By the time we reach our mid- to late- twenties, most of us have adopted labels for ourselves. We’ve come up with short ways to describe ourselves to someone we’ve just met. We’ve developed our personal brands. We’ve crafted elevator pitches and written social media introductions and online dating profiles. We tend to use nouns for this purpose: I’m a writer, a dog-lover, a runner, an ENTP, an introvert, an empath. These descriptions help us to order our lives and to feel a sense of solid identity.
The problem with such labels is that they can make it very difficult to change. Our interests and personalities are not static. To some extent, our identities are fluid — or they should be, if we have any hope of adapting to life’s unexpected events.
Our culture expects us to assign these labels to ourselves and others. On my first day of my first post-college job, our whole office went out to lunch together. The boss told me and the other new hire that this was the team’s chance to ask us all of the questions they couldn’t ask us during the interviews. We were peppered with questions about our hobbies, religion, pet peeves, and more. (This is a terrible way to get to know your new colleagues; please don’t do this.) I struggled to come up with answers that would paint me in a good light. While my fellow new hire seemed to be prepared with a one-word response to every question (Running. Protestant. Velcro.), I rambled on about my religious background and trying to find a spiritual home — an uncomfortable speech to make to a bunch of people I didn’t know when I clearly hadn’t reached an internal resolution on the topic.
A few years later, while crafting my first dating-site profile, I again struggled to define myself. I’m a complex being with a history, many interests, and an active mind. How could I convey who I was in a few paragraphs? I revised my profile constantly, always reconsidering my answers, adding new details, contrasting my own qualities with those of other people I’d met. I was most satisfied with my profile when it was lengthy and reflective rather than full of labels and absolutes.
Since high school, I’ve been known as an artist. I took lots of art electives, I was a member of art clubs, I applied to art programs, and I majored in art in college. I insisted that my first adult home have a studio space. So it confused people greatly when I enrolled in law school. “But you’re an artist,” they would say. I’ve been licensed as an attorney for six and a half years now, and there are still people in my life who struggle to see me as something other than an artist. When I tell people I’ve taken up creative writing, they respond by saying things like, “But you’re still painting, right?” or “As long as you don’t give up painting.” Why are we so intent on placing each other in boxes? Comments like that can make it very hard for us to try new things and let go of old things.
In order to progress through life and be the best selves we can be, we need to be able to reinvent ourselves. We can’t cling to identities that no longer represent who we are. We have to be willing to let go of what no longer serves us. We are who we are, and labels are mere decoration. We must allow ourselves to shed them with the changing seasons.
With this in mind, I propose that we try replacing our nouns with verbs. Instead of saying “I’m a hiker,” say “I enjoy hiking and exploring the outdoors.” Instead of “I’m an artist,” say “I find joy in the process of creating.”* This shift in language can help us to be less identified with our constructed ideas of ourselves. We can likewise reform the questions we pose to others with the aim of understanding them as whole people rather than slapping labels on them. The next time you meet someone, try asking, “How do you spend your days?” or “What occupies your thoughts lately?” Those are much more interesting questions than “What do you do?”, and you’ll likely get a much more intriguing answer than “I’m a _________.”
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*Side note: I realize that the tagline of this site contradicts the advice in this post. But taglines have to be short, and that was the best description I could conceive when I developed the site. If you have a suggestion for a different tagline, I’d love to hear it!