Since I left religion, I’ve been exploring my identity in more ways than I ever thought possible. There were so many aspects of myself that I had never really looked into closely before – my personality type, my beliefs and ideas about spirituality, my sexuality and gender identity, my mental health, my relationships, my dreams, my passions. I began searching for the correct way to label these things. What labels am I supposed to use? Christian, mystic, agnostic? Straight, ace, queer? Neurodiverse, depressed, anxious? Learning, unlearning, relearning?
But the overarching question I had through this process was this: What is the purpose of labels? I wondered if they were even useful, or if they could actually do more harm than good. I wondered if I needed them at all and, if so, what kind of labels were the best to use.
After a lot of thought, exploration and experimentation, I’ve come to realize a few things about labels, which I will share with you here.
Labels can be superfluous
Guess what: you don’t have to put labels on yourself!
If you’re not comfortable with labels or you feel weighed down by them, you don’t have to use them at all. Labels are not a requirement of existence.
Labels can be superfluous, because they are only external descriptors. They don’t change anything about who you actually are. Say you had a solid box filled with flour. You could label it “flour” and it would still have flour inside. You could label it “sugar” and it would still have flour inside. You could label it “salt” and it would still have flour inside. Or you could choose not to label it at all… and it would still have flour inside!
Labels don’t change anything about who you are. They can be superfluous if you don’t feel like you need or will use them; you are allowed to simply be who and how you are without labeling it.
Labels can be useful
Although you don’t need to label yourself in any way, labels can be useful for a lot of reasons. A label is basically a tool that you can use to describe yourself more clearly, understand yourself more deeply and connect with others more easily. You can use the tool (label) as long as it’s helpful for you; if it stops being useful, you can put it away.
The way labels have been most helpful for me is by giving me the vocabulary I was missing. Once I have the right label in my toolbox, it’s easier to describe who I am or how I feel. For a long time, the label “Enneagram 4” (my personality type according to the Enneagram system) was one that I used quite a lot and it helped me to understand myself on a much deeper level, and improved my relationships with others too. But now, this is a label which I keep reserved in my toolbox and only pull out once in a while.
Labels can be connectors
Using a certain label can make it easier to find and connect with people who have had a similar experience. If you choose to label your religious beliefs a certain way, that label can quickly connect you to people with similar beliefs. Finding someone who uses the same labels as you can make it much easier to relate to them right away.
Labels can be flexible
There are no rules about labels; you can use them however you feel comfortable. Someone might have a similar experience or feeling to yours and choose to label it differently. You can choose broad, umbrella-term labels to describe yourself or more specific, precise ones.
Personally I prefer to use vaguer labels because they allow for more flexibility, and then I’m less likely to get stuck in a box which I created for myself. That’s why I choose to label myself as asexual and genderqueer, which are actually umbrella terms for a range of different experiences with sexuality and gender. Although there are other labels which might describe my experience more exactly, these are the ones I feel comfortable using.
Labels can be changed
Life is constantly changing and moving around us, so labels can change too. Sometimes your experience or feeling changes, and the label you were using no longer fits. Sometimes you come to know yourself in a deeper way, and you can find a label which fits you better. Sometimes the nature of a relationship you have changes, and you want to label it differently.
Labels are not fixed. If a label you previously used doesn’t fit well anymore, you can change it or drop it altogether. There is nothing wrong with changing up the labels you use – in fact, you should be willing to change them up, and not get too attached to labels.
Labels don’t define you
Labels do not define you – you define your labels. You don’t have to put a label on yourself and then do everything you can to fit that description. Instead, you should just be as you are, and choose a label that fits.
Labels do not give you any extra value and they don’t determine your worth. No matter which labels you use for yourself or other people place on you, it doesn’t change who you are. Labels don’t define you, so you can choose to play with them, use them, or skip them altogether.