What popped into your mind? Did you immediately think of your job title? Did you identify yourself with a relationship term, like wife, daughter, or Elvis fan? Maybe you described your body ("I am a svelte size 10"), your personality ("I am an optimist"), or your favorite hobby ("I am a heavy drinker"). Identity labels like these are useful, even necessary. They shape the way we act and feel (and the way people act and feel toward us) in every situation, from taking the bus to taking a lover. But many labels are misleading, and none can fully describe the multifaceted reality that is a human being. Moreover, any external criteria we use to label ourselves—looks, power, health, relationships, anything—can disappear in a heartbeat. So really, the only way to avoid a lot of insecurity, fear, and suffering is to learn how to wear our identities lightly and let go of them easily.
A Rose By The Name "Creeping Vetch" Would Not Be a Popular Flower
When people quote Juliet's famous line "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet," they usually fail to mention that not long after saying it, Juliet was pushing up flowers in the least desirable way. In Shakespeare's Europe, surname was everything: Your family background determined the way you would be treated. Today judging people based on inherited labels that indicate ethnic and family affiliation is considered politically incorrect, so we place even more importance on other criteria, like looks, clothes, and occupational titles.
Think about it. When we're getting to know a stranger, we don't ask, "What do you love most?" or "What have you suffered?" Nope, we go right for the money: "What do you do for a living?" We respect and admire people (including ourselves) who have climbed to a high rung on the occupational-prestige ladder, while despising the poor slobs (including ourselves) clutching the lower rungs. This is why, all other things being equal, juries are less likely to convict a good-looking, well-educated professional than a trade-school dropout with acne. Even if you never serve on a jury, you're likely judging people on surface qualities all day, every day.
If the labels we give others stem from our shallowest impulses and prevent us from really knowing another person, the labels we assign to ourselves are even worse. They destroy us from within. No matter what the label, the more we cling to it, the more pain we are going to suffer.
Consider two clients who came to me for life-design advice. The first, Audrey, had an abusive, alcoholic father who habitually called her a worthless tramp. It may seem strange that Audrey clings to this awful label, but parents are godlike to children, often their only source of information about the world. It's more tolerable for a child to believe the abusive ranting of a parent than to see that the adult she depends on is horribly flawed. That's why, by the time she was 5, Audrey had the label Worthless Tramp superglued to her self-concept. As an adult, she made choices that fit this profile, creating a fun-filled lifestyle blend of depression, self-hatred, and submission to numerous boyfriends just like dear old Dad.
Susan, by contrast, had wonderfully supportive parents. They never said a critical word to her—in fact, from the day she was born, they told her several times a day what a pretty girl she was. Up until her early forties, Susan didn't have a self-esteem problem. Then things (and by things, I mean body parts) began to go downhill. Over the next 20 years Susan had so much plastic surgery that hospitals started giving her frequent-shopper discounts, but to no avail. Nothing could hide the fact that Susan continued to...mature. Because her entire identity revolved around the label Pretty Girl, Susan wasn't just annoyed by this inevitable process. For her, aging was a slow, living annihilation.
I've seen the same pattern in clients who have achieved fame and glory. Judith, a well-known television personality, recently told me, "I always thought being famous would fulfill me, but it's actually lonely. People admire my public persona, not the real me. I can never just go out in public and be my true self."
The problem in all these cases is not that the people involved have labels but that they have mistaken their labels for their essential selves. It's much more useful to think of our identities as outfits in a vast and varied costume wardrobe. Some of them are ugly, some lovely, some ridiculous; some fit well while others are incredibly restrictive and uncomfortable. And we can put them on or take them off at will.
I know this because I was raised to wear the label Academic Intellectual. By the time I reached my late twenties, though, it was obvious that this label fit me like pantyhose fits a chicken. I quit academia and went on to a much more enjoyable career as a Vaguely Bewildered Freelance Writer. Several years later, the business school where my husband taught asked me to fill in for an absent instructor—at half the usual salary. When I said no, one administrator decided to play hardball. "Fine!" he barked (and I quote), "We'll raise the pay—but we'll never rehire you. You'll be nothing but a lowly faculty wife for the rest of your life!" He clearly thought this phrase would horrify me into submission. But because I'd already detached from the labeling system of academia, I reacted exactly as though he'd said, "You'll be nothing but a humble village shoemaker for the rest of your life!" I simply burst out laughing.
Eleanor Roosevelt was right when she said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." By clinging to labels, we not only cause ourselves pain but allow other people to rule our thoughts and actions. Letting go of labels brings that power back home.