Monday, 31 May 2010

Labels and Self-Descriptors

Labels reflect a person’s life, the way they’ve chosen to live it and the beliefs they have. They are born of a person’s history and experiences. They tell us something about who they were and who they’ve become today. They also give us clues as to why they are the way they are. Yet, they may still not be the true I of a person. So, you might be asking: Is there a true I of a person?

In 1936, Sicilian author and 1934 Nobel Prize winner for literature, Luigi Pirandello published Uno, Nessuno e Centomila; (One, Nobody and One Hundred Thousand). Vitangelo, the central character in the book becomes aware that everyone he knows has a different definition of who he is. He doesn’t identify himself with any of these definitions. He sees them as separate personas people have created in their minds about him.

In an attempt to destroy these personas, Vitangelo starts to act foolishly; in a way that almost borders on madness in the eyes of others. Yet, no matter how foolishly or madly he acts outwardly, he comes to realise that his spirit is definitely incapable of being mad or a fool.

The moral of Pirandello’s novel, as the title suggests, is that everyone is made up of one, none and one hundred thousand Is. Often, we each show the I we think is most appropriate at any given time. That I is then subject to others’ interpretation of us. It mulls around in their internal processes and resurfaces in the shape of a persona I they have just created for us.

The I we manifest and the way we choose to conduct ourselves are relative to the environment, the culture, the circumstances and the people we find ourselves in the presence of. They are relative to points in time throughout our lives, and they are built on the foundations of the ideals we have.

Although we manifest a few similar characteristics of our I all the time, we can potentially have as many I’s as we do circumstances in life. We can also potentially have as many persona I’s created for us as the number of people we know in the world. Everyone is unique in their way of thinking. They may share some common traits but, generally, their definitions of us will be different.

Whether we do it consciously or not, when we are in the presence of others, we assess who they are, how they might respond to us and we adjust ourselves accordingly. Of course this is not a general rule because there are those who cannot, have not or will not master this adjustment quality.

Those who can and do show a particular sensitivity towards others. They are demonstrating an ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and see a different perspective to their own. As we will see in the chapter on Neuro Linguistic Programming, one of the tricks to effective communication is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see perspectives other than your own.

No matter what labels we choose to use in life, we are all spiritual beings having a human experience. We walk between the spiritual and the physical realms. We are an interconnectivity between energy and mass. We exchange this energy all day long with others and with our environment.

If using labels sometimes hold us back in life, then so do self-descriptors. When we say, I can’t because I am not that way inclined or It’s not in my nature, I’m not strong enough, I can’t help it, I’m too overweight to do that, I’ve never been able to, we’re:

Keeping ourselves from discovering new possibilities, taking risks and putting ourselves out there.
Stopping ourselves from acknowledging and implementing the positive qualities we do have.
Using descriptors as excuses for maintaining the status quo.
Attempting to manipulate other people’s behaviours.
Really saying “I have no intention of trying or changing.”

In his 1976 book, Your Erroneous Zones, Dr. Wayne W. Dyer explains descriptors at length. I am going to briefly give you an outline here. Dr. Dyer calls them our I’ms and places them under appropriate headings. I have placed them into the following categories:

Academic avoidance – I’m not good at science, maths etc. By using this descriptor, we never have to master a particular subject we’ve never found interesting enough. They’re excuses for expanding our knowledge.
Lack of skill – I’m no good at swimming, cooking, drawing etc. Not only do these descriptors justify our failure in the past, they also justify why we should never have to do them in the future.

I would add that in some cases, like cooking, cleaning or sewing, they’re excuses we make in order to get someone else to do something for us. Therefore, they can be manipulative.

Genetic/Personality excuses – I’m too shy, I’m quiet, I’m nervous etc. These descriptors are used as resigned self-acceptances. Using them does not challenge who we are nor force us to re-evaluate ourselves. They support the negative self-beliefs we hold onto about ourselves. Sometimes, they are just opinions others have expressed about us in the past, which we’ve woven into our idea of our I.

