This last month, while leading my psychotherapy group, the theme of labels came up and group members shared how they identify themselves with certain labels. Common labels in this context included, “Disciplined” “an Athlete,” and “the Small one.” We explored their attachment to these labels and how that very same attachment is what was getting in the way of their recovery and important flexibility in how they view themselves. I asked the group, “What if the very label you so highly value, is, at best, keeping you stuck, and at worst, hurting you?”

I’m not going to say labels are inherently bad. We are drawn to labels. We use them to develop and create a sense of identity and heuristic about ourselves. There is a reciprocal relationship between our labels and our values and so they also set a road-map, of sorts, for where we want to go with our lives.

But, sometimes labels become problematic.

The Problems

First, we may imbue labels with a moral framework that gets us into trouble. For example the labels I listed at the beginning of this post may be considered attributes/identities that are “virtuous” or “better than.” A perfect example of this is how we encourage clients in recovery from eating disorders to cut out size labels in their clothes. We do this in an effort to help the client to detach from an identified size-label and increase flexibility about how they view themselves and their body. In an eating disorder, individuals may get stuck in seeing themselves as a “size X” and see that size as either “good” if it is smaller, or “shameful” if it is bigger. The truth is, a pant size has no inherent morality or value and when we attach moral judgment to sizes, it creates a false sense of self. And because I said that labels are intertwined with values, these labels lead people to pursue the “thin ideal,” which is (at best) a physically and emotionally draining pursuit and derails them from their TRUE values.

Second, labels can lead to a rigid sense of identity. The labels we adopt may align with our values (e.g. mother, friend, professional, student, religious, etc) but when we attach too much to these labels, we evaluate ourselves based on them. For example, I LOVE being a mother. It is a very important role for me. But when I over-identify myself as a mom, any parenting failure I have (which happen daily) lead me to feel poorly about myself. I’m not suggesting that the solution is to de-identify with being a mom, because again, it’s something I highly value. However, I don’t have to be so attached to the label that it causes me anxiety, because in that attachment I believe “mother” looks and acts a certain way and I chronically fall short of that vision. When we believe our labels need to Look, Act, and Be a certain way, we aren’t compassionate with ourselves when we don’t meet those expectations. We also aren’t flexible to grow beyond those definitions.

Third, over-attachment to labels can detract us from being open to growth in other areas. The reality is, for all we label ourselves, we can never capture our true essence or experience in those labels. We are so much more than our labels.

For example, I used to label myself as a “high achiever.” I wanted to push myself to go as far as I could with my education and also my career. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to interview to be a professor at a reputable university. The interview process was challenging and exciting. But it also felt wrong. I knew in my gut, almost from the first round of interviews, that this wasn’t a good fit for me. I fought myself, internally, for that intuition. After all, becoming a college professor felt like the next step for my “high achieving” self. But it wasn’t right for me, or for my family. Apparently it also wasn’t right for the university as they offered the position to someone else. I try to assuage my wounded ego by telling myself the feeling was mutual. Haha.

Regardless of not getting offered the job, this experience was pivotal in my letting go of rigidity around my identity. Letting go of my attachment to being “high achieving” allowed me to listen to my intuition. I got in touch with my true values, my needs, and my wants.

I now work very part time and it’s the perfect fit for me, my family, and the stage of life we are in right now. I am growing a lot as a clinician and as a mother. If I continued to hold tightly to preconceived notions of who I am and “should” be, I’d miss out on the growth, purpose, meaning, and joy in listening to my deeper self.

While I said we are drawn to label ourselves in service of our identities, I personally believe that my true identity lies beyond labels. The less I attach to labels, the more I see myself accurately and compassionately; the more I allow myself to be human; the more flexible I am with navigating life’s demands as well as my own changing needs; and the more I can be in tune with living my values instead of pre-conceived “shoulds.”

As I said, labels aren’t inherently bad. But it’s worth evaluating how they influence us. Do they allow for flexibility with your changing needs and wants? Do they allow for you to feel like a multifaceted, rich and thriving human being? Do they help you be more compassionate with yourself as you journey through the messy waters of your life? Do they reflect your true values and help you engage more actively in your life? Do you over-identify with some personal labels that they are impeding your progress and growth? Are there some labels you want to keep and others you should let go? Are you willing to see yourself as more than your labels? Because you are, more; so much more.