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.
How To Let Go
Step 1: Be Still
The process of releasing your labels without losing yourself begins in stillness. You may have read Christopher Reeve's book, Still Me, written after the actor became paralyzed from the neck down. The title refers to the fact that he is still the same person who played Superman and also to the stillness of his own body. You may also know that Michael J. Fox suffers from Parkinson's disease, which causes him to shake constantly and uncontrollably. But Fox says he's found a peace that eluded him when he was clinging to his Famous Actor label. "I couldn't be still," Fox said recently, "until I couldn't be still."
Stillness is the key to these men's courage, the gift that has kept them from despair. In stillness, each has found a self beyond all labels, the still, small voice that speaks straight to the soul. When I tell my clients that the first step toward finding their perfect job, spouse, or living situation is to sit still, they look at me as though I've turned into a snake. Stillness scares them, and rightly so. If we hold still long enough, we begin to feel what we really feel and to know what we really know—a prospect so terrifying that some clients bolt rather than face it.
If you can do this—get used to sitting still until you feel what you feel and know what you know—your labels will start peeling away like onion skins. Oh, it won't be easy. Your anxieties and neuroses will come yammering out of the walls like the Hounds of Hell. Your older sister's voice will mutter constant criticism. The person who broke your heart in 1987 will show up, more vivid in memory than in the flesh, to do it again. But just...sit...still.
Like Michael J. Fox, Christopher Reeve, and anyone else who doesn't run from stillness, you'll find that your mental demons have less staying power than you thought. Eventually you will begin to sense a very deep self that defies all labels, a calm soul who has experienced your whole life—even that regrettable incident involving baked beans, a goat, and your mother's favorite hairpiece—without ever being dominated or extinguished. This is the you who wears your labels, who can toss the ones you've outgrown (or that never fit in the first place), who will always find another identity to wear when a familiar one disappears.
Step 2: Become The Experiencer, Not The Experience
All great wisdom traditions point to the knowledge that the essence of our true selves is not any fixed label but the capacity to experience. In the Biblical tradition underlying Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the One God of Israel tells Moses that His name is simply "I Am." The word Buddha means one who is awake, one who is aware.
As heavy as this philosophy sounds, it has a very simple and practical application. Try this: Go back to the first sentence of this article, remembering the label you gave yourself. Now repeat it, but instead of saying "I am a big fat loser" or "I am a powerful executive," say "I am one who calls myself a big fat loser" or "I am one who calls myself a powerful executive." This wording may feel a bit awkward, but (1) it happens to be true, and (2) it helps you detach from both negative and positive labels by inserting a layer of language between you and whatever identity you happen to be wearing at the moment.
Step 3: Practice Truth In Labeling
Remember Audrey, the Worthless Tramp? Changing her language ("I am the one who calls myself a worthless tramp") immediately prompted the question "Why?" Sitting still with this puzzle, Audrey was flooded with painful memories. She saw herself as a child, being taunted by a wounded father—and, for the first time, she also saw that her father's label for her was a lie. There were other identities that fit her much better than Worthless Tramp, like Precious Child and Healing Survivor. These labels weren't the whole, true Audrey, any more than Worthless Tramp had been. The point was that she learned she could apply, evaluate, and alter her labels deliberately. This insight instantly changed the way Audrey felt, and it would eventually change the way she acted. Remember: Our belief in labels, not the labels themselves, is what gives them the power to influence our behavior.
Susan became almost frantic when she first began to sit still. No wonder—the pain of accepting the truth of her age and releasing her Pretty Girl identity was a literal identity-death. As she grieved this loss, Susan noticed something odd: The Pretty Girl she had always been was dead, but Susan wasn't. She didn't feel old; she felt like an ageless awareness wearing a 65-year-old body just as she had once worn the body of a child or an adolescent. She didn't share one particle of physical matter with those younger selves—nearly every cell in her body had been replaced several times during her life—but the consciousness experiencing her life remained identical. Her personality softened and her fear of aging eased as she detached from the negative labels she'd always feared (Hideous Hag, Half-Dead Crone) and chose to name herself with other terms (Wise Woman, Beautiful Matriarch, Beloved Friend) that were much more accurate.
Knowing how to let go of any given identity without losing our essential selves yields a security we'll never get from fame, power, money, beauty, or any other personality prop. By stilling our bodies and minds, becoming the One Who Experiences, and playing with labels the way we might play with costumes, we can remain ourselves no matter what happens: loss or gain, pain or pleasure, fame or disrepute. Take these steps whenever, as the Indian poet Kabir wrote, "you are tangled up in others and have forgotten what your heart once knew." When the bad labels come at you glue-side up, or the positive ones are stripped away, remember to answer poet William Stafford's simple question:
"Who are you really, wanderer?" Why not remember today?
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