Uproot Those Labels

469882ca3e7dd04e8b43493d944417a2It’s a survival mechanism to classify people pretty quickly after meeting them. Our reptilian brains have to put people in the ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’ category in order to protect us, identifying others that are not a part of our tribe and classifying them as an enemy (just look at Democrats vs. Republicans). It all makes sense on a base level, but it unfortunately gets in the way of the truth of who people really are.

We classify and label each other, and it greatly diminishes the complexity of our individual humanness.

I’m certainly not above doing this. In fact, we all have to work hard to fight against this inclination. There are even studies that show babies preferred photos of people with their own skin tone, which highlights how important it is to have your baby actually BE around people of different races as soon as possible after they are born in order to expand their idea of community.

I often consider how the labels put on us, particularly as children, can tragically impact us for the rest of our lives. Whether you were tagged early on as a nerd, or bossy, or stupid, or a troublemaker, or stuck-up, or poor, or a plethora of other ways of ‘being’ with bad connotations, it sticks with us and usually plugs right into our core wounds. It’ll show up in different ways throughout life, even as it may shift or change.

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As far back as I can remember, I’ve been told I’m too sensitive. Whether that was when my two best friends in second grade skipped on either side of me when I was upset, singing “nanana boo boo, stick your head in doo doo…what’s your problem?” (as an aside, it is never a good idea to have a group of three as best friends), or in sixth grade when I screamed after one of the girls made fun of my acne-covered forehead for the fifth day in a row, and everyone said, “why are you so upset?” Or the next year when punching people in the arm became all the fashion, and I developed bruises, I would hear, “wow, you’re so <em>sensitive</em>.”

Yep, this girl who cried a whole lot in high school, for hours at a time, who desperately searched for some kind of connection outside of herself because it was missing from her family, who had to spend so much time alone that she created her own safe world, sure was <em>sensitive</em>. If only I could have told her what I know now, the power in sensitivity, the depth she could touch that so many people aren’t able to, the amazing ability to be with herself, happy and fulfilled, that so few people can feel. But no, she was told she needed to get over it, toughen up, don’t take things so personally, and she grew to believe that something was wrong with her.

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There is no way to stop people from labeling and classifying other people, and I know that all of us, including myself, consciously or unconsciously perform this act every single day. But learning how to discern the difference between our judgments of other people, and the truth of who they are, is a worthwhile healing endeavor even when we’re the ones doing the judging.

And since everyone has been on both sides of the coin, and we all undoubtedly have some pain left over from being labeled as a kid, teenager, or adult, how do we go about flipping that around? For every ‘bad’ label, there is an opposite side to the coin. There is beauty on the other side of ugly. On the other side of stupid can be an amazing hidden talent or a different learning style than the one demanded of children; the other side of bossy is strong, smart, and a natural-born leader; the other side of troublemaker can be adventurer; flip around sensitive and you’ve got intuitive, in touch, and a person that can hold space for others during painful times.

I wanted to try out an exercise that took those labels to an empowered (and hopefully, laughable) place. In Stretch and Strengthen last night, we each chose a label that had been put on us at some point in our lives, and made what I call a “badge of honor”, highlighting those ugly labels and making them beautiful.

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The thing about taking a label – or even a harsh word – and embracing it, is that it starts to lose its power. It becomes laughable, something you can joke about with your friends. You can see some of the good in it, realize the negative connotations are what other people put on you and not the truth of who you are. Even as adults, even if you’ve done your therapy, your digging, your rehashing, sometimes you need to just let the air out of a word for it to feel different inside of you.

You don’t necessary lose the label, but you lose the sting.

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