How to Stop Letting Other People's Labels Define You
I said, "Well, is it true?"
Lizzy thought for a moment. "No."
"Then don't believe it."
She stopped crying, brightened up and ran outside to continue playing.
I've worked for years—decades—to guide adults out of the same kind of misery that plagued my daughter for less than a minute. Many of my clients suffer enormously from the negative labels other people have attached to them: homely, weak, boring, slutty, stupid. Some are trapped by labels that describe not their qualities but their roles: class clown, screw-up, trophy wife, failure. In fact, the most painful issues in my clients' lives tend to come not from actual circumstances, but from the way they've defined themselves as a result of those circumstances.
The same can probably be said of you. That's good news, believe it or not—because the problem has a simple solution. If you can figure out the label with which you've defined yourself and then determine the truth or falsehood of that definition, you can free yourself from worlds of pain.
Defining yourself with labels is a universal human behavior because of something called the social self, the part of you that interacts with the world. Every day we go forth with our social selves in tow, navigating dozens of complex interactions in which we pick up on others' social selves and act accordingly. You know how to talk to your boss because beneath every conversation is the understanding that you are her subordinate; you know how to speak to your uptight mother-in-law because you've decided who, and how, she is, relative to who you are.
On the other hand, your essential self—the set of qualities at your core—doesn't define itself with labels at all, or bend or shift depending on whom it encounters. But that part of you gets far less play than your social self, which has cast you in a role that informs almost every choice you make—even the clothes you wear: If you're a stay-at-home mom, you may dress differently from a corporate vice president or an army sergeant. If your role in your group of friends is the sexy one, you don't carry yourself like the nerdy one. The way you walk, sit, eat, laugh, and speak is affected by such definitions of self. Everything is.
Obviously, negative self-definitions are painful. If my Lizzy had permanently attached herself to the identity of "stupidhead," she'd still have her head down and her heart broken. Maybe you've been burdened with pain for a long time, too. Do you think of yourself as ugly, neurotic, anxious, lazy? These roles are filters, and your experience of the world passes through them. (And often because someone, at some point, compared you unfavorably with your "brainiac" sister, or you felt nervous on the debate team and decided you were "bad" at public speaking, or you've chosen to believe, based on scant evidence, that something else about you is true.)
Yet even the labels you covet are potentially harmful. Think of a role that would be your dream come true. Do you wish you were a genius? A gutsy broad? A bombshell? Most of us believe that our favorite role identities would allow us to finally feel worthy, deserving, good enough. If you've actually managed to attain your favorite role identity, thinking about it really may give you a spike of satisfaction. But there's a catch. No matter how positive a role identity may seem, it comes with a price. Any kind of label, good or bad, is inherently limiting if you believe it encompasses your personality to the exclusion of all else. Do you really want to be just one thing?
In my experience, people with coveted role identities are just as unhappy as people who haven't achieved as much. I've coached take-charge CEOs who work themselves half to death, terrified that if they slow down, their companies will fail or they'll be deposed by rivals. I know socialites who could use $20 bills as Kleenex but live in intense fear that they won't always be rich. I know star athletes who struggle mightily with the knowledge that their bodies can sustain top performance for only a few years. And parents of even the most beautiful, happy children wind up in empty nests.
The long and short of it, my friend, is that nearly every form of role definition can ultimately cause suffering. Does this mean we're all hopelessly screwed? Hardly. We just need to spend a little more time with our essential selves, which can't be defined by labels, and a lot less time with our social selves, which often rely on them.
The process for doing this is so simple my 3-year-old handled it easily. When you label yourself, ask whether the label is true. Then wait for an answer to arise. What comes up for you? Finish the sentence as many ways as you can.
Now consider these labels one by one. Maybe you answered, "I'm a dental hygienist," or "a waitress," or "a contortionist for Cirque du Soleil." Perhaps you referenced your family: "I'm the wife of a soldier," or "I'm the caretaker for my parents." Perhaps you dug deeper and answered, "I'm a neurotic," or "I'm a chronic depressive." What ever you answered, I think you'll find that any one label tells only a tiny portion of the story. Ask yourself the same question I asked Lizzy all those years ago: Is it true? Does any one label encompass you? Even all five put together may not paint an accurate portrait of your essential self.
If you said yes, consider this: Cells in your body are replacing themselves all the time. The clump of molecules you currently call your body does not share the exact same group of atoms with the clump you called your body a minute ago. Your memories of what happened to "you" ten years ago happened to some other you; most of the particles of your present body weren't there at the time. So how can you say that your job, your family, your present life are "you" any more than what you had for breakfast is "you"?
If you persist in deeply inquiring into the truth of who you are, you'll eventually see that you don't fit completely into any one role. You'll see that you contain multitudes. You'll see that your social self does not encapsulate your being. But beware: As you tune into your essential awareness rather than your roles, the social self's reality will be threatened. It may begin to weaken, crumble, lose its sense of solidity. This can be scary. But the essential version of you can, and should, embrace that loss. As Eckhart Tolle writes, "Death is a stripping away of all that is not you. The secret of life is to 'die before you die'—and find that there is no death."
This process sounds dramatic, but it doesn't have to be. The moment Lizzy examined the label "stupidhead," she saw it as a lie and let it go, just as you long ago let go of erroneous thoughts like "the world is flat." If you're holding negative definitions of yourself, question them—I assure you, they are lies. The more you learn this, the less you'll suffer the hell of self-loathing. People may tell you you're crazy. That's okay, child. It isn't true. Now run along and play.
Martha Beck's latest book is The Martha Beck Collection: Essays for Creating Your Right Life, Volume One (Martha Beck Inc.).