Have you heard about Jane?
She is so lazy / pathetic / uptight / screwed up / selfish / neurotic / mean / bitchy / picky / stupid / arrogant / vain / deceitful / useless / lost / disorganised / shallow / tarty / disrespectful / power hungry / back stabbing / clumsy / ugly / manipulative / rude / superior / ungrateful / cheap / miserly / hypocritical / vague / nasty / old fashioned / stuck up / inept/ cruel / airy fairy / violent / aimless / self absorbed / neurotic……… etc, etc
From childhood there is a constant stream of ‘You Are’ statements. It starts at home with Mum, Dad and siblings and moves to the playground / classroom at school and it continues for the rest of our lives. We live in a society that loves to negatively label. In childhood we use these labels as building blocks to create a picture or ourselves. Other people’s perceptions of us become a large part of our operating reality. If we are told something often enough, then we incorporate it as a truth regardless of its validity. Often, there is a mix of positive and negative feedback, but today I am interested in exploring the negative feedback.
We have been labelling one another for eons. It’s wired into us. Perhaps it’s the part of us that loves to categorise everything. If I know who or what you are, then I can work out what my relationship is to you and that creates a feeling of safety. For example if you are “nasty” I am going to stay clear of you because you might hurt me. However if you are “kind” I can be friends with you because you don’t pose a threat. In this way my label has got you sorted out. Or does it? We are complex beings. There are so many different aspects of every one of us. Part of me is kind and part of me is mean. So who am I for you? Do you enjoy narrowing me down to my highest parts or my lowest?
How would you feel about being described by any of the words in the introduction? Chances are you would feel some kind of wound. Negativity carries a particular heavy feeling. Perhaps you would seek to retaliate with some name calling of your own, or defend yourself in the positive, or justify your behaviours that were being demeaned. Labelling does not take in the whole view of somebody but rather attacks one aspect of their character and makes it the whole person.
How would you feel if people’s main point of reference for you was one of your undeveloped characteristics (real or perceived) and that become how you were viewed, for the rest of your life by the majority of your peers. ie Jane is miserly.
Even if you agree that negative labelling would feel uncomfortable for you, chances are it won’t stop you from engaging in this practice. So why are we so invested in labelling? I feel part of it is ignorance. We are largely unaware of the impact of labelling and how it operates. The part of us that labels can get a cheap feeling of superiority. I must be OK because I can see that “they” are being unkind and I am not unkind in that way, so I am better than they are. It temporarily relieves our own sense of fallibility. Takes the spotlight off our own insecurities. Labelling does not seek to understand the other person’s world with compassion or to understand ourselves and our need to label. There is an alternative but it requires COURGE and CURIOSITY.
A person with awareness of these dynamics can utilise courage and curiosity to talk directly to some-one who appears to be doing something that is selfishly motivated or ignorant? (What do I mean by ignorant? Unaware that one particular behaviour is selfish or lacking in wisdom.) They are interested in understanding the other person and sharing their own feelings and observations in relation to that.
Scenario: Imagine that you see a colleague shove in front of lots of others in a long lunch time, food queue that you are in. (Labelling would say – Wow, they are selfish!) You run into them later in the day at the office……
Hey Jane, I need to ask you something. I noticed you jumped ahead of others in the food queue today. What was going on for you?
Well my Mum has influenza and asked me if I could drive over to deliver some lunch. She hasn’t eaten since lunch time yesterday and was reluctant to let me know. The drive is 50 minutes there and back and I only get an hour for lunch. I felt really bad, shoving in but I just had to help……I did explain to 4 or 5 of the people behind me and they let me in……
Context has just opened up a whole new level of understanding. Suddenly there is understanding and compassion. It could have been so easy to judge. How often do we actually ask the questions? This is a fictitious example and the “reason” for the queue jumping could be endless.
This week, see if you can make a practice of observing labelling. Who do you become when you are invited to join a conversation that belittles another person. Does it feel good? Is there a pay off for you? Do you feel superior for a moment, or that you have joined into something that creates a temporary bond with another. What sort of bond is it? Is it a solid soul bond, or does part of you feel uneasy. Learn about yourself and others with deepening compassion. This is an exploration in human psychology.