The Double Bind of Labeling

It has been said,

If you label me, you negate me.

I take this to mean that when you try to reduce a person down to a category that you think you understand, then you are likely to lose important nuance about them.

That’s the best case scenario if you’ve somehow managed to attach the correct label to the person.

Of course, if you’re wrong about their label, then it’s even worse because you’ve misunderstood them and found reason to stop listening all at once.

Labeling gets a bad reputation for good reasons, but I’d like to suggest a seemingly contradictory corollary:

If you remove my label, you negate me.

Both can be true.

Negative connotations you associate with a given label may lead you to tell the person, “Oh, you’re not that,” or to minimize it, “Nobody really cares about those distinctions these days.”

See, if someone identifies with a given label, but you try to deny the label, then you undermine something important that person is trying to tell you.

There’s a chance that the person is using the label differently than how you understand it. So, even if you think you know what the label means, it’s a good idea is to ask more questions about what that person means by identifying in that way.

I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve had times when someone else put a label on me that didn’t really fit. I’ve also had people make wrong assumptions about me based on a label that was important to me.

In either case, I’m always grateful when I get the chance to talk it over and tell my story.

When we think we know what labels do or do not fit others, we too easily dismiss them or discount them. It’s hard work getting beyond labels, but we do best when we keep the conversation open even when labels seem to make understanding complete.

Labels aren’t all bad, but they’re not all good either.

Labels can be helpful when we:

  • honor the ways others identify.
  • take the time to learn why someone chooses a label.
  • assume the best about others as we seek clarification.

Labels can be harmful when we:

  • use them as an excuse to end conversation.
  • assign negative motives to the person based on preconceived unfavorable associations with the label.
  • discount someone just because of the label chosen.

As with dealing with differences, it’s best to talk openly about the labels. By continuing to dialog about what we really mean with labels, we can avoid the double bind of labeling.

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