Cherry Farrington reflects on the damage that can be done to ourselves and others when we define people by labels.
Last month I picked up a magazine to read, but didn't get past the image on the front cover that captured me. A group of teenagers were pictured, each with a label attached to them stating an aspect of their life. A label that seemingly stated their identity.
We were all created with a desire to understand the world and people around us. Often we sub-consciously categorise and label others in order to help us understand them. The clothes they wear, the words they use, what they believe, the way they live, all help us decide if they are safe. Is this someone I want to be around? We judge, we label and then we act, treating that person based on the labels we've given them.
During my life I have had numerous labels, both positive and negative, true and false. I have assigned myself labels and allowed others to place them on me, all in order to try and answer the question: "Who am I?"
We all accept labels that help describe aspects of who we are; sometimes our interests: drummer, writer, or football player; or aspects of our personality: chatty, thoughtful, or friendly. But sometimes we place negative labels on ourselves, or pick up false ones that others place on us: useless, weirdo, or damaged.
All too quickly we can allow words that were meant to help describe us, come to define who we are, or judge who someone else is and we adopt their meaning as fixed definitions of our identity.
Whilst in high school, my friend Sarah* was struggling with an eating disorder. Over time I saw how people changed the way they treated her, because they stopped seeing 'Sarah' and started just seeing the eating disorder controlling her.
My friend desperately needed help, but it seemed everyone was too scared of the problem to acknowledge it and had just silently accepted its fate. In desperation after a PE lesson I went to my headmistress' office looking for help. I didn't have the professional expertise to help bring Sarah out of her struggle, but I had the ability to see her true identity that still existed underneath the labels being placed upon her.
Sarah was able to start receiving help from doctors and a counsellor and finally found the space she needed to put words to thoughts and feelings that had kept her trapped in an unhealthy cycle of behaviour for too long. But sometimes Sarah would admit to me that she often felt scared that this would always be part of who she was and that the label was stuck and part of her identity.
As soon as we choose to make something our identity, we give it permission to determine our behaviour and choices. The freedom of being able to say, "This is what I'm feeling," is wiped away when we chose to believe, "This is who I am".
When we identify ourselves with a label that isn't true to how God created us, then we can become stuck living a life that is not as full or free as we were created for.
Galatians 4:7 says that, 'You are no longer a slave but God's own child.' Jesus breaks the power of any labels used to define us and restores our true identity. You were created as a child of God and when you live as one, the false labels placed on you fall off as you walk in who you were created to be.
'This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!' 2 Corinthians 5:17
*Name changed to protect identity of individual.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
View all articles by Cherry Farrington