The Power of ‘Labels’: A Case Study

“as it stands, “Hey mate, how’s the kids?” lends itself to the label of being a ‘father’. But a father may be many other things, not the least an ‘individual’. Labels represent aspects of our character. Do your labels accurately define your character? Here, one must stress the importance of accurate labels. Are you really — for example — ‘Sue, a funny and outgoing lady’? Or are you in fact, an introvert, compensating for your insecurities.”

Source: Tookapic

A man walks into a physiotherapy practice complaining of a sore calf. The man’s name is Barry. Barry is thirty-eight years old. The therapist beckons him into his room. Barry takes a seat and explains his issue to the therapist. The therapist, after running through some physical tests, explains to Barry that his calf is strained. It’s a reoccurring injury. In fact, this is Barry’s sixth strain and the sixth time he’s been to see this therapist.

The news isn’t good for Barry. Barry is told that, since it’s the sixth time this has happened, he will have to rest; three months to be exact before he can undergo a rigorous rehabilitation process — if, by then, he’s up to it. The rehab has worked in the past, yet his calf is continually tight, continually sore and, as Barry explains to friends and family, “always on the brink of fucking snapping.” Barry has been a soccer player his whole life. He grew up watching his father play for the local soccer team, and Barry often joined in for Tuesday and Thursday night training sessions. His father would kick the ball to him and run him through drills most weekends. And his bedroom wall was plastered with posters of famous soccer players up until he moved out during his later teenage years.

Barry strained his calf for the first time when he was thirty-two. The blokes down at the soccer club gave him heaps, saying things like, “Ah, you’re an old fella now mate!” and, “That’s it! Time’s Up! Buggering your calf only happens to old farts.” Barry developed a new nickname among his teammates too: ‘Grandpa’. Barry doesn’t take himself too seriously (one of the reasons why he’s popular down at the club) and hence, found the nickname rather amusing. He joined in on the fun too, laughing at himself as he ran laps, attempting to recover from the strain whilst his teammates partook in more vigorous training drills. Eventually, Barry came back from his initial calf injury and played again. He dominated four further matches before his calf went on him a second time: Calf strain two of six.

Barry strained his calf for the second time in a soccer match. His teammates consoled him, offered their sympathies and told him to “Rest up.” These words were sincerely offered, along with further — and slightly more condescending — remarks such as “Cheer up gramps, you’ll be out there again before you know it” and “Well gramps, you’re not getting any younger.” These remarks made Barry feel a little better. It was nice to know the fellas were thinking of him. And yet, lurking beneath these sympathetic words aimed at boosting his self-esteem, bubbled a deep, highly volatile train of thought. Barry’s brain was rewiring itself in line with what the external world was projecting back to him. His external world was telling him that he was, in fact getting older and that his body was like that of a “grandpa”. Barry’s brain had begun to feed off these cues relating to his ticking physiological clock; his withering muscles and ageing body. Barry’s relationship with his body was changing.

Consciously, Barry began to accept what his teammates were alluding to, whether they meant it in jest or in truth. Barry began to talk about how it was time for him to “settle down” and “find a Mrs”. Barry began to lose interest in training and his rehab, only to ‘get amongst it’ with the soccer team after training when players would hang around at the club and drink a few beers socially. Side note: The coach suggested Tuesday and Thursday night beers were solely to help boost team morale but everyone knew the coach had a drinking problem and jumped at any chance he could to wet his whistle, so to speak.

Barry thought he was too old to play, given his teammates’ bantering and what his body was doing. Two calf strains in two months. “I must be getting old.” Barry gave up.

Since that time, Barry has strained his calf a further four times. As mentioned previously, his therapist has spoken to him about the need to undergo a rigorous rehabilitation process if his body can hold up. Barry now lives in this demoralising, psycho-physiological spiral, and seems doomed to strain his calf repeatedly, simply because — as Barry would say — he’s “getting old”. But the truth of the matter lies in his thinking, not necessarily and entirely in his physiological state.

Leaving Barry aside, one need not be reminded of the drastic spike in UFO sightings after the initial Roswell case in 1947, New Mexico. Much of the hysteria emanated from the label given to something “Unidentified” and “Flying”. Yet what many of our American friends failed to realise was just because one isn’t sure of what something is, it doesn’t automatically make it something else; something alien. A UFO is, quite literally, an Unidentified Flying Object. That’s it. What the title implies, however, is something entirely different. But that last leap is for the ignorant, like Barry. Ultimately, the power of the label rests not only in the title itself but in its implication and meaning.

Source: Miriam Espacio

It doesn’t take long for us to start believing the labels we are given; the labels we give ourselves. Additionally, these labels need not be re-enforced, nor stated directly. For as it stands, “Hey mate, how’s the kids?” lends itself to the label of being a ‘father’. But a father may be many other things, not the least an ‘individual’. Labels represent aspects of our character. Do your labels accurately define your character? Here, one must stress the importance of accurate labels. Are you really — for example — ‘Sue, a funny and outgoing lady’? Or are you in fact, an introvert, compensating for your insecurities.

