I’m an introvert.
I’m a nerd.
I’m a Millennial.
Labels like these can be empowering.
For me, identifying as an introvert offered clarity on why I do what I do (and a convenient excuse to decline party invitations!). I also realized I’m not an anomaly. There are countless others who’d also choose a quiet evening with a book over a happy hour with strangers.
But there’s a caveat: These very labels, intended to empower and enlighten, can become mental chains, reducing our vast colorful personalities into grayscale caricatures.
It’s one thing to recognize a trait or a pattern, and attach a label to it. But it’s something else entirely to become defined by it.
The transformation from “I exhibit signs of anxiety” to “I am anxiety” is a dangerous one. The line between you and the label blurs. The descriptor turns into dictator.
Our self-imposed labels then end up scripting our lives. Convince yourself you’re “awkward” in social settings and you’ll shun them, only to become more out of practice and feel even more awkward. Claim you never show emotions and you’ll live a guarded life, and build even higher walls. Label yourself a perfectionist and you’ll change your reality to live up to that label by constantly aiming for some unachievable mirage of “perfect.”
Consider also the label of “trauma,” traditionally reserved for deeply distressing events with profound effects. Lately, there’s a trend toward labeling every common adversity as “trauma.” (As Jessica Bennett puts it, “If everything is ‘trauma,’ is anything?”). I understand the comfort some might find in naming their experiences. But by attaching the label of “trauma” to run-of-the-mill challenges, we risk amplifying their significance, making them appear insurmountable, and potentially hindering our healing journey.
So what’s the remedy?
First, be careful before you tattoo a label onto your psyche. The fewer labels that follow “I am . . . ,” the more expansive the horizon of your true self.
Second, embrace the fluidity of your identity. Labels come and go. What fits today might constrain tomorrow. And that’s okay. Grant yourself permission to evolve, to outgrow labels, and to shed.
Third, ask yourself, “Do I own the label or does the label own me? Is this a lens to view the world or has it morphed into the world itself?”
Let your labels be tools, not rules.
Let them serve you, not define you.
P.S. My friend Chris Guilleabeau’s new book, Gonzo Capitalism: How to Make Money in An Economy That Hates You, is out this week.
Here’s my blurb for the book: “A must-read guide to the new economy. This book will help you navigate emerging paths to prosperity that you didn’t even know existed. If you weren’t a Chris Guillebeau fan already, you will be after this read.”
Grab your copy here.