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You Don’t Have to Label It to Heal From It

Human beings are meaning-making creatures. From the very first cave drawings to hieroglyphs to modern-day languages, we have sought to identify things and put them into categories that we can not only understand but easily convey to others. It’s one of the attributes that sets us apart from other mammals and it is a unique function of our complex brains.

In college, I studied language and linguistics. I’m a word fanatic and obviously, I’m passionate about writing. Finding the perfect word is almost a sport for me. And when I do, it’s deeply satisfying. It’s almost like providing a reader with a magnifying glass or a microscope into the hidden recesses of my mind. The feelings I cannot articulate verbally miraculously jump onto the page and I instantly connect with whoever is reading my words. It’s quite intimate, actually.

But sometimes, trying to fit something into a box can actually be counterproductive. Some experiences may defy meaning and to try to distill them down into a distinct category with a label might force a square peg into a round hole. And more importantly, sometimes the attribution of a label to something might prevent us from engaging with it in a way that allows us to do so without automatically being sucked into the quagmire of preconceived notions about what that label infers. This is particularly true in the realm of psychology and therapy.

Victim or survivor, covert incest or emotional abuse, borderline personality disorder or attachment anxiety… each of these terms comes pre-loaded with a myriad of assumptions that can influence not just how we view ourselves or others, but how others view us. Some may find a sense of relief in having a label to explain what they are feeling, while others will find it pathologizing and othering. And frankly, there’s no right or wrong, just preference. I’m the type of person who likes labels. It helps me to feel a sense of belonging when I otherwise feel alone. But I know plenty of people who feel absolutely straitjacketed by being labeled.

The truth is that labels aren’t a prerequisite for healing from any kind of mental health condition or trauma. They may be required by your insurance company to get your therapy covered, but that’s between your therapist and your insurance company. The actual process of healing and how you engage with that is for you and your therapist to discuss and negotiate. And knowing if you are a label person or an anti-label person can be extremely useful information for your therapist in curating your treatment plan.

For example, if stating that you were sexually abused feels too overwhelming to process, try focusing on what happened as a violation or something you understand was inappropriate and made you uncomfortable. Identify how that experience made you feel both in a physical corporal sense and an emotional sense. Give those feelings words like disgust, yucky, scary, suffocating, or uncomfortable. Acknowledge any shame, fear, anger, or grief. This will give you enough to work with to begin processing the memory without having to add an umbrella of preconceptions on top of it. Ultimately your therapist is going to focus on your feelings anyway, regardless of the modality they use to help you work through them.

Words are powerful and meaning is invaluable to our ability to comprehend the world, others, and ourselves. Labels, however, might be best reserved for canned goods and post-it notes, and are not particularly useful in encapsulating our internal worlds or the nuances of the vastly diverse human experience.

Getty image by Buzya_Kalapkina

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