Just a Feather ?

ImageOne of the things I find strange when working with people is their willingness to accept labels and then to live their life with the label that someone else has given them. I can meet a client for the first time and they will tell me “I am just a Mum” as if they have no other role in life. I have no objection to someone dedicating themselves to being  a Mum I am one myself but I do not see why there is a need to limit myself to” Just” one. I am also so much more than that within that title. I am a friend, a confidant, a teacher, a guide, a comforter, an occasional moan ,a taxi , a fixer upper  and many more but  always a constant supporter of my child. That is just under the Mum label, of course I am more than that, a wife, a friend, a business woman, an avid animal lover, a book reader and so on the list for me is not complete yet. I believe that it never is, as I want to keep learning and so expanding the roles that I am able to have a part in.

I would say most parents are the same as me but can put themselves down by the use of the word” just”. That small word puts everything in a nice neat box and doesn’t allow for the joy of expansion, gratitude, recognition and acceptance and because it is a label, it can make the label wearer go on the defensive to justify themselves against others who they see are doing more than “just being” whatever it is, without realising how huge their own role is. This limiting belief often supresses their choices. They think that their only defining ability is the label which they have been given or have given themselves, and whist they may yearn for some changes or challenges, they are stuck because they have no belief in anything other than the role they have taken.

I must make it clear that I am talking about unnecessary, unconstructive labels not appropriate constructive ones. There is a huge difference between the two. A constructive label can be put on an illness or condition e.g. a diagnosis and then enable the person to get the appropriate help. Without the correct label being given this might not happen. However, even here some caution needs to be used to ensure that having this label does not prevent something new arising from being appropriately diagnosed and treated as well. Some labels should of course not always be ignored. If someone is classified as dangerous then to ignore that label would be foolhardy.

Once you are labelled as mentally ill, and that’s in your medical notes, then anything you say can be discounted as an artefact of your mental illness.

Hilary Mantel

The labels I am discussing here vary from being just simple ones to more complex but all have the ability to restrict and define, often unfairly, the person and occasionally groups involved. I believe that we as a society compartmentalise people more by casual need to have everything and everyone neatly boxed and understood. We may do this to avoid us feeling confused or scared and to enable us to seek out the categories we feel secure within. Labelling is a habit and often not a very positive one. This desire to label though impacts more of us than we realise and I fear can add to the fear and prejudice we see in society.

Quite recently I attended a party and was met by the committee hosting it. One of the hostesses guided me in to the hall and as she did so quite casually pointed out nearby people to me. “He is a depressive” I am told, and “she is neurotic, really anxious”. These two strangers pointed out to me instantly labelled. “She is really shy and won’t chat to you” ”Avoid him he is a bore always talking about photography”. Label after label to describe people I do not yet know and who might actually have a different personality than the labeller has given them, yet how many of us have been  put off approaching someone because of the label given to us by someone else. “

Even my friends with good intention can label me also “oh, you are okay going there, you are an extrovert you will fit right in”. Actually I love solitude, reading, walking the dogs and many other individual pursuits as well as being with friends but most of all I love seeing beyond the labels, listening to other people and their stories and being amazed by their lives. Am I an extrovert? Honestly no, I just like people and can talk to them but have no need to be centre of attention, in fact prefer not to be. So what gives me that label? It may actually be the fact that I will go and talk to people others avoid?

Going back to that party, the depressive turned out to be a keen gardener who was able to give me a lot of advice about herbs that I wanted to grow. Sure he gets depressed but his love of his garden lifts him out of it alongside the love and support of his family. He told me how his grandchildren came over regularly just to help him water his plants and tend their little bit of garden. Is he a depressive to them? No he is just Grandpa. The “anxious” woman did a lot of voluntary work at a local hospital and raised money for animal welfare. As I worked in a hospital and love animals we had a great conversation about both. Her being anxious didn’t affect that. As for the shy girl, she was indeed shy but loved reading and animals and we had a great chat about both. The photographer too wasn’t the slightest bit boring. I love putting my photographs on Instagram and he gave me a lot of great advice about filters and editing that has encouraged me to try more.

All of the above is relatively simple everyday labelling, although annoying and limiting they can appear to be harmless, but they are not. The fact that a person has a label can prevent them from getting to know and be involved with others .Would I have talked to the people at the party had I listened to their label? When talking to them what if I was looking for the traits of the label, wouldn’t I then have been certain to find them, therefore continuing buying into the label?

Worse though is if the person believes their label which often happens. Imagine how restrictive living your life in a little restrictive box with a label written on it. Being no more than that and accepting you can be no more than that. How sad and self-destructive. Alongside that it can often be a convenient excuse not to make changes in your life that might improve it. How often have you heard from someone “I can’t do that” followed by a reason which is the label under which they are living their life. It is a habit we have all learned but seldom do we stop to think of the possible implications our labels might have.

I know that as we travel through life as well as collecting negative labels we can gather labels that we are rightly proud of but do they truly define us? Or should we accept that the labels we gather both good and bad are mere aspects of us and our life experiences, aspects that we have learned from and grown. We must stop and consider the consequences of labelling both for ourselves and others and the restrictions which occur because of those labels. Instead of labelling people by race, religion, gender abilities or faults can we not just start to see each other as human beings?

My youngest daughter has just started University and is thrilled with all the diversity of life there. She comes home and tells
me about all the new people she is meeting and how interesting they are. I will ask her “where is she/he from/! (Old labelling habits die hard) but she has no answer for me. ”I don’t know she will say but she snowboards too so we might go to Escape leisure Centre soon “or  she says “I have no idea but as he is away from home he is missing his dog so wants to see ours”. She is fascinated by the diversity and keen to learn from those new friends about their culture and life. Her friends also have the same lack of interest to label. They are just excited to meet new people, from different places. I am proud of them all. My wish would be to see society as a whole follow their lead but to achieve this we all have to stop and pay attention to the labels that we give ourselves as well as to others. Notice how restrictive the labels are and ask ourselves honesty “is that all they or we are?” Is it possible to look beyond the label to the real person?

Like everything else the change we wish to see must begin with ourselves.

You must be the change you wish to see in the world. Mahatma Gandhi

If we begin by looking at the labels we put on ourselves, we can start that change. If we remove any “just” that we have put in front of ability or fault and start each day by accepting ourselves warts and all then perhaps we will find it easier to accept others.

“It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humour, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”

— J. W. Goethe

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