Labels get a bad rap. This happens due to the tendency people have to use labels as neat and tidy boxes within which we can make sense of the world and our fellow humanity. Like a mother trying to keep order in a toddler’s playroom, it can feel good and uncomplicated to be able to place blocks in the block bin and stuffies in the stuffie bin. The order helps us make sense of the chaos — when we can see things as black or white it removes complication from our mind. The problem with this is that life exists in the gray areas, people exist outside of the neat and tidy boxes in our minds, and the labels can be limiting. As such, those labels can be harmful as they lead us to feel trapped and pinned down rather than free to jump around from box to box.
And it is not only others that put labels on us, we often put labels on ourselves. Sometimes, when we find a label that makes sense to us, we grab it and put it on like it’s a new favorite sweater discovered when rummaging through a department store. We’ll wear that sweater proudly, daily, and refuse to take it off, even when it starts to smell. The sweater, as a label, makes us feel comfortable and protected. It gives us something by which to define ourselves when other words don’t seem to work. A label can feel like home.
The problem arises when we get so comfortable in our labels, when others get so insistent in hanging on to the labels they’ve created for us, that change and growth can no longer happen freely. We as people are meant to learn and grow, daily, yearly, and whether it is us keeping ourselves in boxes, or whether we are being held down by others, any hindrance to our personal growth and development is an injustice to our very reason for being.
However, that being said, I don’t believe that labels are all that bad, in and of themselves. Labels, when used wisely and judiciously, are actually quite beneficial. Labels can help us make sense of ourselves in a given period of time. As we try on the label, as we fit it to size, we have the opportunity to see what we like or don’t like about it. We can keep the parts we like, we can do away with the parts that don’t work, and eventually, we can even do away with the label altogether. Maybe you like the arms of one sweater, the trunk of another, and the neckline of yet another. We forget that labels can be cut up and pieced back together in a way that makes sense for ourselves, in a way that makes us comfortable while existing in those gray areas.
Throughout my entire life I have felt like a black sheep. This was the label I gave myself within the context of family and friends. Sometimes this label was used to bolster my independence, and sometimes it made me sad. My family and friends didn’t think of me as an outsider, as I did, but to make sense of me they labelled me shy. I wasn’t shy, I was misunderstood. I didn’t have the words to explain myself, and when the words came, they didn’t come quickly enough. Much later in life I came to feel a sense of peace when I tried on the label introvert, because it made me feel safe and protected. As an introvert, I could understand why my brain works as it does, and why being around other people exhausts me so much. The label of introvert allows me to breathe a sigh of relief. However, I recognize that if I allowed it to, this label could easily have me living as a hermit, well secluded from society. If I allowed it to, I could say no to every opportunity precisely because I am an introvert. In the interest of personal growth, I have to wear this sweater consciously.
More recently I decided to dive deeper. I came across a meme about INFJs and knew intuitively that this label defined me. Indeed, INFJs are notoriously intuitive. Taking the test was a mere practicality in confirming something I already knew. I spent days learning all that I could about INFJs — reading articles, listening to podcasts, watching videos on the web. The more I learned, the more I recognized myself in this particular personality box; the more I realized that by acknowledging the INFJ in me, I was giving myself the gift of living in the gray. By owning this label that describes me so wholly, I can actually allow myself the flexibility, the fluidity, of existing between boxes. In fact, it’s between the boxes where INFJs are most ourselves.
We are, in fact, the opposite of black sheep. We are insiders, able to see and move between the lines — we are stealthy visionaries.
And now that I have owned the label, worn the sweater until it was well and smelly, I know I don’t need to hold onto it anymore. It is me already, like my DNA or my lifelong love affair with pasta, not there to keep me contained, but, definitely to make life more comfortable.