Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Battle for Self-Definition

Once you label me you negate me. Søren Kierkegaard

I think one of the greatest and most critical battles for each of us is the fight for self-definition. Most of the people around you want to do the defining, the labeling: You are this; you are that; no, you are the other. “You fall into this percentile so you are…” “You are a member of this group and that means you are …” I, however, am not a statistic, a member of a sociological or political group, my job, or a cog in a wheel. I am a person, not a thing. I am myself, not “them.” I am a unique human being, not an “it.” I. Am. My. Own. Group.

Labels are generalizations that can be helpful or hurtful. Saying I am a Libertarian or a member of the Teamsters can be helpful in conversations. Labels serve as a kind of shorthand in particular contexts to give people a general idea of where I am coming from, a quick bird’s eye view of my mindset. (I do think it is wiser, however, to say, “I am a member of x.” rather than “I am x.”) However, labels are hurtful or, at least, problematic, when others assume meanings and beliefs that do not apply to me (which is most always done), or confuses the label with who I am, or when I attach the core of my identity to The Label.

Labels often turn us into things or objects: an “it” rather than a “you.” When we do this to others or to ourselves, we are turning subjects into objects. Question: which do you treat with more dignity and respect: an object (thing) or a subject (person)?

Labels are static, leaving no room for movement or change. So. Be very careful with “I am…” statements, as they negate so very much of who you are.

“I am a doctor.”  Really? That one word sums up who you are as a human being? If you stopped doctoring (or policing, lawyer-ing, CPA-ing, etc.) would you no longer be yourself? And paying lip service to this reality is not the same thing as being fully aware that “doctor” is what you do, not who you are. (Please feel free to play around with other labels in this regard and see what comes up. Examples:  “I am a Republican/Democrat/ Libertarian.”  “I am a screw-up.” “I am the boss.” If you want to go even deeper: “I am angry.” “I am a victim.” “I am lost.”)

You are infinitely more than a job or a role or a membership, however noble and meaningful the job, role, or group’s work may be. The other people in your world are also more than their labels, even if they are choosing to think and behave otherwise. Who knows: maybe if you treat them as a unique individual, they may start seeing themselves as such. Of course, this requires that you first see yourself as an individual who is more than his labels, job, or roles.

The battle for defining yourself is life long, as you will always be “becoming” your true self. This is a never-ending quest, more of a process than a destination. Yes, labels have their place in conversation. However, so as to maintain room for growth and change, I suggest that you remain vigilant against allowing them to place you (or others) in a box. After all, as Kierkegaard noted, labels inherently carry with them the power to negate who you are and can become.

Copyright, Monte E Wilson, 2013 

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