How Words Count, and Why Some Labels Are Just Not Healing

Over the past eighteen months, my circumstances have changed in unexpected and unforeseen ways. I don’t usually write about topics such as this one, but in view of the people I have met, the things it has been given to me to observe, learn, study or witness, and simply the continued journey of life, I will go out somewhat on a limb and share the following thoughts.

Like many of us perhaps, I have spent much of my life wondering, on some level, where I fit in, and what my purpose in the world might be. This is partly due to the fact that I have two nationalities, was born in a different country again, and have moved around a lot, but also to the fact that on a practical level I have experienced considerable periods of time in which fundamental areas of my life, such as living place, work, relationships, purpose and direction, have been highly temporary or very unclear, causing instability and insecurity. Of late, breathing in a freer space, I sometimes look back and realize how important our personal narrative is in moving on from trying circumstances – in short, the words we use, whether it be what we tell ourselves or what we share with others, are important. I have been reminded of this recently especially, as my own practice of yoga and a small research project have led me to look at how yoga can help break recurrent negative cycles, heal emotional issues, and assist in recovery from addictive patterns. And one thing I can firmly say is that I do not believe negative labels to be empowering.

Take the words ‘addict’ or ‘alcoholic’ for example. While one would hope that we live in a sufficiently enlightened age for addiction issues not to be condemned, and for feelings like guilt or shame not to be imposed upon sufferers, whichever way you look at it, labels like addict or alcoholic do not and cannot sound positive. I recognize that it seems such terminology can help certain people in the early stages of seeking help or initiating change, in order to admit to themselves the nature and severity of their issues. But surely this should only be a very temporary step – in the longer term, the idea that ‘you are this dysfunctional life form, but it’s OK to be that,’ is preposterous. A pejorative label is a pejorative label, and it is not empowering. I doubt many people wake up and think, “Yippee, another day to call myself an addict! That’s who I am!” (I have also met several people who, while recognizing they are struggling with addictive or compulsive tendencies, strongly resent being labelled in such ways as they do not feel words like this describe who they are in any way).

It is very clear that who a person actually is, and a pattern of behaviour they may currently be displaying, are two entirely different things. And this is true regardless of how prevalent, chronic, or long-standing a pattern may be. It might also be of interest to note that health professionals are increasingly moving away from such language, the NHS in Great Britain is choosing to reject labels such as “alcoholic” and “alcoholism”, in favour of terms like “alcohol misuse”. The idea of substance misuse points to a habitual action, and does not define a person as an entity that embodies the action in question. For many people, it can be easier to imagine changing a behaviour pattern than changing something they may believe themselves to fundamentally be (‘once an addict, always an addict’, with all the trimmings).

I would also argue that on some level a negative label can be an excuse, even a cop out. ‘I am this so I have these associated flaws and shortcomings. And that’s OK.’ Obviously this need not be the case for everyone, but believing oneself to be something negative, with inherent limitations, is another mindset which is absolutely not empowering – and therefore absolutely not helpful. In any addiction, compulsion, or tendency towards frequently uncontrolled behaviour, there is an element of powerlessness. It is generally acknowledged, and rightly so no doubt, that a person needs to recognize their degree of powerlessness in the face of the issue causing harm and suffering, for things to begin to change. However, the flip side of that coin is that true and lasting recovery and healing can only happen when a degree of empowerment returns. Whether that empowerment is seen to belong to a divine being, a higher power, or to one’s own Higher Self is beside the point – there has to be direct, personal experience of a sense of renewed, or perhaps even new found, empowerment, in order for patterns to change. If a person cannot go within and access the feeling of the power to choose, of agency if you will, then they cannot move forward in a reliable, durable manner.

Ultimately, saying, ‘I am (or ‘you are’) this, that, or the other’, is just another story. Not that the story may not have originated in truth. But does there not come a time when it must be transcended? When it is good to discard it, to make space for a new story, for fresh words, for a pristine, untainted experience of the present, free of past and future? It seems to me that becoming comfortable with, or attached to, a fixed and familiar label or vision of self, is also somewhat dysfunctional, and symbolically hinders one’s ability to move on. A negative storyline, just like a negative label, cannot give impetus or inject the joyful, hopeful, positive energy that supports commitment to change.

Einstein is often quoted as having said that a problem cannot be solved with the same mindset that created it, or words to that effect. I would suggest that likewise, a new life cannot be built on a narrative that was part of the problem. Whatever the issue, when true and lasting change is yearned for, when deep healing is desired, there is only one direction in which to go, and that is forwards. Do we want to take that journey carrying a sizeable stash of back issues of “Me” magazine?

Whether trying to kick a habit or make a shift happen, without confidence and trust in oneself and life the chances of success are slim. I have found there is an odd pattern it is easy to slip into when the above are lacking, which is to be willing to take responsibility for mistakes or unskilful actions (labeling oneself with a disempowering term would be a part of this), but to hesitate to take full credit for empowered and successful actions (‘I got lucky’, ‘Things turned out well’, ‘It’s not thanks to me’). But surely, full healing or recovery means learning to live fully, which must imply embracing – or ‘owning’ to use a what seems to be popular jargon nowadays – everything, the consequences of all our actions, the good, the bad, the ugly and the sublime. This way of being also is truly empowering!

My impression is that true healing is observed not when substance use is halted, when anger is controlled, anxiety released, or when compulsive behaviours are curbed (although all of these can be celebrated), but when peace is found within. For this it is helpful to transcend any and all ideas of self, and to visit, often, the space of now, where everything is always unfolding anew, and where labels are merely distractions, entertainment for noisy minds.

2 thoughts to “How Words Count, and Why Some Labels Are Just Not Healing”

  1. A beautiful pen and above all an intelligent thought. Every human being is concerned with the amalgamation between what appears and the true being … Especially if he ends up believing himself to be what is said about him.
    If the person is further weakened, then the possibilities of freeing oneself may be reduced.
    The minimum of compassion between living beings should lead us not to stigmatize someone.
    Thanks to the writer who shares his thoughts.

    Une belle plume et surtout une pensée intelligente. Chaque être humain est concerné par l’amalgame entre ce qui apparait et l’être véritable…Surtout s’il finit par se croire lui-même être ce qui est dit de lui.
    Si la personne est de surcroît fragilisée, alors les possibilités de se libérer peuvent s’en trouver réduites.
    Le minimum de compassion entre êtres vivants devrait nous amener à ne pas stigmatiser quelqu’un.
    Merci à l’écrivain qui partage ses réflexions.

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