The study of subjectivity is broadly concerned with what it means to be an experiencing subject in the world. When I touch the book, “I” am the subject doing unto an object, namely “the book.” This subjective “I” touches the book, reads the book, has the book fall on her head, absorbs the ideas in the book, discusses them with another human being. So, when studying subjectivity, we ask questions about who I am, how I experience the world, and what gives me meaning as a being in the world. It invites us to think about the way in which we relate to the world around us and how we understand our place in it.
There is a long tradition of western philosophy that talks about how we can never really know the things external to us. Sure, I may touch the book, but my sense perception filtered through my brain is all I really have access to. I could be living in the Matrix and the book may not even be real. The outside world is of course experienced, but in some ways, it is always a bit of a mystery. This tradition presupposes that subjects and objects are fundamentally distinct – that I can never know the “truth” of the external world. They suggest that the subject, that I, am reducible to my brain’s processing power of figuring out the external world.
This has always struck me a very disconnected an unsatisfying way to look at my place in the world. The few memories I do have of my childhood are characterized by that feeling of disconnectedness and inability to make contact with the “external world.” Like many, my adolescence was characterized by a chronic striving to “fit in” with the popular kids, with the ever-present anxiety that accompanied a lack of knowing what they really thought about me. Even now, I have very few memories of my childhood before the age of fourteen, which incidentally coincides with the age at which I discovered the ability of alcohol and drugs to manufacture a sense of connectedness to the world – a pastime which would temporarily cure that sense of longing, but ultimately exacerbate the feelings of disconnect and loneliness. Even as an adult I have few belongings that suggest I even existed more than a few years ago. And so, with a lack of history in terms of geographic location, memory and material possessions, save for the ephemeral sense of disconnect from the world around me, I stumbled into this philosophical tradition that reified every negative cognition and somatic discomfort about my lack of fitting into this world.
But there’s another way to think about our place in the world. Maybe we aren’t just minds functioning as detached observers. Part of what it means to be human is to have experiences in the world. To both contribute to shaping the world and to be shaped by it. To bring an amalgamation of life experiences to bear in our interactions with it. Everything we know, we know from a place that has been informed by a geographic, historic, and cultural context that we bring to the table when making sense of a situation or experience. Such an approach to understanding the subject or self means that we are fundamentally evolving, unfolding and growing with each encounter in the world. We are part of the world, connected intimately to it, and it is part of us.
So, what does this mean for the kid with no memories and a chronic sense of isolation from the world? What has it meant for the girl from nowhere? It means the way I understood myself has shifted over time away from the desire to figure out what others think of me and how I can access the inaccessible. Treating the world like an object to be figured out or analyzed as means to manufacturing a sense of connection with it, somehow only puts greater distance there. But in embracing my own unfolding story and honoring oneself as an evolving, growing, and emerging creature responding to the world around her, rather than trying to figure it out, has paradoxically resulted in a deeper sense of connection and intimacy in relationships and with the world at large. The ironic twist here, is that in my experience when I let go of striving to figure it all out and instead am mindful of my own experiences and responses to the world, I actually somehow become part of it rather than a detached observer.
Moreover, if in every interaction with the world I bring with me a history of experiences that help me to make sense of those interactions, then I also bring those experiences with me as I look back at my past. This means I get to look back at a childhood and adolescence that I don’t fully comprehend, that is missing large pieces, and characterized by a sense of not belonging with the wisdom of experiences and memories acquired later in life. For the girl from nowhere, understanding myself in hindsight with the full weight of the experiences I do have, means I get to weave together a new story and claim that history for myself – to rewrite my own narrative.
There is one last important consequence that results from understanding subjectivity as evolving in response to a world with which we are intimately related and in communion. An intimate connection with and sense of belonging to requires responsibility. If we are connected with the world and therefore one another, we are responsible for both validating one another’s unique experiences and histories and challenging one another to continue to grow and evolve. It is not enough to simply honor from whence we’ve come. Comfort with self, community and other, means we must continue to submit to new experiences that challenge us to discard old ideas that are no longer productive and avoid becoming stagnant.
Understanding subjectivity as the embrace of one’s unfolding story in response to the world about her sounds lovely. yet even as I write this, I am keenly aware that I don’t always live in this space of communion with the world. I would be lying if I said I never gave a damn about what you thought about me, or how even this piece of writing might be received. I want you to like it. I hope you do. But it’s not something I can figure out how to make happen. Even with the full recognition that my striving only feeds my discomfort, I readily admit I still fall into these patterns, defaulting to my analytic brain. I have a choice today about how I want to engage the world, and it’s not always an easy one as I slip into old ways of thinking. So if you see me on the street, feel free to remind me that my own history, experiences, and insights are worth honoring or perhaps need challenged so that I might continue to grow and feel a little more comfortable in this world, and I’ll try to do the same for you.
