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.
On the Monday after Thanksgiving eighteen years ago, I ran away to Europe. My addiction and untreated emotional problems left me in a state of chronic suicidal contemplation. Every time I used drugs and drank that autumn, I hoped that I wouldn’t wake up. There was nowhere I could really turn for help without being met with answers like, “Just go back to church,” or “Tough it out, you’re too smart for all of this.” Something that I can only describe as a shimmer of clarity woke me up on Black Friday with a clear message: Go to Europe.
The few months I’d spent backpacking through Central and Eastern Europe earlier that year were some of the happiest times in my life to that point. Moreover, getting to connect with my Croatian relatives that summer and in the two previous years I spent traveling and studying in my ancestral homeland was like finding a part of myself I’d been desperate to meet. So over what remained of Thanksgiving weekend I made the arrangements—got my money out of savings, bought a cheap ticket to Prague with the intention of taking the train further south to Croatia and then Hercegovina, and wrote letters explaining to the people in my life that I needed to leave to be okay. I took the gamble, left that Monday, and stayed for almost three years.
I recently recounted the story to one of my oldest and dearest friends. He said in reply, “Jamie, stop saying you ran away to Europe. You moved to Europe.”
I chuckled and sighed when I heard his reframe. Indeed, everything truly wonderful that happened to me—especially finding my recovery and my life’s vocational path—was a direct result of taking that risk to move. In the English language the concept of motivation comes from the Latin word meaning “to move.” So, the very concept of being motivated is rooted in movement. And we don’t give movement (and all the ways we can engage it) enough credit in the change process.
In recovery circles we can be quick to condemn the so-called geographic cure, or the notion that just changing locations is the magic bullet that will make all of your problems disappear. Of course, you take yourself with you wherever you go, and if nothing changes inside then nothing will change overall. Some people would describe what I did by moving to Europe as a geographical cure in the pejorative sense. Even when I share my lead or qualification at a 12-step speaker meeting sometimes I tease myself about it. Janet Leff—my very wise first sponsor and fellow humanitarian aid worker who I met while living in Europe—once made a powerful distinction.
She offered: “Sometimes it’s necessary to make a change—change jobs, change relationships, change cities. We have to ask ourselves though, are we running away from something or running towards something better? Like recovery, our self-dignity, an opportunity that’s better for us and our growth?”
These questions are useful for all of us in recovery as we contemplate making changes, especially if those around us try to shame us for our choices. When I reflect back on those moments in the Fall of 2000, there is no doubt that moving myself in the most radical way possible was needed in order to survive. When I arrived back in Croatia and then to Bosnia-Hercegovina where I settled, I struggled a great deal. It was certainly no geographic cure! I thought that church was the only answer at first and that working for the Catholic Church (which I did) would save me. I thought that I could still drink like a fish and hang out with men who weren’t good for me, as long as I wasn’t popping pills.
And then 12-step recovery found me in the person of Janet Leff, who first befriended me and then asked me to translate a recovery council meeting in the local community for her one day. This powerful system of help, which was devised in my home state of Ohio, found me in the hills of Hercegovina in the years following a brutal civil war in that region. Janet, whose story I tell more fully in Trauma and the Twelve Steps (2012), was there to answer all of my questions I struggled to piece together about my life in chemicals and my emotional demons. A retired clinical social worker, Janet was the first person to give me the framework of unhealed trauma as the main explanation for my mental health and addiction concerns. Because of her commitment to carry a message of recovery to others and lead by example in her life, I’ve been continuously sober since July 2002. There are not enough words to express my gratitude to her and the cosmic flow that brought me to her.
The other layer to this story is how my move to Europe impacted my professional development. If you’re reading this blog on the Institute for Creative Mindfulness site, chances are that you’ve taken a training with me, have read one of my books, or have worked with me in some capacity. What I do today is a direct result of the seeds that Janet and others planted during my work there from 2001-2003. When I moved to Europe, I was starting a graduate degree in history; I took two psychology courses in my undergraduate studies and hated them! So, when both Janet and the priest who was my immediate supervisor suggested that I go to graduate school for clinical counseling, I laughed at them. Janet chuckled in response and said, “Trust me, you’ll be good at it.”
As I reflect back on this time in my life that set the course for the road ahead, I am grateful to be a mover in every sense of the word. Friendships that I made, some very deep, last to this day and continue to shape me. I learned for certain that the world is much bigger and full of wonder than the American bubble of success and failure in which I’d been raised to imprison myself, and there are parts of me to be found everywhere if I’m only brave enough to look. I pray every day that the work I do as I move about the world in the present time honors Janet’s memory.
To be a mover is to embrace a challenge with forward momentum, even if the temptation is to judge yourself as a coward for what may seem like running away. For you, moving halfway around the world may not be required. Although for change to happen, taking actionable steps in the direction of change is an imperative. Movement heals—a simple phrase I often teach in my Dancing Mindfulness expressive arts therapy work. Now, as I spend Thanksgiving weekend of 2018 clean, sober, and mostly sane on holiday in Slovenia and Croatia, two of the places that revived my spirit all those years ago, I realize the deeper truth in this simple teaching.
In memory of Janet Leff (1941-2017)
Institute for creative mindfulness
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