- Posted January 29, 2014 by
washington, District of Columbia
This iReport is part of an assignment:
The written word: Your personal essays
Labels- reducing ourselves to 140 characters
Lately I've been ruminating on labels, the hashtags that I associate with my identity, how I paint a picture of myself in one-line bios and bullet-list descriptors: Mom. Teacher. Girlfriend. Fitness competitor. Grad student. Volunteer. Ex-wife. Daughter. Former Marine. Labels do interesting work in our lives. We sometimes think of the act of labeling someone in the negative sense. It's human nature to desire to sort and classify things, including people, and especially ourselves. Anyone who's watched The Breakfast Club, though, knows the limitations and pitfalls of this kind of knee-jerk social organizing. Yes, we are ALL a princess, a jock, a nerd, and a basket case.
In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin presented the idea that we should have many facets of our identity-- many ways to label or describe ourselves-- so that if there is an unforeseen change or threat to one component of our identity- one of our 'labels'- we are not too shaken. If you identify yourself in too limited a fashion, for example, primarily as a wife who later becomes divorced, your world will be more unsettled than if you have a bulwark of labels to shore you up. Identify too much as a mother, and the empty nest syndrome may be devastating. Too much as your occupation, and life may be hard to bear if furloughs or layoffs strike.
Sometimes we become overwhelmed by our many labels, feeling that we are being pulled in too many directions to respond to all the areas of life that compete with our energy and attention. We may feel that we are watering ourselves down too thin to try to cover all areas, which causes us to not be able to put 100% of our time and effort into the one thing that really deserves it. We bemoan that we are not GREAT at living up to any one of our labels, though we may be very good at most of them. We are spouses, parents, children, partners, friends, colleagues, fitness enthusiasts, students, pet owners, hobbyists, entrepreneurs, employees, employers, citizens, religious devotees. Instead of seeing our competing responsibilities as a drain on our resources or as a permanent provider of guilt for the way they remind us that we are less than perfect, I urge you to embrace your many labels and know that they are making you a stronger, more resilient person. A diversified personality, if you will.
Think about how you label yourself. Write your personal labels down. Reflect on each one for a few moments. What is that label doing to you, emotionally? Is it a source of pride? Shame? Guilt? Happiness? Are there labels that have expired, but which you carry around with you like a loaf of moldy bread? For example, as an English major, I have often labeled myself a writer, but I've never published anything, and frankly, don't even really enjoy writing regularly. I have friends who actively blog, journal, and write as daily activity. Not me. I've always felt like a fake and a failure in this regard. A wannabe. I always had this nagging sense that I SHOULD be writing something, publishing a journal article, developing a novel. This label was weighing on me, a real mental burden that sucked my sense of personal satisfaction and happiness dry. I was never doing enough or doing the right things to live up to this label. One day, as simply as flipping a switch, I peeled this label off myself and with it about two tons of guilt and shame. I looked myself in the mirror and said: you really are NOT a writer! Do something else! Be something else!
Yeah, I know you're thinking, wait a minute, you're writing a blog post, aren't you?
Yes, and this blog post is the first thing I've written since 2009. And it only happened after I divested myself of the mental burden of the label WRITER. Maybe the label BLOGGER resonates more with who I really am, even if the difference between the two monikers is not apparent to you.
Labeling can be positive. In October, I went to an interactive art experience at the Skyline hotel in Washington, DC. Many, mostly local, artists had spaces throughout the hotel and its parking garage where they flanked their installation pieces or stood ready to assist the hoi polloi engage with their interactive works. One such artist was a young man, Paul Shortt, walking around carrying an over-sized diploma declaring him to be a master of fine arts, kind of like you'd expect to see someone wearing one of those sandwich boards to advertise a discounted jewelry store.
As I spoke with him, he explained his purpose: he wanted to show how our culture places such importance on the acquisition of titles, labels, and other forms of validation, which may or may not really mean anything at all. We are all about credentials and proof! Did his MFA confer on him the ability to produce art? Did it tell people "I am an artist" in a way that the world would not have known before? We also spoke of how labels can bestow confidence in people. I told him that I had recently made my daughter her first set of business cards. She is 11, and she makes polymer clay charms, ornaments, and magnets. Really cute stuff. I was trying to get her to be more directed and entrepreneurial about this hobby of hers, so we designed business cards together on VistaPrint. In the card's text, I identified my daughter as Zoe Decker- Crafter.
Maybe I'm imagining things, but I firmly believe that seeing herself identified as a CRAFTER made her view herself and her hobby in a whole new light. She felt legit and started to bring a professional mindset to her hobby. This didn't kill her creativity....it seemed to provide a new and exciting way for her to think about sharing her hobby with the world.
It reminded me of a conversation I'd had with my boyfriend earlier. I had made a mental note of the fact that when he first brought a person up in conversation ( someone I did not know), he would consistently use two labels to identify the person: his or her name and occupation. I always thought it funny, because some of my closest friends....I have NO IDEA what kind of job they do. I have had to connect with them on Linked In to discover that they are environmental engineers or accountants!! Most of them, I know their general fields or their satisfaction or discontent with their employment, but I really don't know what many of my friends do for a living. I know their hobbies. Their interests and passions. Alex is a dedicated Christian and fitness buff. Chris is my music loving, pod-casting friend. Andy is my running and Broadway- shows friend. Eva is my movie friend and the #1 Chargers fan living in Virginia. Lois is my happy hour friend who loves the beach. When the people I know come into my mind, there are labels that stick to them, and I wonder if they say more about the people they claim to identify or ME and what is important to me.
How do you describe people you know to others in conversation? What aspects of their life do you focus on? What does that say about YOU, more than them? It makes me wonder what labels appear when they think of me. Imagine this. How would your friends describe you in a word or two at a cocktail party? What label do you carry around like an over-sized diploma. Is it a burden? What one word should describe you on a business card that introduces you to the world? Don't just dabble in a hobby. Introduce yourself to people at your next mixer as a photographer or a ham radio operator. Or a blogger. It's kind of like when you tell people you are dieting, so you get that social accountability. Go ahead and throw out the old, used-up labels, promote the ones that linger in the background of your life, and maybe use 2014 as the year you try a new one on for size.