Very quickly after we are born we are given our very first label. It normally takes only a few minutes before a nurse slips a small band round an ankle and we officially become “Baby ……..”. And thus it begins. We have started on our course through life, picking up labels all the way.
I was too young to read my first label, as we all are, but it wasn’t long before ‘Baby Crosswell’ started becoming aware of the labels he was collecting. With this recognition came a tendency to behave in the way the labels appeared to prescribe, but more of that later.
Labels, without a doubt, have their uses. Imagine the larder with no labels; is this cornflour, plain flour, custard powder etc? Without labels, confusion reigns. Thankfully plain flour is unlikely to develop an inferiority complex alongside it’s far more adventurous neighbour self-raising flour.
Similarly without labels many tins of food look exactly the same; until they are opened that is. Change round the labels, or omit them altogether, and the contents remain the same but chaos is the result. Peas and custard; Peaches and Baked Beans; not the result we were looking for at all.
Labels for people are a much more complicated, and nuanced, matter. We tend to explain everything and everybody in terms of the labels we give them. What’s worse is once we are labelled it is a short step to using those labels as a justification for the way we react, feel, and behave. The labels start to create when they were intended to describe.
I would like to ask you to think back to your school days. These were your formative years when you were learning huge amounts about yourself and the world around you. Some people will refer to their schooldays as the best years of their lives, but others have a more jaded view.
Our educational system is predicated on labels, and these labels can be difficult to shake off. Pupils are frequently put into sets based on their attainment in specific subjects. Of course the labels used are usually not intended to create stigma, but that is exactly what they can do. Pupils in the higher sets quickly start to describe those in lower sets as “thick” or “stupid”. It is then but a short step before these pupils start to believe they are “thick” and consequently stop trying. Far from assisting less able pupils this labelling appears to indicate a reduction in expectation and this easily becomes self fulfilling.
Pupils who do not conform to the expected behavioural standards are labelled “disruptive” and this label follows them through the educational system. How long before this becomes a badge of honour and the wearer finds it impossible to break the mould?
Mental Health is an area abundant in ‘conditions’ and ‘labels’. A recent advertisement for a major UK Bank featured a selection of people displaying labels on their foreheads describing their mental health diagnosis. These varied from anxiety and depression to eating disorders and phobias. It really didn’t matter that much what the label said, its very presence encouraged a certain view of the wearer, and even worse a certain self image by the wearer.
Tell someone there is something wrong with them, label them with a condition, and they now have a rational for their feelings. “This thing is happening to me, I have got it, so there is nothing I can do.”
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the American Psychiatric Associations standard reference book and it includes over 450 different definitions of mental disorders. That’s an awful lot of labels!
Human beings generally like putting things in pigeon holes. It helps us to find things, manages our expectations, and helps us understand. That’s absolutely fine when it comes to things, but we carry on the practice with people. If we know somebody with anxiety, and let’s face it we all know people, we ‘read the label’ and know what to expect. We think we know how they will be feeling, how they react, and how they will behave. At the same time the ‘owner’ of the label has an idea how they are expected to behave so they tend to conform.
I suffered, for many years, with anxiety and depression. I’m not stupid, I knew what those labels meant and I was quite prepared to hide behind them. I took ownership of ‘my’ anxiety and ‘my’ depression, using expressions like “I can’t do that because of my anxiety”. My family and friends were all aware of my labels and loathe to challenge me, or them. My Wife habitually said “I don’t suppose you want to come to…….”, giving me the perfect opportunity to say no. She would then attend the event without me, explaining that “his anxiety is playing up”.
My labels started to restrict my life more than the anxiety and depression themselves. I found it far easier to conform to everyone’s expectations and, I suppose, I was hiding from life. There is a certain comfort in hiding behind the labels; people tend to leave you alone or, at least, expect less from you.
Of course labels are necessary but I have serious concerns about the ease with which they are handed out, and accepted. Labelling is external; it is something that happens to us. Rarely do we label ourselves; there are plenty of people out there who are only too happy to do it for us! But this is very disempowering, leaving the wearer with the belief that this ‘thing’ is happening to them, there is nothing they can do about it.
I was lucky. I was taught that I was creating anxiety and depression myself, in my own mind. Contrary to my belief there was nothing wrong with me; I hadn’t caught something; I wasn’t ‘wired up’ incorrectly; I was normal. This was a revelation to me as it meant I had the power to beat anxiety and depression and tear up my labels.
I lived my life with labels from minutes after I was born and, I would suggest, most people do. Of course labels have their uses; after all Baby Crosswell was handed over to the correct parents due to the band round his ankle. However many labels can almost develop a life of their own, acting as a ball and chain stopping us developing the life we are truly capable of.
If you are aware of your labels just remember that they do not need to dictate who you are. There is no valid reason why labels should control or restrict you. Dyslexics go to University and get qualifications; anxious people beat their feelings and achieve great success; phobics learn to overcome their phobias and go on to achieve things they never believe they could.
I beat my labels and you can do too.