The limitations of a label


I often notice people freely using labels to define their own or someone else’s suffering, ie “she’s ADHD”, “I’m depressed”, or “he’s anxious”. It’s easy to forget that a label isn’t an actual thing or object; it’s simply a name given to describe a set of symptoms. Yet a label can have a very powerful effect on your sense of self-worth and identity as well as how you’re perceived by others.

A label is useful to the extent that it gives you appropriate access to treatment for relief and healing of your symptoms, to funding for services and to community and online support. It’s also useful to the extent that it provides validation that the symptoms you experience are valid, understood and treatable.

Yet when you start to over-identity with the label you’ve been given by a professional and believe that it is who you are, ie I’m depressed or I’m anxious, and that label starts saturating the lens through which you see the world, then it’s time to take a step back. I don’t wish to diminish the seriousness or suffering that symptoms cause, rather to make the point that you are not your label.

The majority of us are likely to be given a diagnosis or a label at some point during our lives. You may be diagnosed with depression, but you are not depression. You experience a number of symptoms which, when combined, are called depression. You may be diagnosed with cancer but you are not cancer. There is a huge difference here. 

You disempower and limit yourself immensely if you take on any label as your identity, no matter how debilitating or serious your symptoms are. If you have a mental illness or a cancer diagnosis, part of the challenge is in managing how this label impacts your identity, ie how you now view yourself post-diagnosis. The same applies to using labels to define the people around us. We disempower others when we see them through the eyes of the label, especially children.

What about the labels you use to describe your appearance (ie fat, thin, plain…) or your relationship status (single, divorced, married…), your sexuality (gay, hetero, bi…) or your beliefs (spiritual, atheist, feminist…) How do these labels define how you see yourself? How others see you? The danger with labelling is that it can increase your sense of separation and isolation from others with its narrow focus on what’s different about you and what’s different about others. It doesn’t take into account our common humanity.

You are always more than a label and just a small shift in how you language your problems can provide space for the symptoms to be present and for the rest of your experience to be here too. It’s understanding that you have a problem, but you are not that problem. You are a human being first and foremost, with many roles: friend, worker, parent, daughter, son, learner, adventurer, etc. and many strengths. Don’t lose sight of the other aspects to you! Over the course of your life, you will experience highs and lows and that’s part of the journey we’re all on. Collectively. 

Therefore a label should always be held as lightly and with as much care as possible lest you forget that at the end of the day it’s just a word that serves to get you the right treatment and support, so that you can get back to the business of living.  

Why you should pay more attention to your emotions Part 2


In Part 1 of this post:, we explored how your emotions hold important information about your current state of wellbeing. So how do you access that inner information when you have spent years avoiding your uncomfortable feelings? Here are some quick tips to start you off: 

Slow down

When you’re all worked up inside, see if you can take 5-10 minutes for yourself where you’re not doing anything. Find somewhere you can be alone so that you can feel into what’s going on for you.

Be in your body

To feel your emotions you have to be in your body. The quickest way to drop into your body is to pay attention to your body’s sensations. A useful starting place is noticing your breath – one minute of paying attention to your breath will bring you into your body pronto!

Don’t think, just feel

Most of us think we are feeling our emotions, but what we’re actually doing is analysing and rationalising them so we can solve the problem with our minds. If you’re trying to work out why you’re feeling the way you do, then you’re actually thinking about your emotions. Having said that, it can be useful to ask yourself why you’re feeling this way, then wait and feel the response in your body rather than with your mind. To extract the guidance from your emotions, you need to feel your feelings, which is a sensory experience, rather than a mental process.

Forget what others said or did; for now the focus is on what’s been triggered in you

Your feelings are about you, no matter how badly someone else has behaved. Even if another person has been the trigger for your distress, ultimately how you feel is your domain and it’s up to you to take responsibility for your feelings.

One way to do this is to get curious about what the other person has triggered in you. Is it fear of rejection, or of not being liked? Is it a lack of respect for you? Were you misunderstood? Or rudely interrupted? Did you feel invisible? Whatever’s coming up for you, once you realise what’s been triggered in you, then you can go a step deeper and sense into what, for example, being rejected or being misunderstood means to you. 

Bring empathy to your inner judge and critic

That persistent inner judge and critic can create havoc in our system, bringing up feelings of shame and unworthiness in situations where we feel vulnerable. Shame is when we feel inherently bad or unworthy of love and belonging. It’s a toxic emotion that’s strongly connected to addiction, depression, anxiety and even suicide. Brené Brown’s work has shown that empathy is the best antidote to shame. If shame is coming up in your emotions, see if you can have some empathy for that part of you that’s feeling unworthy or bad, as it will go a long way to dissipating those nasty shame gremlins. 

Have patience

Above all, be patient with yourself as it can take some time to adjust to this kind of inner attention if you’re not used to it. Yet the rewards are many, including building trust in yourself, inner resilience, strengthening emotional intelligence and learning to sort through what issues are yours and what belongs to others in your relationships. Not to mention the information your system gives you when you pay attention to it!

How do you work with your emotions? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.