Labels and how to move past them
We exist by how we define ourselves. Even as children, we categorise ourselves into groups that we think we belong to – and give ourselves the corresponding label. We hear kids say, “I am a basketballer” or “I am a dancer,” as they identify with those groups.
How we ‘fit’ into this world
We also often hear kids say negative things like, “I’m dumb” or “I’m not good at maths” – these heartbreaking self-descriptions are labels that the kids have developed to give meaning to their place in the world. Developing these labels can give them comfort in knowing where they fit, but each label brings with it a whole lot of meaning, emotions and beliefs. Consider the difference between someone who call themselves ‘sporty’ to someone who calls themselves a ‘nerd’ – each implies so much more than the word.
Victims of trauma often develop views about themselves in the circumstance to explain and understand what happened, which become rigidly fixed as labels. These labels become shorthand ways of explaining their experience, and can often serve to lock them in to ongoing suffering, rather than freeing them from it.
How we see ourselves
When the label becomes a core part of how a person sees themselves, it becomes part of their identity. When people use labels as identity statements, they can make their position more rigid, and lock in beliefs, meanings and power positions that simply keep them stuck.
Consider someone who says, “I am a victim”. This label of their experience becomes part of their identity. Although it may be true that they were a victim, and have experienced a traumatic event (or series of events), they have also been – and still are – so much more than that.
Recognising the roles in traumatic events
In the early stages of recovery including disclosing to others, processing trauma and recognising the true roles that were played in any traumatic event, it may be very important to acknowledge a person’s victimhood in order to avoid self-blame and shame that should only be assigned to the person responsible for inflicting the trauma. However, in later stages of recovery, by continuing to label this as being the ‘victim’, we shift from describing a terrible circumstance to pigeonholing the person.
More than anything, the way to restore hope and begin the process of recovery is to understand that a past event is simply a past event, and not something which creates or changes our inherent identity. We can still be “Fred/Mary, who experienced…” rather than “Fred/Mary the victim of…”. The first phrase describes something that happened, and the second describes something that still continues.
Separating from what happened
Whilst it may be only part of the process towards gaining resolution, taking the step to separate what happened from your identity is crucial. Otherwise, even though it ended some time ago, the traumatic event (or the people responsible for the event) can continue to exert influence over us in the present.
Often, when it is suggested to someone that they are still allowing that person or ‘thing’ to reach into their current lives from the past and impact them, people realise how it might now be time to break these bonds. From this realisation comes the opportunity to move from a position of feeling powerless to their past, to one where they are taking control of their future.
Moving beyond the label
Moving beyond the label is often critical in restoring hope. If we can understand that the label we have set for ourselves does not define us, and that we are not stuck in this life as role players (ie. ‘victim’, ‘sufferer’), then we can have hope of creating the future, and our identity, on our own terms separate to the event. By realising that we are so much more than the trauma, the label or the experience, we are free to discover the many positive aspects of ourselves, and our resources, that we should amplify instead.
The labels are always less than the complete person. Whilst they can be useful for some people to normalise their experience (and share a common role with others who have experienced similar things), labels and roles are overall a poor reflection on the true capability of the individual.
It can be useful from an appropriate distance, and with appropriate clinical help, to review our labels and how they were formed. What if, instead of assuming that the role (and label) is correct and concrete, we can see it as something experienced, coped with, and learned from? Something which does not invite a label – only compassion, understanding and growth?
Living from a new perspective
If we can learn to stand back and view ourselves and our lives from this new perspective, we can then see how the best revenge upon terrible experiences in the past is to leave them behind and go on to create a brilliant, different, future.