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Limiting the Labels- You’re Definitely Worth It

Don't Label MeWhen I was a college DJ we used to get sent a lot of new CDs every week. On the covers there would be a sticker from the record company trying to get us to play their artists. Conpanies would put “PIYL” or “Play If You Like” and then list bands they sounded like, and all of them drew from about 30 of the best known bands. It made life easier for DJs since if I liked the Ramones I would check out those CDs that said PIYL: Ramones, and not worry about the ones that said “PIYL: Air Supply.” The point is that the record companies would put their bands into categories and make their sound “familiar” to us by listing bands that we would know. As a DJ this was awesome, but it was a different story for the bands.

If you have ever been in a band or every talked to someone in a band, you know that there is literally nothing that they hate more than being told that they “sound like” another band. When you’re in a band you work hard to make your music sound different than other people, so being told that it is not only unoriginal but also like someone else is a slap in the face. Sure a band may have influences, but they spend all those hours practicing to make sure that they have a sound uniquely theirs. What the record company does might make their CDs easier to consume and describe, but it fails to honor or even acknowledge the work the band has done.

In life, we are the bands but we act like we’re the record companies. We live, feel, experience, and strive in a way that is uniquely ours. We become complex beings who love Mad Men, but hate TV; and that love working out, but keep a bag of bite sized Reece’s cups in our bag. We are defined by seemingly contrasting things that somehow harmonize within us into a glorious whole. That person works hard, is a dedicated parent, is a loving partner, and feels deeply. That person deserves to be known and have the richness of their personhood understood. That person should be energetically sought after by everyone, cherished by our partners, and revered by our children.

But people don’t know see us that way. Instead, people see us by the labels we give ourselves. They see us as “wife” or “divorcee” or “mom” or “executive.” When we meet people we write “PIYL:” on ourselves and then provide these shorthand terms for who we are in the hopes that they will give us a listen. We then wonder why people don’t understand us or why we don’t seem to have anyone who we’re friends with the way we were when we were young.

I deal with a lot of people who are in transition. These are outstanding women who humble me with every conversation, but who always begin telling me about themselves with homogenized descriptions. These terms not only fail to let me know anything about them, but they also disregard the experiences they have had and work they have done to become these richly complex individuals. One of the first things I often do is help them realize that they are neither “this” nor “that,” but instead they are a swirling universe of intersecting dualities that occasionally manifests itself as “mom” or “divorcee” depending on the moment someone is looking. This may seem silly, but when someone has spent years defining themselves by consumable categories, they forget the rich cup of awesome that they really are and start to neglect their uniqueness in order to more accurately come across as their stickers describe. They become the superficial labels they give themselves.

There’s one more, and much worse, problem with trying to see yourself as a category-you will almost always fall short of what people think that category means. We have all met people who are singularly focused on something-the junior partner at a law firm that works 80 hours a week, the “runner” or “fitness buff” who builds his life around training, and the mom who shames Martha Stewart and Carol Brady without seeming to break a sweat. Most of us are not those people, but when we say that we are a lawyer, into fitness, or a mom, people immediately make assumptions about us as if we were. It is even more insidious when we let people’s expectations around those categories make us feel like we are somehow not living up to them. Of course you can’t have everything if you’re trying to be the epitome of each thing! However, the glorious truth is that most of us do have everything if we just give ourselves a chance to let the things we do be defined by who we are instead of the other way around.

When you think of who you are, think past the categories you have used and that people give you. You are not defined by these summaries of who you are and what you’ve done, but those summaries are simply pieces in a complex and constantly changing puzzle. If someone wants to get to know you make sure they know that what you say in the beginning is nothing more than a superficial glimpse, and that the truth is so much more.

Here’s a truth about those CDs-almost none of the bands worth listening to actually sounded like the ones the record companies used, and the ones that did were predictable and got rotated out and discarded quickly. Don’t let anyone limit what you are with labels, and especially don’t do it yourself. It should be work to learn who you are, and you’re definitely worth it.

Author: Dave

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