How Labels Limit You

I recently attended a pool party at a friend’s house. The weather was perfect. There was plenty of quality food and drink and a lot of guests to mingle among. But after a half hour, I began to feel like something was missing. I walked up to my friend, the host, and asked, “Am I your only single friend?”

Ugh! Open mouth; stick foot in!

I just couldn’t leave well enough alone. Not only did I make myself feel worse, I made my host feel guilty – as if she’d done something horribly wrong. I felt terrible. I’d made a perfectly good party awkward. The look on my friend’s face, and my embarrassment for having asked were enough to make me want to leave right then and there. I picked up a cracker and stuffed it in my mouth.

Let’s face it, even though we often use them, labels like “single” limit us. We tote around a whole list of things we attach to ourselves that keep us out on the edge of experience – usually the experiences we’d really like to have. Labels restrict us to a preconceived notion of life in a particular way, like the loneliness that comes with being “single,” or the lack of freedom you perceive when married. Both are illusions that come with the title, not necessarily the experience.

Even socially acceptable labels like busy, tired, broke, and stressed out become part of the everyday way we describe our lives. These labels we use are our victim badges. They usually define us in terms of lack, things we currently don’t possess, a particular kind of job, skill, place, circumstance or person – like in my case, a partner. We identify with them and expect others to identify us that way also, even though we aren’t always aware of it.

But as long as we hold on to our badges, they will always shape our experiences because they reveal what we really think about our lives. Our actions, of course, always follow our thinking, so it’s no wonder things never change for those who sport their badges with regular gusto. I’m embarrassed that I “singled” myself out. It didn’t make me feel better and I didn’t really get any sympathy either (we rarely do). But the situation did make me think more about the words I choose.

For me, being “temporarily without a partner” mostly means that I don’t have a ready-made companion whenever I want. I have to go out and find them. I have to call people and make plans. I have to cultivate my friendships and family relationships with intention. I put in more effort because I’m learning that caring doesn’t just happen, it’s something you have to create. As a result, I tend to appreciate the people in my life more today than I ever did when I was “coupled.” I’m not saying living alone is better or worse, it’s just what I’m doing right now.

We are constantly being asked to apply labels to our lives, so it’s easy to understand why we hold on to them and come to identify with them. But be careful about the words you attach to you and your life. Remind yourself often that what you are experiencing today is only a state of being; it isn’t “who you are.” If you must describe yourself in some way, choose words that describe what you want most for your life, down the road, and for always. Words like happy and healthy and well-loved will do.

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