Ridicule avoidance – I’m clumsy, I’m uncoordinated etc. We use these when we avoid doing something, we might like to, for fear of being ridiculed. Particularly when it involves activities we don’t consider ourselves as skilled as someone else for.
Physiological – I’m too tall, I’m too short, I’m not pretty, I’m overweight etc. Dyer explains that we use these to avoid putting ourselves on the line with the opposite sex. He also says it’s our excuse for not having to work at being attractive to ourselves.

I will add that sometimes we use these descriptors as excuses for not mixing with other people in general. They’re a perfect excuse to barricade one’s self at home and not go out very much. Furthermore, I’ve heard these types of descriptors used to justify not getting a job, a role, a gig etc.
Of all the descriptors, I think the physiological ones are probably the worst. They are the ones that have the biggest impact on us. Not only can they socially disable us but they have serious long-term psychological effects on us as well.

In most case, these descriptors are the ones we worry about the most. The media has conditioned us into thinking there is a perfect physical type we should aspire to. Yet, if we look at nature, it comes with all kinds of faces, shapes and sizes.

The most important thing is being healthy. Yet, health isn’t always equated with a perfect physical type.

Behavioural – I’m untidy, I’m a perfectionist, I’m meticulous etc. These descriptors are somewhat manipulative. They justify certain behaviours of ours and kind of demand that others behave the same way around us. They act as rule makers.
Excuses for ineffective behaviour – I’m forgetful, I’m careless etc. When we do something that is less than effective, it is very convenient to use these as an excuse to validate our actions.

Ethnic – I’m Italian, I’m French, I’m Chinese etc. I explained these in terms of being labels; earlier in the chapter. Yet, Dyer is making a point here that we use our environmental and cultural background as excuses for many of our behaviours. If a behavior is too difficult to explain, if we plain don’t want to explain it, or if we don’t want like it but don’t want to confront it, we use our ethnicity as an excuse to pardon ourselves.

Excuses for hostile behaviour – I’m bossy, I’m the leader, I’m pushy etc. Instead of learning to control our tempers a little more, we react first and justify later with phrases such as these.

I think these types of descriptors are very dictatorial and manipulative. I find that their usage can be very emotionally stressful for the receiver. Sentences like, I’m the boss, you do it my way or you’re fired is a perfect example. The act of firing may be a heat of the moment idle threat, but the seed of insecurity has been planted in the receiver’s mind. As well as the obvious, there is also an element of emotional blackmail in that phrase. Trust and respect have been breached. They will be lost and unrecoverable.

Behaving in a rash way and then, in calm retrospect, justifying it with I’m sorry, that’s just me, I’m bossy by nature represents the detrimental mind games people play with each other, which can have more serious long term psychological implications.

Age – I’m too old, I’m tired, I’m Middle-aged etc. These are classic descriptors a person uses to justify not taking a chance on something new and moving any further forward in life; especially when there may be an element of risk involved.

We are not the labels or self-descriptors we use to place ourselves into categories. Nor are we the ones others would pigeon hole us with. They are the product of our lifetime’s journey. Labels and self-descriptors are ways of identifying ourselves with others. They are ways of justifying our shortcomings and validating our behaviours and actions.

While we cling to our labels and descriptive qualities, we do not have to aspire to anything more. We don’t have to take any risks and we don’t have to put ourselves out there on the line. We don’t have to face our fears. We don’t have to leave our comfort zones. We can just stay exactly where we are; unchallenged, without judgment and set in the same old ways we’ve been accustomed to for years.

Life, however, is in the present. We can’t keep living in the past. What’s gone is gone. It should be blessed for having taken place, and we should be grateful for all of it. No matter how bad something may seem at the time, it always has something to teach us. Once the lessons have been learnt though, we need to let the events go.

Today is all that matters. We start building our tomorrows based on our thoughts and beliefs of today. If we choose, today, to stop using auto-defining labels and self-descriptions, we open ourselves up to tomorrow’s endless possibilities.

Venerina Conti

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