Labels on a person

What should we do with labels?

A little while back I found myself in conversation with a Mum I don’t ordinarily chat with. The context meant we had a bit of time, and she ended up mentioning her son had just been diagnosed with ADHD. This was on top of her daughter already having labels of her own. Despite claiming she’d really always known the truth, she seemed weighed down by the thought.

I was honored by her vulnerability and openness, and it’s got me thinking about labels.

Labels are common these days. And there’s so many of them! Anorexic. High anxiety. Depressed. Dyslexic. Bipolar. On the autism spectrum. Low proprioception.  The list goes on and on.

Not long after my son started school the teacher called us in for a special interview. She wanted us to be aware of issue A, with an associated risk of B further down the track. We took her advice and followed some things up. But it occurred to me much of her concern was about personality rather than behaviour. Was it really going to be a problem?

And since when did we get so obsessed with possible brokenness? Because I’ve noticed, far too many labels aren’t the sort to promote positive mental health!

It’s party cos we know so much more medically these days. With each new scientific or medical advance we become more and more specific in our diagnosis. But the darker side is that we’re getting very good at finding excuses for pretty much everything. I’ll come back to that later.

The problem with labels

In my youth, we weren’t so specific. We attached labels more to extremes. Though, I know, they still often hurt the people to whom they were attached. I still cringe at a memory from high school of silently sitting by watching the boys taunt one girl to tears! She was new, pimply, chubby and from a cultural background we weren’t used to. All the labels they applied were designed to make her feel different and unwanted. That’s a problem with many labels.

Another challenge is that often we take a label and turn it into an excuse for that person to become something smaller. We lower our expectations of how they might behave and what they could become.

Prescriptive or Descriptive?

As an example of what I mean, I’ve known parents whose children were diagnosed with a specific medical condition/disability. In some cases, these became prescriptive labels – they were used to describe how things were. In such instances, the children were allowed to get away with less than desirable behaviours simply because they had this ‘thing’. The labels limited their options and over time they became less competent than they might have, because so little was asked of them.

In contrast, a few of my friends have taken their kids diagnoses as descriptive. In those instances, labels explained a condition in the now which the parent used to define a growth path forwards. One of them, having an autistic son, spent years telling him “Look people in the eye, (name)” “No, shaking hands is what you do here,” and “Use your manners thank you.” As a result, he as a pre-teen had better social skills than most of his normal friends.

Now, I’ve also observed the pain of such children being out-grown by their peers, so I’m not assuming it’s a simplified task. But for all the effort and pain over years, I’d still argue their world’s a better place for those descriptive approaches taken.

Kid with ADHD? Will you put them on medication and see them as a problem? Or tell them they’ve got an F1 version of a body (as opposed to a standard car model) and they’re going to have to learn to drive it round safely, as they’ll rarely be on a racetrack? And then help them get past all the crash and burns that’ll follow?

Labels have both uses and risks

I guess what I see is that all labels have both usefulness and risks attached. What type of label do you or someone close have attached to you? Physical. Mental. Emotional. Social? Can you find a way for it to be helpful as an explanation, without it becoming an excuse? To do so will probably require a commitment to yours/their personal wellbeing and positive change. And probably a community of people to help and support you. These things are not well handled alone.

I think if we can do that – for ourselves and for others in our world – we’ll be able to find a good answer to the question I started with. If we don’t we’ll find ourselves weighed down by the labels being so quickly attached to everyone all around.

Labels can also change

In closing I wanted to circle back to the labels only ever meant to harm. Loser. Fatty. Weirdo. When someone attempts to attach a label of that type to you, the only thing to do is rip it off and throw it away. Nobody needs to be stuck with them, they never help us live a good life. (If you’re interested, last week’s post was about dealing with that.)

Avoid labeling others, too. And be aware that just because you don’t mind the term doesn’t mean someone else won’t be hurt by it. As my mum used to say,

If you can’t say something nice, don’t say it at all.”

Labels can also change over time and become irrelevant. In our house we keep a number of old bottles and jars to re-use. Once the original contents are gone, the bottle’s cleaned and something different’s put in. My passata bottles regularly go from pasta sauce to leftover punch or cold water containers, for example. Each time the label on the front’s no longer appropriate. So I replace it.

We all have multiple labels and you may have outgrown some old ones. If they were only once true, whether good or bad, clean them off. Find the useful labels for you today, in this moment, and use them to spur you to something better. Don’t let the wrong labels define you, and don’t let them limit the potential for good you have within you.