Once upon a time I went to see a homeopath. I was having stomach pains and she diagnosed an intolerance to chickpeas, lentils and gluten. She was right about the first two so I began to believe in homeopathy.
I continued to see her weekly, discussing various anxieties as if she were a counsellor. Only, she wasn’t a counsellor; she was trained purely as a homeopath. And one comment in particular highlighted this fairly important fact.
I told her about an incident where I’d felt jealous. I spoke about this with her because I rarely feel jealous, so it had surprised me. Her response was: you’re a VERY jealous person. Hmmm, I thought. Am I? Perhaps I am. Except I don’t think I am. So I phoned my sister, knowing she would be brutally honest with me, and asked if she thought I was a jealous person. She said no.
It got me thinking about labels and whether they’re ever helpful. You see, I don’t know anyone who is consistently ‘nice’ or ‘funny’ or ‘generous’ or ‘jealous’ or ‘angry’ or ‘evil’. Our moods and thoughts are determined by where we are in our lives; whether we’re fulfilled, or going through something difficult – so a friend in a good place might crack more jokes and feel more generous than someone going through trauma.
But it seems we’re automatically programmed to label.
When I read yesterday about Boudicca Stretton-Brown, a 27-year-old stay at home mum leaving an ad on Gumtree offering people on benefits free home-cooked meals, I thought: what a nice person (with the rest of the country). And then I remembered this labelling business and thought instead: that’s a really nice offering.
Whether it’s positive labelling: you’re a generous person, or a negative label: you’re a VERY jealous person – it can stifle development.
We know that telling children how intelligent they are can make them complacent and less likely to make an effort – but congratulating a child on a particular piece of homework and recognising how hard they’ve worked will encourage them to continue working hard. Perhaps it’s the same with adults.
And it’s fairly obvious why negative labelling is unhelpful: it fuels a negative self image and lowers self esteem. Being told you’re a depressed/ angry/ jealous/ lazy person won’t inspire you to change, it will instead result in you fulfilling that expectation.
So a few pieces of advice:
1. Don’t label yourself, or anyone else. Accept that sometimes people do good things and sometimes they do bad things: this doesn’t make them a good or bad person. We’re much more complex than our last action
2. If anyone ever tells you you’re [insert negative trait] tell them it’s not helpful and that we aren’t defined by our actions. We’re all capable of changing and adjusting – one angry outburst doesn’t make you an angry person, it probably means you’re having a tough time
3. Don’t go to a homeopath for talking therapy. You go to them for little sugary placebo pills and to have hippy-dippy ‘allergy tests’ that are probably just good guesses
4. If your homeopath (or counsellor, therapist) does label you, stop seeing them. Sometimes they have their own issues and they’re transferring them onto you. I think that’s what my homeopath was doing and it’s unprofessional