Label with care

We will be careful of labels. We’ll listen to them – but also sit light to them. I think that’s my take-away from this.

And if that’s the last line, what’s the first?

I’m wondering whether all this talk about mental health – especially online where everyone’s an ‘expert’ – is making us less well rather than more well.


It is a concern and maybe one you share. And if it’s true, perhaps it has something to do with our new-found love for, and worship of, labels.

These days, and it is a recent phenomenon, people long for a label to stick on themselves…a label which explains everything, frames everything – and excuses everything?

Do you have a label? What word helps you to feel known, explained or part of something? Which particular one gives you a sense of identity?

Anxious? Healer? Alcoholic? Christian? Tourettes? Depressed? Muslim? ADHD? Victim? Extrovert? Jewish? Trans? Bi-Polar? Shy? Creative? Grumpy old man?

You could add some of your own.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these; they all have a place and a use in the psychological landscape.

The trouble occurs when we take them too seriously; when we imagine ourselves somehow defined by them.

This can be a problem with labels.

I remember meeting someone eager to define themselves as a sex addict; to see everything about themselves through the focus of their addiction.

Yet most of them had nothing to do with sex addiction; there were other more important stories inside them. The addiction was a symptom, not a cause.

When we take a label too seriously, we become smaller people, trapped inside its bubble, which can prove airless.

We imagine our label to be the cause of all our problems, when in fact it’s merely a symptom. The cause lies elsewhere…and the label may obscure that.

So someone says, ‘My sister’s problem is that she’s an alcoholic.’

No, the alcoholism is a symptom of her problems, not the cause.

The same might be said of anxiety.

‘My trouble is, I’m anxious person.’

No, you are a person who anxiety passes through. Anxiety is a symptom of fear and the consequent need for control.

Without those, anxiety would have no scaffolding to perform on. It’s the fear and need for control which needs consideration, not the anxiety label.

Labels can be genuinely helpful, just as signposts are helpful. Like signposts, they point us towards something; but are not the destination themselves.

No one travelling to Salisbury says, ‘Great – we’ve arrived at the signpost to Salisbury at last! Let’s stop here!’

Yet some do use labels in this way, as if it’s the end of the journey, rather than the beginning.

So, I see someone ‘celebrating’ an ADHD diagnosis on social media, as though this explains everything about them. As time goes on, the label appears as an excuse not to address the underlying issues beneath this diagnosis.

And because I know the person, I’m aware there are many.

When the label is the end-point rather than a sign post, this is when labels make us less well rather than more well.

It occurs in Enneagram work, when people treat it as a party game – they find their ‘number’ and imagine themselves suddenly aware.

They imagine their journey is ended, when they’ve barely left the garage.

It occurs in religion as well where labels can acquire huge significance.

In some branches of the church, the only label that matters is ‘saved’. Once you have acquired this label, there is nothing else to consider – apart from ‘saving’ someone else.

The utter bleakness of transactions like these moved Jesus to observe that the Pharisees made converts ‘twice as fit for hell as they were before’.

Labels can stunt growth, because no label is the ever the whole story, or even half of it. Life is dynamic, life is transactional – it cannot be trapped in a label.

The ‘introvert’ label can be fairly stuck on me. There is truth in it and I have befriended it. This label helps me both to take care of myself and accept myself. Labels can do this.

But it isn’t who I am; the introvert label is a partial description. And most of my life and energy have been spent in outward-facing jobs involving large numbers of people.

(Someone once jokingly called me ‘the failed hermit’. But it is good the hermit has failed; the hermit is only one aspect of me.)

I am happy for someone to give themselves a label. It can be helpful. If they say, ‘I’m a manic-depressive’, it is a conversation starter, a glimpse into their inner workings, their experience of life.

It’s a sign post, inviting us to journey on.

And speaking of journeys, I now I live in Seaford. We have a station: it is the end of the line. (Yes, I   know the jokes.) On arrival, the train announcement declares: ‘You have reached your final destination.’

But what’s true of Seaford is not true of labels…because they aren’t.

They can be a friend – but we don’t have to move in with them.

So, yes, we will be careful of labels. We’ll listen to them but also sit light to them.  

I think that’s my take-away from this.