Thursday, April 29, 2010

Black and white - the Zebra effect

Ok; well I've been thinking a lot about the "how" behind finding my way out of that dark place where I lived for so many years and the "labels" that I accepted and the language that I used that had a huge impact on my state of mind.

In the past I've written about how as I entered the mental health system I took on and accepted the labels given to me in the way of "diagnosis" and "symptoms". I became and lived the labels that were given me. (Click here to see my posts related to "labels")

So whats in a label? It's just words, right?

Remember the nursery rhyme "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me"...?

As a child I tried to believe this, but it was tough because the things that were said to me and about me carved a hole in my being that affected my sense of self and reinforced that sense of hopelessness and shame that something was wrong with me - but I didn't know what that was.

Here is a quote from the work of David Burns about labels:

Labeling is an extreme form of all-or-nothing thinking. Instead of saying "I made a mistake," you attach a negative label to yourself: "I’m a loser." You might also label yourself "a fool" or "a failure" or "a jerk." Labeling is quite irrational because you are not the same as what you do. Human beings exist, but "fools," "losers," and "jerks" do not. These labels are just useless abstractions that lead to anger, anxiety, frustration, and low self-esteem.

You also label others. When someone does something that rubs you the wrong way, you may tell yourself: "He’s an S.O.B." Then you feel that the problem is with that person’s "character" or "essence" instead of with their thinking or behavior. You see them as totally bad. This makes you feel hostile and hopeless about improving things and leaves little room for constructive communication.

So part of the idea behind "labels" was learning to recognize that I was using labels in my conversations or accepting labels that others defined for me. Either way - my sense of well being is affected by the labels and words I and others use and I accept.

In the past, if I made a mistake the first thought I would have is "stupid" which served only to reinforce that sense of powerlessness that permeated my being as I could never "do or say anything right".

I also viewed the world through those dark lenses as my first response to a lot of situations had some sort of negative label attached to it. Instead of the first day of the week being Monday - it was "Monday's are awful". Just adding that extra label of "awful" set my mood and created the tone or mindset for the entire day.

On the freeway, a driver who cut me off was a "jerk" instead of a driver who cut me off. It didn't take me long to realize how "road rage" became such an issue :)

These are some pretty simple examples of labels but the idea behind it is that the thoughts I think become the words I speak and sets the pace for my state of mind and the actions or behaviors I choose.

It took time, but with awareness I was able to identify when I was in that place where I was viewing myself, others and the world and circumstances around me as "all good" or "all bad". 

With practice I was able to "see" that I was resorting to that "black and white" thinking that fueled my insecurities and drama that had become my life and relationships. 

And with compassion for myself and the people in my life I began to acknowledge that life really wasn't all-or-nothing or "black and white" - but in time, I began to see how there was at first shades of gray and then muted shades of color in the world. 

...just becoming aware of how I was using labels in my language was the first step to being able to use my language to choose to consciously create the change in my life that would set me free from that place of "black and white" thinking and begin to see the color in my world.


Stacy said...

I can really see what you mean about the labels. They can even be a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy sometimes. Labels can be seen as really black and white, but I doubt they're meant to be seen that way. Or meant to be used as a substitute for a a wider identity.
Sometimes for me it's a hard balance between accepting ones struggles/issues and not letting them be a self fulfilling prophecy. I think there are many circumstances where figuring out the name/label of what's going on or limit your life can be helpful in leading to the right treatment. Especially in major mental illnesses like major depressive disorders and so forth. But I know it's too easy to say that's the end of it and this is who I am.
Maybe it's not so much the label being back or white since people are generally biopolar or not bipolar or schizophrenic or not. The black and white error may be more in the lines of thinking that's all we are. And not seeing that it's only a part of who we are. And I guess that what your post here is all about.

Susan said...

I think you've made a really good point, Stacy. In seeing ourselves - and others - as persons with issues and the human struggle instead of a diagnosis or other label, has been key to my being able to learn to live in the world that is full of color instead of that crippling "all or nothing" place of before.

Have a great weekend!

sarah said...

your blog is powerful...and I'm with you...I refuse to live less than the best anymore!!!

Susan said...

Sarah -glad you stopped by and welcome! I am always thrilled to meet others who are passionate about creating their best life - it is never too late!

Darlene Ouimet said...

Hi Susan,

I love this post and can relate to it too! I like how you discuss labels outside of just mental health labels, in order to show a bigger picture of healing. In my process of recovery, I also learned how to stop that negitive self talk. Although I stopped adding things on to sentences like "mondays are awful" I had not thought much about how powerful it was to stop doing that!

Great post, I will share it around!

Susan said...

I know what you're talking about - I used to try to "do" life and healing by changing my behaviors ie my thoughts, my words, my actions because someone told me that this is what I needed to do. This often brought a temporary change rather than the change from "within" that I was searching for.

Once I began to understand the purpose of my behaviors and the source of my own belief system as coming from that sense of powerlessness I felt as a victim I began to be able to develop the insight and understanding that would allow me to make purposeful changes from within myself. This is where my healing began to feel more self empowered and purposeful.

Thanks for your comment Darlene! I appreciate your support and encouragement!

PS Have fun creating your own best life today!

Kyla said...

Hey Susan~
Been a bit since I've been on here, to read- just read this post and I have to say, this is soo true! You always know how yo say what I have, felt, feel, or something I've been through, etc and it just makes sense, and, is also very inspiring to me. This is so true about labels..
Thinking about this, and looking back I have done that to myself, I have called myself those names,it does make you feel low, and it's so true about, when you say something positive to yourself, it really makes you feel good, rather than saying something negative which messes up your whole day/night.

I like your outlook on thing's- I do have a question though, regarding what you were saying about symptoms, do you mean it's not good to focus on those? I was just curious what you meant

Your words, are always so powerful inspiring, love reading your post :)

Susan said...

Great question Kyla! You read my mind - I've been thinking it was time to post something on that subject!

The answer I came up with seemed like it would fit really well into a if you don't mind, I'd like to use your questions as a springboard into that discussion this week.

Would that be alright with you?