Sometime in the sixth grade, I first heard philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s wisdom, “Once you label me, you negate me.” I wish I could tell you that my exposure to this teaching happened while I was attending some kind of summer symposium for gifted children. But alas, I heard it folded into a joke by Mike Myers’ character Wayne Campbell in the 1992 comedy Wayne’s World. Because Wayne’s World is one of my favorite films and I watch it several times a year, I am often reminded of Kierkegaard’s teaching and am challenged to ponder its layers of meaning. As a woman in long-term recovery who works with others in recovery, and as an out bisexual woman who serves as an LGBT+ advocate, I often handle questions about what it means to label or be labeled versus what it me mean to define or identify. Moreover, discussions rage around me and within me about whether or not we place too much stock in identifying in a certain way or calling ourselves certain things. Do labels or identifiers help to advance recovery and advocacy, or do they keep us stuck in unhelpful pigeon holes? Do labels really negate us, and does it make it any better if we swap out label with the word identifier? And on a spiritual level, does the practice of labeling or identifying keep us cut off from the essence of our true nature?
Let’s begin by looking at the distinction between labeling and identifying, for exploring this distinction sets a foundation to answer these very important questions.
“I don’t like to label things,” is a line I’ve heard from many people around me, from wishy-washy people I’ve tried to date to employers who have been non-committal about issues like job descriptions, expectations, contracts, and titles. Just about every woman I’ve worked with or known has been hurt in some way by a potential partner saying they don’t want to put a label on something, when it is really just an excuse to buy time or not commit. Yet I have also experienced very deep friendships that can be hard to specifically label or define because the feelings and roles involved don’t fit into any kind of a neat box. And I’ve also accepted work gigs that seem to defy the gravity of definitions and labels. On any given day it’s hard to describe exactly what I “do.” In fact, it’s a bit of a running joke in my family as my brother has long asked me, “What do you do?,” and my stepson often asks, “So Jamie, how many jobs exactly do you have? I count nine.” In my view I only have one job, yet it’s composed of so many facets and segments I can understand where it would feel confusing to people who don’t get it.
So an argument to be made for labels is that in many contexts, they can keep people safe (especially in work settings and in certain interpersonal relationships) and minimize confusion. Labels can work very much like boundaries and expectations in this sense, so it may feel better to many to call it a definition. Yet we’ve all run into cases where once somebody gets labeled as something, especially in a binary context, it creates a limiting and maybe even discriminatory tone. In this day and age, we only have to look to how political affiliations have divided us to see how this plays out. Many Democrats don’t trust Republicans, especially if they find out they are supporter of President Trump, and immediately shut them down as people as a result. The opposite can also happen, as I know many people (especially those who knew me when I was younger and more traditionally religious) don’t want to hear what I have to say because I’m now rather liberal. The devil’s advocate response I’ve heard, especially from others in the LGBT+ community, is that knowing if someone voted for Trump or not is a sign, a mark that helps them know if they’re really safe with that person. Although I heavily relate to this sentiment and even experienced a great deal of it myself after the 2016 election, for me it is not that black-and-white.
The issue of labeling comes up quite a bit in the recovery and LGBT+ communities in which I live and work. My Trauma and the Twelve Steps work is brilliant to some because it is integrative. Yet my perspective confuses many because even though trauma-focused in my orientation, I still introduce myself in appropriate contexts as, “Hi! My name is Jamie, and I’m an alcoholic and addict in long term recovery.” For me, this is an identifier and not a label. And it is my choice to identify publicly in this way, which makes it very powerful for me. Saying this identifier out loud keeps me grounded in the reality of my story, and I take great pride in being able to introduce myself in this way. Where it can feel like a label, in a negative sense, is when people judge me by this identifier, or if I completely define myself by this identifier. For me, identifying opens up possibilities where labeling connotes being limited by the way in which I identify (or by the way others try to identify or label me).
I recently put the question out to my hivemind on social media and there seemed to be a general consensus that identifying has a much more positive connotation in the English language than labeling. Another common theme is that labeling is more likely to come from without whereas identifying is something that is very personal to the individual doing the identifying—it comes with within. Skeptics or critics may roll their eyes at me when I say things like, “I am an openly bisexual woman in long-term recovery from addiction and dissociation.”
More PC bull crap. Why does everyone need to label themselves? Or be special?
I offer this response: Being open an honest about these things has allowed me to heal and be able to say and claim other parts of my identify like I am a deeply spiritual person, proud of my Eastern European ancestry, and I live each day to the fullest, enjoying life as much as I can and helping and serving others who my Higher Power sees fit to put into my path. I am a yogi, a seeker, a lover, a mystic, a sister, a daughter, a surrogate mother, a friend, a teacher, and author, a guide, a movie lover, an expressive artist… Shall I go on?
I can celebrate the fullness of my human identity because I’ve learned to be honest about my story and what it has meant to shaping my identity. Robert Ackerman, the teacher and recovery writer, said in a 2015 talk: “You cannot expect yourself to become a fully functioning individual (physically, emotionally, spiritually) if you deny a part of yourself. The key is integrating all of who you are.” I felt like he was talking directly to me, and in the months following this message circumstances allowed me to come out fully (not just to my close friends and colleagues) about my bisexual identity. Doing so was a game changer not just for my mental health, but for feeling more authentic and genuine in my professional work. I feel now that no one can label me, and if they do so pejoratively, it’s lost any power to affect me.
