Labels, or Labels?

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Labels, or 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 somewhat meandering nature of this brain ramble. This one also gets personal.

I was thinking about the way we label each other and ourselves. Specifically, I fit into a category referred to as “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 (F*** My Life) 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 leaky psychic defenses (great visual, right?).

In other words, my nervous system is cranked to 11. All. The. Time.

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? If I’ve labeled someone else, does how I interact with that person change?

OR, does having that label help us determine where certain behaviors or habits we already have, come from?

In other words, which came first, the chicken or the egg – the label or the behavior?

I recently 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 (unsurprisingly) 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. It’s like a neurological version of the “if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” situation.

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.

Personal anecdote time:

I once had this coworker who thought I was mad at him for like the first 6 months I was there. In reality, he was coming in right at the end of our morning rush (I was on the hardware support team, so we got a rush of broken keyboards, cracked screens, etc. first thing in the morning).

That meant that he was seeing me AFTER I absorbed the FML of a dozen+ office workers who couldn’t get their morning reports done. So naturally, I was a little put out and came off as peeved AT him when in reality I was just trying to sluff off all those vibes and get back to my static point – which is generally pretty even-tempered.

Once we had a chat about all this, and he tried coming by 15 minutes later in the morning, all was well. Then we had to work on his interrupting me in the middle of typing emails – but that’s for another post.

So in the which came first discussion, I think it can go both ways, which means we 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.

Things to remember:

  • Don’t let the labels change you
  • Learn from them
  • Understand yourself better
  • Stay true to who you are

If you’re ready to talk about your stories and labels, get in touch via the contact page or schedule a FREE intro session over on the schedule page, and let’s

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