The limitations of a label

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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.  

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