The yogic perspectives and teachings from other spiritual paths may offer a slightly different angle to the challenge. Teachers I’ve studied with contend, “As soon as you say I am…, then you are limiting yourself. Because you are really your soul and the pureness of consciousness.” In fact, in many yoga settings, it’s common to introduce yourself by saying, “I’m called Pragya,” instead of “I am Pragya.” Even saying things like “I am anxious” can be discouraged because you are identifying yourself with your anxiety.” It may be preferred to say “I have anxiety.”
Ever the bridge builder, my feelings are that both perspectives are true. I know that when I look at the bigger picture and my Divine essence, it is very limiting to label or to identifying myself in any way. Who I really am exists at a soul level that cannot be damaged or affected by anything on this plane. Yet I also live on the human plane for the time being and to know who I am in this body, a knowing that is empowered by the ways in which I identify, helps me to thrive while I’m here. Knowing the communities to which I belong and where I stand in work or relational contexts is important. Important, yes; everything, no. Like many answers to existential questions answered through the yogic perspective, the key is to not be attached. Freeing myself from the grip of attachment—to outcome, to definitions, to identifiers, to labels, to anything is the key to health and happiness. And this detachment I practice while also being honest about what matters to me is what allows me to be fully human and fully Divine, dancing as One between the worlds.
Hello, my name is Marnie and I have a question: What is in a name? It’s a question I’ve been pondering lately. Our parents decide what to call us before our voices can be heard. These names usually have some sort of significance for them and I remember school assignments on the discovery of name meanings. Our birthnames become our labels. In a world full of labels, our birthnames end up as our number one label we strive to fulfill.
We try to fit into these names. Take into account the name lists that float around Facebook. Being able to find our names on Coke bottles. Our names mean something to us. However, what if we don’t identify with our birthname? It becomes this scratching walls that is suffocating.
You see, I have a speech impediment from childhood trauma and it impacts my processing (mental stutters) and my ability to pronounce anything with a “R.” “R’s” can go to Hell for all I care. And of all the “R” sounds that could possibly exist, my birthname has one of the hardest configurations of that godforsaken sound.
There have been many speech therapy sessions spent on pronouncing my name. Many. Over time, I developed a sense of shame and embarrassment. My number one label, my number one identifier, and I can’t say it. When out and about with friends and family, it intuitively became a thing that they’d pronounce my name for me. I don’t know if they perceived my shoulders dropping in, my split-second hesitation, whenever anyone asked, “What’s your name?” My voice would get caught in my throat and I’d shrink into myself. “Just call me, M.”
It got worse when people asked where my accent was from. From as far back as I can remember to when I was 26, every day I was asked where my accent was from. When I was younger, I would tell people I moved around a lot. It wasn’t until I was 23 that the internalized shame branched off into anger and I dreaded every interaction with new people.
“Where’s your accent from?”
“It’s a speech impediment.”
Whenever I dropped that bombshell, people would begin to squirm. How does one come back from that? This moment is the opportunity I take to remove myself from the conversation. I remember a couple of times when people would learn about my speech impediment and the fact I couldn’t say my name, they kept trying to pressure me into speaking. Into saying my name.
Oh man, I felt small and that shame bubble only got bigger. Each interaction, I shrunk a bit more. It’s not to say I didn’t like my name, but I didn’t feel comfortable with it. There were points when I mentioned it to my family and was met with various responses, “but your name is pretty,” “It’s a good name,” “I like it.” All responses kept me quiet. However, that need to identify with something else, that need to change my name, followed me around.
This past year, the urge to change my name has only gotten stronger. If anyone read my last blog, know I have a pretty strong intuition. It wasn’t until a recent drive down to an Expressive Arts retreat that I felt comfortable playing with another name. “Tell them to use, Peyton,” bounced around my skull until I shared with road trip buddies to use it for the remainder of the trip together. Thankfully, they took it well and supported it. The entire trip I responded to Peyton like it had always been my name. We also realized it sounds like “painting,” which is something I am passionate about. It felt like coming home.
It dawned on me that my speech impediment has become my identity. Who I’d interact with, how I interact, how I presented myself, all revolved around my speech. I put myself in a corner over time and lost my voice in the process. Picking a name for myself has helped me find my voice I previously locked away. A sort of reclaiming a piece of myself.
So, what’s in a name? For me, everything. My birthname has kept me stuck in a loop of “I’m defective,” because I don’t speak like everybody else. It created this identity of something being wrong with me. A reminder of my trauma history. A reminder of feeling small and powerless. A name is a powerful thing, and everyone should have the opportunity to express who they are, even if it’s a name change. It’s how we introduce ourselves to the world, to people, to ourselves. It can keep us in a box or set us free.
So, hello, my name is Peyton.
Peyton Cram LPC, LCDC III (pronouns They, Them, Theirs) is a Dancing Mindfulness Facilitator, EMDR Therapist, Expressive Arts Therapist, artist, and life-long learner. They received their MSEd in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Youngstown State University and is currently the Outpatient Program Supervisor at Valor Recovery Centers. Peyton is also a Reiki lvl 2.
Institute for creative mindfulness
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