So I was thinking about labels and rules and how we get very caught up in them, and sometimes caught up in not using them, and how really it seems that we forget our common sense.
I was noticing the desire in myself (that I feel is reflective of society) to label things, others – and myself. We seem to feel the need to box everything away, whether it’s a personality type/trait, a social trend, or a pattern of behaviour. This is a dangerous habit because it can be limiting. It’s so easy to see only the label. And it’s easy to feel that we are limited by our own labels. (I’m a creative, big-picture thinker, so I will never be good at maths. I’m an introvert, so I will always find social situations taxing. So it’s no use trying.) Perhaps the labels are based on some truth, but often the labels are only reflective of the past. New experiences would naturally bring about new, expanded or overriding ideas of self and others. Nobody is merely the limit of their label and it is inhibiting and even harmful to fall into the trap of constant labelling. Labels can also just be an excuse for being to lazy or scared to push ourselves. It could actually be quite freeing to release ourselves from our habit of labelling. I’ll let you know for sure if I ever manage it.
The other thing about labels is the way they can shape our perspective of things, such as whether we attribute things to internal or external factors (attribution theory). For instance, different cultures may be more likely to attribute behaviour to an internal quality or to external circumstances. Someone who hands their homework in late every day could be assumed lazy and disorganised (internal attribution) or to have more challenges and barriers at home to contend with (external attribution). This effect has also been observed in stereotyping (for instance, attributing the sucess of someone of a different race to external factors rather than internal qualities like intelligence).
I think this can be quite insidious, because once we’ve labelled a person, it can be hard to realise that we’re stuck in one type of attribution. This can mean that we unfairly judge people (assuming them to be lazy or assuming they must have just had luck. However, it also means we can feel inadequate because we believe someone is smarter (or more organised, more creative…) than us when, in fact, they perhaps have fewer external factors inhibiting their performance. I also think that we can attribute behaviour to the wrong label (such as believing someone is more competent than us when really they are better at BS than us).
What I find most disturbing is the realisation that I practise this bias on myself. If I have success, I often attribute this to external factors – not being busy, luck, not being ill – but if I fail, I attribute this to internal factors – laziness, disorganisation, not being intelligent enough. My personal habit is to internalise my failures but not my successes. For my first three years of this Psychology degree I achieved over 80% (usually high 80s) for almost every subject. However, this year I don’t feel any sense of pride and confidence in my ability due to my past successes. I know this is partly because I have an fear of getting over-confident, but I don’t see how being under-confident is doing me any good!
Likewise, I’ve noticed that we all seem to have rules to live by these days. Here are the Five Steps to Happiness, or the Six Rules of Productivity. This is what you must practise and implement to live a balanced life, these are the ways you should incorporate exercise into your life, and these are the goals you should have reached by the time you’re 30. We might not realise it, but we seem to have these rules that we’re always trying to live by (live up to), and often we try to feel more fulfilled by merely replacing old rules with new. Even something that is supposedly simple, reflective and responsive such as mindfulness is Something You Should Do and Not Forget If You Want To Be Happy. My dad and I went to my sister’s for a Father’s Day lunch, with brother-in-law’s family, too. I had a lovely time and I don’t think I was mindful once. I don’t think I rembered to appreciate the moment or to watch my thoughts and feelings. I just had a nice time with people I like and love and then went home when it was time to go. So even mindfulness is just another set of rules that can bind and limit us.
But I also think labels and rules can be good. They help us to make sense of things and to make decisions. When I’m told that someone has a certain condition, it allows me to quickly understand behaviour that may be different or difficult and make allowances. When I remember my “picky eater” label, I know that I won’t allow myself to be talked into wasting $40 when I’m really hungry on an exotic meal that there’s slim chance I’ll like. If I have rules for what to do if I’m feeling overwhelmed or for how to organise myself or how to act at work, then I quickly know how to respond to situations in ways that won’t be negative. Psychologists like to talk about heuristics, which are kind of like rules of thumb that allow us to process information and make decisions efficiently because we don’t have to spend time gathering masses of information and carefully considering everything. The danger of heurisitcs is that they can be too superficial and prone to bias, but the advantage is that I can quickly decide that the man with matted hair, dirty clothes and an odd smell who is muttering to himself on the train is probably not someone I should risk getting friendly with if I’m travelling alone at night. I can walk past the whole confectionary aisle without having to check whether everything in it is healthy or unhealthy. It’s not a bad thing to have some rules of thumb for our own wellbeing.
If we tell ourselves not to label or make rules to stick to, aren’t we just creating another life rule to try to adhere to? If we weren’t so caught up in a whirlwind of information, advice, emotions, communication, demands, expectations and societal pressures, maybe we’d have the chance to realise that an all or nothing approach is ridiculous. Have you noticed how often we listen to our logic or listen to our emotions but completely forget about our common sense? What would it tell you? My common sense tells me that labels and rules are fine provided I always remember that they are not the be all and end all. If I remember that I am using labels as a useful tool, whether I’m buying into others’ labels or self-labelling, then I can also be aware of when I am being limited by my label or imposing limitations on others. If I remember that I have rules to help me live my life but that they are self-imposed, then I can recognise when I am becoming a slave to the rules rather than having them work for me. If I remember that I don’t need labels or rules, then I can just relax and be whatever and however I am at any time and accept others for whatever and however they are. It’s nice to just go about doing or not doing, and not have to label it or measure it against a rule.
Of course, I now have to follow the rule about being aware of my labelling and rule-following…