Labels themselves have baggage. The baggage of the label is found in the label’s stereotype and associations to socio-cultural ideologies. When we think of a ‘father’ or a ‘mother’, a retired soccer player or a computer technician even, we think of the things we know of these labels. We think of the ways in which these labels make sense in our societies and cultures, and to ourselves. It is not necessarily significant to suggest that different cultures and societies view computer technicians or fathers differently, more so that the label itself renders a specific idea common to the collective. Labels even give rise to certain emotions and judgements. They attach themselves to the label in this way. Think of the word ‘orphan’. What other words come to mind? ‘Child’, ‘Poor’, ‘Sad’, ‘Hungry’, perhaps? Observe your feelings now, just for one moment. How does the word ‘orphan’ make you feel? Now think of the labels you use to define yourself and the labels/words that are used to define you? How do they make you feel? Are they accurate?

Nevertheless, our friend Barry is now a retired soccer ‘superstar’, as he would have you refer to him. He drinks most nights, re-lives his glory days with his friends over a few beers and lives, rather depressingly, with the idea that his body just isn’t what it used to be.

He’s overweight because he can’t exercise — not that he won’t; he “can’t”. His calf can’t manage. He can’t run. He can’t squat. He can’t get on the bike because it “gets too sore”. But because of all this; because of these restrictions, he chooses not to partake in any physical activity. His dispositions pertaining to his physical capabilities; what he’s heard, how he’s been spoken to and what he thinks happens to older soccer players in similar predicaments have become crutches for him to lean on. They are his excuses. Although Barry may not admit it, perhaps even to himself, Barry chooses to live by these excuses. They are excuses emanating from labels: The label of the ‘Grandpa’ — the man who used to be, yet no longer is — and the label of the ‘old fart’. Barry, because of these labels, identifies with them. He can’t see them for what they really are though, and their restricting nature. “That’s just how it is mate.” Maybe, but is that how it has to be Barry?

Labels really are like the frog in boiling water. It can be tricky sometimes to realise the effect a label has on us until we’ve removed ourselves from it consciously; until the strings holding us down are cut. Counter-intuitively, a label renders a place of comfort. A label makes us feel safe. It’s easier for us to act behind an image — and even exaggerate that image — rather than remove ourselves from it, expressing our true nature to the world; that we, in fact, are nothing concrete at all and that we may not yet know ourselves entirely. That’s ok though. I mean, are we meant to? There are an infinite amount of labels we could use to define ourselves but most of us just respond to the ways in which others define us, because it’s easier that way…

Our fundamental nature craves solitude and security. We are the social species! We have evolved to fit in, for survival means. We are the sheep and the ants in their lines. We don’t want to stand out. It’s unsafe out there! Like the giraffe that only kneels when it’s relaxed, we human beings long for labels of comfort; things that makes sense. ‘My calf keeps getting injured because I am getting older’. That makes sense doesn’t it, Barry!?

Barry may have a leg to stand on (pardon the pun). His calf may not be what it used to. In fact, it hardly seems possible given the fact he is, in truth, getting older. And yet, him leaning on his labels seems to be making the whole situation worse. Could Barry’s physical state improve if he were to detach himself from his labels? Maybe, maybe not. But that isn’t necessarily the point. A label can be definitive in nature and prevents us, sometimes, from thinking beyond its parameters. “Grandpa” was not Barry’s freely chosen label. But he eventually attached himself to it. He’s now given up entirely.

Once we are labelled, it becomes an attachment. However, if we choose not to identify ourselves with any label, we lose those ‘strings’ aforementioned. Sure, we may play soccer, but that is what we do; it is not who we are. Yes, you may be a lawyer but you may also play tennis, speak Italian, and volunteer as a firefighter or even something less heroic like catch the bus to work every morning. What you do isn’t who you are. Do not let a label define you.

Labels can be toxic. How do people think of you? What would they say? What activities, behaviours, ideas and character traits would they mention? Who we are is a result of our actions and our decisions. We always have a choice and the world owes us nothing. So, choose the right labels, or don’t use labels at all. Don’t let how others define you influence how you define yourself. In this way, we fall into mundane habits of our own making, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. But we can break-free from the restrictions and ideas we have about ourselves as well as how we describe ourselves to others. We must be aware of our labels and how they influence our decision-making. It is important for us not to define ourselves by the things we do or at least, not allow the things we do define us completely.

Additionally, labelling reduces the need to think. If I am ‘Tom: The Writer’ then that is all I need to say and how I may carry myself. Yet, sometimes the attachment to the label is so strong that the very thought of, for example, me not being ‘The Writer’ proves too overwhelming to even consider. So, I could hold onto the label? Or I could remove myself from its attachment. Then the questions come flooding in. What do you want to do now that you’re not a writer? What do you like to do? Why do you like to do that? Why do you always need to do something? What is driving that need to be busy? What are you if you’re not a writer; not a podcaster or a football player?

Well, if I am ‘Tom: Consciousness Inside A Body’, then I have no defining limit and that idea lends itself to no place of rest, for what is consciousness? No one knows. It has no restriction, nor security. Regardless, the label defines the individual but we, as individuals, can choose not to let the labels define us.

“Fuck off mate! I can’t train, my leg’s buggered!”

Your choice Barry…

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