Imagine There are No Labels

I would say, “It’s easy if you try…” as John Lennon sings, but it isn’t really. Labels are necessary. We use labels to order and make sense of our world.  We use them to communicate. A child learns:  “This is a ball. It is round, smooth, blue, and polka dotted.  It bounces but it’s a little flat.” Huh?  All those? Well, yes. Those are all labels applied to an object to help us understand and to describe it.

Labels are words. Words are symbols for meaning. Thinking of all the different interpretations of words themselves it’s no wonder we have communication difficulties. The ball is blue. You think of navy blue; I picture sky blue. I see tiny polka dots; you see big ones. We have different meanings behind the very same words.

Labels are also limiting. We have the illusion that we know an object by its label. When we think we know we don’t have much need for further exploration. This came very clear to me in one of my coaching certification assignments. The assignment was to explore the items under my kitchen sink as a 3-year old would. Three year-olds can’t read labels. They don’t ‘know’; they explore. A child is brand new to the world and the world is brand new to it.  Everything is an unknown – mysterious and magical.

So what did I find under my sink? I found little round balls that were many shades of brown with black pointy things mixed in. The little balls were shiny, smooth, and slippery. They scattered delightfully when I spread them all over the floor. (As an adult I would call it birdseed.) I found green liquid that moved oh so slowly as I turned the bottle. It got sparkly bubbles in it when I shook it and they always went up no matter which way I turned it. The bubbles got littler the more I shook it. It was sticky. (Dish soap.) I found a square wiry thing that was stuck together with some blue stuff that smelled good. It poked my fingers when I touched it. (Brillo pad.) And on the exploration went.

At one point I picked up a bottle and began to read. “What is this stuff?” What was I reading? The label! A body of words that somebody slapped on there to inform me about the item in my hand. As I read my curiosity left. I thought I knew. I set it aside immediately. Because I ‘knew’ it was of no further interest to me.

How many times do I do that with the people and even things in my life? How often do I lose interest and set a person or even an idea aside because I believe I already know who and what they are about?

Think for a moment about the labels you use for your boss/child/parent/sibling/partner or former partner.  Mean, lazy, ornery, loving, irresponsible, fair, honest, needy, picky?  How does that label limit your view of them? Does your label help you to explore possibilities, or make you more dismissive because you think you know who and what they are? Have you slapped a label on that person that proclaims, “This is what’s in here?” But do you really know?

The media is perhaps THE best label-maker out there.  As an interpretation machine it takes an event (Dow Jones drops) and labels it (worst recession since the Great Depression). It is our tendency to believe the ‘label’, to think we know. Does our believing then make it so?? It certainly limits our curiosity toward exploring other possibilities.

What if instead we developed a deep curiosity toward all things? Just think of the possibilities that could come from exploring opinions that greatly differ from our own.  It’s so much easier to label a person or an idea ‘stupid’ or ‘ignorant’ and not have to deal with a different view of things. There is always wisdom in a different viewpoint. Always.

Think of the renewed energy that could come by looking at all of your relationships with fresh eyes. Your boss/child/parent/sibling/partner is different than he or she was yesterday. Yes, it’s true. In what ways are they different? In what ways are YOU different than you were yesterday? How do the labels you apply to yourself limit you?  What if you took off those labels and asked the question, “Who am I, really?”

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