Narrative Therapy

Questioning Labels

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Lately I’ve been waiting until after I’ve completed an article to figure out a title for it. The reason why is the tremendous power labels have to influence perception. With the title of an article in place parameters enter the picture. Ideas never get the chance to germinate because they don’t fit within that newly set schema. The field is narrowed and with it possibilities are narrowed.

In this sense labels simultaneously get you closer to the truth and further away from it, closer because they provide a useful context for grouping related ideas, for quickly assessing what does and doesn’t fit, further  because vital information is always overlooked. When it doesn’t fit within a preconceived set of associations it never even enters conscious awareness.

This is what Kierkegaard meant when he wrote “When you label me you negate me.” A label is like casting out a fishing net, where when you pull it back into the boat all you see is what was too big to escape. But a great deal of marine life did slip through, and it was every bit as real as what you observe flopping about in the boat.

Deconstructing labels of all kinds is highly important to narrative therapists, who understand that the stories we tell shape our perceptions of ourselves and the world. These stories include labels of all kinds, labels that necessarily keep us from seeing the full picture, from recognizing and making room for our full expression as unique, complex individuals.

This is why the Buddhist tradition is concerned with the non-judgmental attitude, with entering the present moment without any preconceived notions. We close off our ability to experience reality as it is when we label a thin slice of it and then make it represent the whole pie.

Of course labels have their place, they help us make sense of the world. The key is questioning these labels, taking the time to bring them into conscious awareness, refusing to quickly negate people or situations by  tacking a label on there and never looking back.