Labels are everywhere. We read food labels, look at clothing tags, and review labels on medicine and vitamin jars. We give ourselves labels, too, or we are given labels by friends, enemies, parents, teachers, doctors, and counselors. Some of these labels we embrace, others we feel ambivalent about, and still others we reject. Too often, we hang onto labels that are no longer relevant or are painful but were given to us by someone in authority who we felt couldn’t be wrong.
In my counseling work, I often encounter students who are trying to look beneath the surface of their self- and other-imposed labels. I encourage them to consider each one and decide which ones “fit” and which ones don’t. We talk about the fact that labels can change over time, given our evolving sense of self, our changing roles, and our life experiences.
For example, from 2001 to 2004, I labeled myself “wife”. In 2004, when my husband and I separated, I was at a loss for what to call myself. I was still a “wife”, but not living the life associated with that label. In 2005, when my divorce was final, I was still at a loss for how to label myself. On forms that asked for my marital status I chose to label myself as “single”, but even that didn’t feel comfortable. And now, none of the standard labels fit. I’m not single, not divorced, not married; I’m a woman who’s in a committed relationship with one person. Try putting that phrase on a standardized form!
Similarly, when I was a few years into my recovery from binge-eating disorder, I realized that it no longer felt okay to label myself as “someone with binge-eating disorder”. I no longer had the same symptoms. However, I wasn’t completely “recovered” yet, so I chose to label myself “in recovery from binge-eating disorder”. Some time after that, when the thoughts, fears, and behaviors associated with binge-eating disorder were (most often) a distant memory, I claimed the label “recovered”. I am recovered from binge-eating disorder.
We all have dozens of labels, some given to us and some chosen. Each day we have a choice about whether we live our life according to those labels or live beyond them, not allowing them to be the sum total of our identity. What labels are you grappling with today? Embrace the ones that feel okay to you, search for new ones, and let go of the others. Allow yourself to live beyond the labels that have been painful or have held you back.
Peace, joy, and health,