Labels vs. Labels

Labels vs labels. Wait, what?

One day recently I found my brain wandering around without me again. This time it was pondering the difference between labels and labels. I know, this is confusing since we don’t really have another word for what I’m talking about. Let me see if I can accurately transcribe the meandering nature of this one.

I was thinking about the way we label each other and ourselves. Specifically, I’m a member of a group of folks who fall into a category called “Highly Sensitive People,” or HSP. If you’re not familiar with this label, I recommend reading Eileen Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person. In the meantime, I explain it like this: when I’m in a room of people having a bad day, I absorb the FML vibes and before I realize what’s happening I’m having a bad day too. It’s basically a form of empathy run amok, mixed with an overly energetic intuition, wrapped in a layer of semi-permeable psychic defenses.

Next I thought about what these labels tell us about ourselves. By labeling ourselves as something, in this case an HSP, do we then behave differently? Now that I’ve determined that I am one, am I tailoring my actions to fit what I think that label means?

OR, as I prefer to think, does having that label help us determine where certain behaviors we’ve always had come from?

So in other words, which came first – the label or the behavior?

I just read a piece in the Atlantic called “The Case Against Reality.” It’s an interview with a neuroscientist whose research into how we perceive reality stems from a question he developed as a child – Are we machines?

He has determined that no, we are not machines. Mainly his research is showing that our perception of reality in fact determines the reality we see. Seeming to strengthen the argument for the label coming first.

I would argue just the opposite however. We see a behavior in ourselves or others – then we seek out a label to put on that behavior so it fits into our narrative. I’ve talked about the stories we tell and the mishmash of cultural and societal influences on these stories before so I won’t go into details right now.

Suffice it to say these narratives are formed by our perception of ourselves and the culture in which we exist. They assist in building a coherent backstory, an explanation for why we are how we are and why we do what we do. So in fitting seemingly aberrant behaviors we see into these narratives – we’re fitting them into our preconceived perceptions of reality.

To bring this back around full circle (-ish), a story from my childhood. I used to spend summers with my grandparents in southern California. When I walked into their house I would develop a stomachache that generally lasted through my entire visit. With what I now know about myself, some hindsight and a lot of input from my mom, I can now say that there were likely two factors influencing my reaction. First is that there was a lot of tension between my grandma and grandpa, they were likely never happy in their marriage (and any further discussion of that is for the therapist I don’t see). Second is how my grandma would hover over me, constantly checking to be sure I was ‘OK.’ I never did get the impression that either of us knew what that actually meant, leading to even more tension in the room.

So in the which came first discussion, I think it can go both ways, which means we all need to be careful how we handle these situations. Let the label you discover help explain behaviors, while at the same time being careful how you let that label impact your future behavior.

Don’t let the labels change you.

Learn from them.

Understand yourself better.

Stay true to who you are.