Labels Are for Tin Cans: Stop Negative Self-Talk and Reclaim Your Inner Power
I was on a self-help message board the other day and I came across these words, written by a man clearly in deep mental anguish:
“I’m a depressive with chronic fatigue. I’ve been depressed my whole life and after trying everything I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s just the way I am.”
A few things struck me about this. The fatalism. The distorted thinking. (I’ve not yet met a depressed infant or toddler, so I doubt this person had truly been depressed his “whole life.”)
But it was the way the man described himself that stopped me: I’m a depressive.
This poor soul has equated his identity with an illness. What a way to think about oneself! And he’s not alone. I did a Google search for the term “I’m a depressive” and got back more than 67,000 results.
A search for “I’m a borderline” got 136,000 results.
“I’m a bipolar” – 85,000 results.
“I’m a schizophrenic” – 103,000 results.
Everywhere I go in this society, I hear people referring to themselves as medical conditions. I’m hyper. I’m ADHD. I’m obsessive-compulsive. I am [insert condition].
What makes this kind of thinking so dangerous is the word choice. The word “am” is a linking verb that expresses being. A linking verb performs no action in a sentence. Its sole purpose is to equate the subject with the adjective that follows.
In other words, think of that word “am” as an equal sign. So substituting the equal sign for the word “am” in the phrases above, we have:
I = depressive
I = bipolar
I = obsessive-compulsive
When did we stop being multi-faceted human beings, with complex psychologies and mysterious spirits and souls, and become diagnostic codes found in edition 5 of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders?
When did we stop being human beings and turn into labels like cans on a grocery shelf?
Think about it. All of those canned goods at the supermarket have labels so that people know what they’re getting at what price. The label-ization of canned goods and other food stuffs is a necessary part of modern day supply chains that bring cheap, safe, standardized food portions to dinner tables around the world.
Modern medical science follows the same principles. To deliver safe, cost-effective medicine to the masses, the medical community needs to put diseases, conditions and other ailments in discrete buckets that can then be conveniently managed with standardized medications and treatments.
The danger comes in when we begin to apply labels not just to the illnesses being treated, but to the individual receiving the treatment. Just as a man who eats spaghetti does not become spaghetti in the eating, so a man being treated for depression does not become a depressive in the treating.
We are not our illnesses or conditions. These are things which we have, things that we are experiencing – not things that we are. We are much, much more.
We are fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, friends and colleagues.
We are souls. We are spirits. We are consciousness. We are unique and precious children of the universe.
To label ourselves by our conditions not only reduces us to tin cans on a grocery shelf, but also creates a self-fulfilling cycle where we become that which we think we are.
It’s because of the way the human mind works. The brain is an extremely powerful goal-seeking machine. Tell it what you want and it will summon its incredible resources to manifest your desires. Your wish is its command.
You don’t even have to want something to have it delivered to your mental inbox. The brain is so powerful that all you need to do is think about something long enough and it will be delivered to you. Whatever you focus on becomes your reality.
So when you tell yourself that you are a hopelessly broken depressive, your brain takes this literally and conveniently manifests this reality for you. It sends signals to the nervous system to serve up the feelings and symptoms of depression. Voila! – you’re depressed!
Hold on, you say – but I don’t want to be this way! It’s the way I am! It’s in my genes! It’s in my chemistry! I can’t help it!
I’m no doctor. There may very well be a biological basis for what you’re feeling. I can tell you this, though: for many years of my life, I thought the same thing as you.
I tried dozens of antidepressants, benzodiazepines, and other augmentative drugs, none of which worked. I paid thousands of dollars on therapy and on various depression/anxiety-busting programs. I’d done a medical trial for transcranial magnetic stimulation. I’d done homeopathic medicines, aromatherapy, reiki, meditation, massage therapy. You name it, I’d tried it.
I was absolutely and utterly convinced that there was something wrong with me that could only be fixed through medication. And it turned out I was wrong.
Do I have a genetic predisposition to getting depressed and anxious when under intense stress? Yes. Do I need medications to keep my chemistry right in order to keep from getting depressed and anxious?
No. Absolutely not. I know that now about myself. I was deceived before. I don’t need a pharmaceutical agent, or anything else that is external to me, to be peaceful and happy. All the tools I need for peace and happiness are within me, and always were.
Words are powerful. Language is powerful. When you label yourself as an illness, disorder, or condition, you have given away your power. You’ve made yourself a victim. No wonder you feel hopeless!
Step one to healing is to change the way you talk to yourself about yourself. Be more precise in the words you use. Instead of saying I am depressed or anxious or whatever, train yourself to say I feel depressed or anxious.
Doing so relegates your suffering to an aspect of your current experience, rather than representing the whole of who you are.
It takes time to get this point. Awareness is a slow dawning. Be patient with yourself along the way when you slip into old habits of talking to yourself. You’re learning a new language – a language of self-love, self-respect, and self-acceptance.
Labels are for tin cans. Drop the self-defeating language and reclaim your inner power.