The Problem with Labels Part 2
“Many people are alive but don’t touch the miracle of being alive.” –Thich Nhat Hanh
Last week I introduced the first part of the problem with labels, that by giving something a label it automatically becomes separate. Noticing that something is separate is not a problem, but when we lose sight of the interconnectedness of everything on this planet it becomes a problem. When we forget the fact that we are interdependent on others and our environment, we make choices that don’t sustain us. We get so caught up in the labels of separation that we forget we are more than labels.
So, this brings us to the second problem, who are we without the labels? During sessions with clients I will sometimes ask them to imagine a basket with their name on. We then visualize taking all of the labels off themselves and placing them into the basket. We list the labels one by one as they are removed. When they have taken off the labels I ask them what is left? Almost every client tells me that there is nothing left. They don’t know who they are without the labels.
This is the void that I feel many people have in life. They have forgotten who they are at the core. Our authentic self is the pure essence of our being, but it is covered over with so many labels that we forget. To help some of my clients get to know who is under the labels, I ask them to visualize themselves as a newborn baby. They don’t yet have language to describe the world, so all they can do is feel who they are. I discuss the senses that they begin to feel. It may be comfort or love, it could also be hunger. Without language to label these things it is just an experience. I then ask them to keep those senses aware as they begin to visualize growing up. Without putting labels on themselves I ask them to remember when they felt the most alive. We discuss what that aliveness is for them, when they felt connected to something or someone. Under all of the labels we have for ourselves, there is an awareness that remains. It may feel like love, peace, or light.
Getting reconnected with our essence, our authentic self, is what I believe we are all meant to experience during our brief time on this planet. Some people find that connection in meditation, prayer, nature or in loving a pet. We can only find it when we remove the labels and judgements for a moment and become fully present with who we truly are. That sense of aliveness, love or light is who we are without the labels. We see the world and our connection to it when we take off the labels and become fully present. What would your world look like if you took some time every day to remove the labels?
The Problem with Labels: Part 1
“You look beyond the veil of form and separation. This is the realization of oneness. This is love.” –Eckhart Tolle
Who are you? It is a simple question that we often ask without much thought. We usually answer the question with a list of labels. I’m a mother, daughter, sister, counselor, or Pennsylvanian. We use labels to describe our physical characteristics, economic status, and aspects of our personality. All of these labels help us to categorize and define ourselves. Our brains love order and predictability. The labels provide neat boxes for the brain to store information. This in and of itself is not a bad thing, but there are two issues with using labels to describe ourselves. The first issue is separation, which will be explored here. The second issue, which is the difficulty in removing labels, will be discussed next week.
When we label something, it is defined as separate from all other things that do not share the same label. From the time we are young, we are taught to label everything in our world. A child beginning to speak will start with labels for objects; ball, banana, mom, or dad. Having a label automatically defines it as a separate object. Once we have a label for something we can objectify it. The bird is separate from the tree, the drumstick is separate from the drum and you are separate from me. Labeling things as separate is not a problem, but it becomes a problem when we fail to remember how interconnected everything really is. What happens if we separate a plant from water or sunlight? The plant can’t survive without either, so is the plant really a separate object? What happened to the water or sunlight when it was absorbed into the plant? Do we still consider the water separate when it is in the plant? Under a microscope, we can still see the water molecules, but we don’t usually refer to a plant as water. We as people are dependent on plants for food. People could not live without plants, so are we separate? By utilizing labels, we put nice borders around things, but when we really begin to think about it, we are all very interconnected and dependent on each other and the environment in order to survive. Labels, and the separation that comes with the labels, blinds us to the interconnectedness that we experience here on Earth. We are truly an interdependent part of a larger system. We don’t think much about the system, because generally we see ourselves as separate from the system. It is an illusion that has led us to make some damaging choices.
The next time you look at a person, become aware of the labels that come to mind. Which ones are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad?’ Notice how the judgement of the label creates a sense of togetherness or separation. When it is separation, are there connections that can be made?
Next week I will explore what happens when we begin removing the labels.
The Wisdom of Virginia Satir
“Communication is to relationships what breath is to life.” –Virginia Satir
As I have studied various counseling theories, there is one that stands out as my favorite. That is the work of Virginia Satir, which is profound in its simplicity. When she looked at families, she knew that each member of the family was longing for love and acceptance from each other. Her goal was to validate each member and to help them see where the breakdown in communication was occurring. One of the ways she did this was by identifying the roles each family member played and how it affected the way they saw themselves and the world. She identified three necessary parts to healthy interaction; the self, others and context. When these three positions are balanced, there is congruent communication. When one or more of these three positions are denied, distorted or eliminated, defensiveness and stress occur in the communication.
When someone sacrifices themselves in a situation to put the needs of others and the context of the situation first, they became what she called a placater. Placaters will put their own needs aside and will often say ‘yes’ when they really want to say ‘no.’ They will do whatever is necessary for others to be happy and will sacrifice as much of themselves as needed to please others, often out of fear of being rejected.
A blamer, on the other hand, has no problem sacrificing others in order to maintain their sense of self and the context. They put the responsibility completely on other people when something goes wrong. They will often say things like, “What’s the matter with you…” or “I can’t believe you…”
The super reasonable person is like a computer. They sacrifice the self and others to only focus on the context of the situation. They tend to take a detached stance and will focus on principle and what is ‘right’ instead of on people’s feelings or emotions. They will often use the word ‘it’ to communicate, such as, “It is important to…” or “It doesn’t matter.”
The irrelevant communication stance doesn’t address the self, others nor the context. This is someone who can’t tolerate discomfort in a conversation and will immediately change the subject and talk about something else. They seem to hope that their distractions will avoid the hurt, pain or stress.
While we all take on aspects of these styles from time to time, by objectively looking at these communication stances, it is easy to see how defensiveness arises and clear communication breaks down. When the self, others and the context are all taken into account, issues can be addressed head on. There is compassion for the other and respect for the self to address the context of the situation. What roles have you been falling into and what would change if all three aspects were balanced in congruent communication?
“When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.” –Roy E. Disney
It is easy to say that something matters to us, but when we objectively look at our day, does the way we spend our time reflect what we say we value? There are many that say exercise or self-care is important, but is it the first thing that gets cut out of our busy schedule? If our family is important, are we spending quality time talking with our children- without distractions? With all of the phones and technology it is easy to spend time together without ever making eye contact. Our devices are great tools, but we also need the balance of having real conversation, with time spent both talking and listening to each other. Research has shown time and again that it is the quality of the time that we spend with each other, which is more important than the quantity of time. Is adequate time spent on activities that promote family togetherness, if that is a value?
One of the things that I notice is that many people are not clear on what their values are. It is hard to say we are in alignment with our values when we are not even sure what it is that we value. Take some time to make a list of just two or three values that are the most important, then begin to notice throughout the day which activities are in alignment with those values and which are not. Is there balance? What is one thing you can do today that is in alignment with your values? What would your life look like if you spent just a few minutes each day doing that activity? In the busyness of our world it is easy to lose sight of what we value. Getting clear on what our values are and living from those values has the power to change the way we live. Are you ready?