of this, but as you say when we have those labels strangling us its hard for us to see all the possibilities that we really can entertain in life.

    Well, Jenny, I’m going to have to re-examine some of my labels now. Thanks for the thoughtful post, and I hope you keep it up! 🙂

    • Jenny Ann Fraser / Sep 30 2010 10:42 am

      Thank you Ollin!
      It moves me in a really big way to know that I can inspire others to think differently!
      My Dad taught me something really valuable with his life that I am only beginning to truly understand now.
      He grew up poor and black in Liverpool, England where it was the belief of both the family and the community that this was who they were, and this is who they will always be.
      My Dad moved to Canada, dropped those ideas and worked his way up to have a much better life than most of his family has now. He really didn’t allow labels to get in the way.
      The other thing that strikes me about your comment is that you list Latino writers who have made it in the past. What about those Latino writers of the future? Namely one Ollin Morales? 🙂
      I’d love to hear about what you come up with after you’ve pondered this for a while.

  9. nrhatch / Oct 18 2010 11:19 am

    Hey, saw your post on Ollin’s blog this morning and enjoyed it. I left a comment, but it may still be awaiting moderation.

    Decided to swing by here and subscribe to your blog.

    Scrolling through your posts, I saw this . . . a topic near and dear to my heart:

    http://nrhatch.wordpress.com/2010/02/22/we-are-not-the-labels-we-wear/

    Write on!

  10. Jenny Ann Fraser / Nov 24 2010 11:13 am

    Thank you so much for the link. It is greatly appreciated!

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