Identity Labels: How do we use them?

With the recent release of Susan Cain’s ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts’, there has been a lot of discussion about this often overlooked or unexamined temperament and how it fits in a very extrovert-centred world. It has been great to see, and nice to witness the growing acknowledgement of introversion as an inbuilt and intrinsic personal trait rather than a choice or result of behavioural conditioning.

The more we are encouraged and able to understand ourselves the better. It is important that we recognise that we are not alone, and this is especially true of introversion because it is so conducive to our social interaction and our ability to cope with the world at a most basic level.

There is however a deeper danger that we must be aware of when bestowing labels upon others and ‘self-diagnosing’ ourselves with such tag. They can start to dictate our behaviour and become excuses for self-centred action.

I have noticed this trend on several occasions especially when speaking with people and reading comments on other blogs about introversion. Some people see the identification with this particular temperament label as a license to behave in particular ways (ie justifying their current action) as opposed to freeing them up to understand their self in a new light, thus allowing them to know their limitations and therefore transform and develop as a person.

By transform I don’t mean we deny who we are; rather we can’t develop in any meaningful sense unless we have a grasp on what we are at our roots. Through understanding our deep-seated temperament we understand our choices, our fears and our limits and can work out ways to transcend and push beyond them.

Us and Them

One of the problems with adopting labels is that they can lead to an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mindset. It can turn us into victims and result in us seeing our differences as the fault of ‘the other’ – we can personalise it, rather than seeing it as a way to understand ourselves and we can launch an attack on people who are ‘different’.

This is something I have noticed in the discussion of introversion – a number of times I have seen negative comments and defensive attacks on extroversion, blaming this generalised section of the population for victimising the rest of us. But this is not very helpful and a rather negative outcome of these discussions. It is important to understand the diversity of humanity and recognise this in a positive way rather than defensively.

I am therefore I do

It is tricky because if we are to understand ourselves we need to know what it is we are. Perhaps we must pick up labels, understand ourselves in their light and then let go of them (or hold them lightly) so we can be true to ourselves rather than true to the label.

When we practice the discipline of getting to know ourselves then we don’t need to be told who we are by the abstract generalisation of labels. As humans most of us like being told what to do, or how we are supposed to behave and it is natural for us to seek out categories and identities that we can associate with, but it is also easy for us to become defined by and to define ourselves by these rather than by ourselves. When we do this it is easy to justify selfish behaviour by the label.

For an obvious example of this just think of party politics – members, especially parliamentary members of a party define their views by the views of their party rather than their own judgement. “I am a Conservative therefore I believe this”, or “I am a Lib Dem therefore I believe that”. And so it can be true of linguistically defined natural factors of identity. “I am an introvert, therefore I shall tow the line and behave like an introvert.”

It would be very easy for me to suggest that because I am a self-aware/enlightened introvert I will always leave gatherings early, will never socialise on someone else’s terms and will not step out of my comfort zone because of how uncomfortable it makes me feel.

This can easily become the attitude. But rather than being freed by a self-understanding we become imprisoned by it. Instead of discovering how to cope with placing ourselves into positions of discomfort we hide from them and justify our behaviour with our identity label ironically never really encountering our true self.

Equally, as well as imprisoning ourselves with labels, we can do the same to others. “He is an extrovert, therefore he will not want to do this, or he wont understand the fact that I need to be alone right now”. If that is what we do then labels serve no positive purpose – they should help us understand ourselves so we can better empathise with and understand others.

We can only truly know ourselves through our interactions with others, by spending time in solitude, and by being pushed out of our comfort zones. Our authentic selves are defined and exemplified by our responses rather than our projection of who we want to be. The way we respond to other people, to being alone and to situations in which we are uncomfortable is a true indicator of who we are. This is true whoever we are, whatever label we might bestow on ourselves and whatever sort of person we wish to be. The better we understand ourselves the better we become at being ourselves. Whereas if we let the label dictate our identity, the better we understand the general definition of introversion the better we become at being an introvert. We enter the world of stereotypes. If we understand ourselves in light of labels then we understand ourselves as who we think we should be rather than who we actually are.

We need to embrace our nature but realise that we are not to be defined by it. We have the ability to be who we are but it’s an on going process and certainly not defined by any labels. So lets not use them to justify ourselves, let’s use them to understand ourselves and turn such discoveries into positive catalysts for understanding one another and developing as human beings.

I have focussed specifically on the introvert discussion but this doesn’t exclusively apply here. You might be able to think of other labels that we can commonly allow to dictate our behaviour. If you do think of others then pop them in the comments.

  1. I can think of a ton of labels. Even just having adhd can cause people to place you into a stereotype. I agree with using labels simple to understand ourselves rather than use it as an excuse. That understanding will help you become whatever you want in life because it you’re openly acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses and acting accordingly.

    1. Yeah, absolutely right, Denise. There are so many labels, and many of them totally justified. But it is just so easy to slip into using them as an excuse for anti-social behaviour and for settling for a sub-standard version of ourselves rather than using the recognition of them as a rung on a ladder out of what could be when unidentified, a limiting factor in our development. Thanks for your thoughts! 🙂

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