“You’re such a science nerd!” exclaims Iris. In that moment Cassie’s dream of camera flashes and red carpets faded into the night sky like the extinguishing light of a dying star. With a spark of new found motivation, and determined to live up to the expectations of her newly assigned label, Cassie began the search for new, brighter stars through the lens of a telescope.
We are left vulnerable when it comes to the words others choose to dress us in, and for Cassie that was a white lab coat and safety glasses. Some people enjoy adorning themselves and others in descriptive words, ‘feminist’, ‘gamer’, ‘animal lover’, without a second thought. But how do we choose these labels? Why do we do it? And what happens when they become more than just words?
[What and Why]
If you’ve ever taken an internet quiz, or wasted five minutes of your life determining your Myers Briggs type, you too may have fallen victim to your subconscious desire to know whether you’re in the one percent of people who also happen to be a triple chocolate sundae.
The rise of the Buzzfeed quiz isn’t a recent breakthrough in human-identification technology though. In the book Me, Myself, and Why Jennifer Ouellette explains “the human compulsion to categorise our personalities into neatly labelled boxes goes back to the dawn of astrology”. In fact personality testing became so popular that by 2003 it was a $400 million industry.
Even those who claim they prefer avoiding the confinement of labels are not immune to the deeply rooted psychological urge to figure out who we are.
Luckily our identities are like play dough, always being shaped and moulded. Despite feeling like labels are just another way to pigeonhole us into concrete beliefs or first impressions, a study found that 44% of people identified themselves differently after two months. One minute you’re a chocolate dessert, the next – a Hawaiian pizza!
Internet quizzes aren’t the only way we do this. Ms Oskam, the North Division counsellor who specialises in identity, mentioned that other ways we discover our identities include: “copying, modelling, inventing, withholding our real views, and engaging in risky behaviour.” This could take the form of dressing and acting in a certain way to fit into a definition that we find appealing, or trying to create a new genre of ‘hipster’.
Most methods of identity seeking aren’t exactly relevant, or even accurate, so why do we keep going back to them?
Depending on whether you find comfort in numbers, or want to feel like that special snowflake, there is more than one explanation for our need to navigate our identities with labels.
On one hand it can make us feel like part of a community. A simple description like “New Zealander” evokes a feeling of pride and belonging; you’re not weird because there are others who identify the same way.
On the other, knowing that you’re one of just 15 out of every 1000 that has an INTJ Myers Briggs type may give you a sense of individuality in a world where everyone is expected to fit into a single definition. Ouellette writes: “it is one of the many ways we draw a boundary between self and other”.
[The Good versus The Bad]
Usually, labels are a way to positively associate ourselves with certain groups.
A great example of this is seen in the LGBTQ+ community, where the reappropriation of labels that were once viewed with stigma are now being worn with pride as a part of many people’s identity.
It has even been shown that we are more likely to be met with support if we self-identify with a label rather than earn it from someone else.
Although innocently blurting out a stereotype is a normal response to the desire to arrange things into group, by grouping us together it can create an ‘us versus them’ dilemma where we negatively view those in different groups or communities to us. As a result, doing some research before trying out a new title might be a smart move.
Ms Oskam has had people come to her who have been given a diagnosis by their parents without being confirmed by a mental health professional first.
“Consequently the child and parent say ‘I have Asperger’s’, but this needs to be investigated further,” she elaborates. Despite being unconfirmed they are reluctant to let go; as if giving a name to the monster under the bed will help them to come to terms with it a little better.
Unfortunately, labels like this can be damaging. Because of this we try to hold on to them without the weight of a professional diagnosis in the beginning, to grasp an understanding of ourselves with less certainty that we will have to lock it in forever if we decide to change our minds.
Take someone who is ‘mentally ill’ – someone with a professional diagnosis. This label is still highly stigmatised by society today, and people who have been labelled ‘mentally ill’ may be denied the same opportunities as others; such as adopting children. They are also more likely to experience trouble holding or finding a job, and keeping up healthy relationships, purely based on how this label is perceived.
Not only that but these labels are hard to get rid of. They’re boxes that once in, are very hard to get all the way out of. It’s understandable that they have the potential to be extremely isolating and unproductive, especially for mental health sufferers.
[Our Identities at School]
After spending the majority of our lives behind a desk it’s no surprise that school is considered a major influence in a person’s identity. Studies, like those conducted by social psychologist Claude Steele, have shown that feeling like you belong to your school communities or ‘groups’ is an important part of academic success.
Cassie thinks, “Burnside is really supportive, it doesn’t matter who you are or what labels you identify with there is a place for you”.
Ms Oskam and students of Burnside both agree that psychology and identity should be talked about more openly at schools.
According to a year twelve student Rachel, understanding our psychology would help us relate to each other: “I think it should be offered because knowing your identity and learning psychology will make us better people. It will mean that we can understand ourselves and each other and therefore we will relate to one another easier. Learning psychology and identity may help us to cope with daily tasks and conflict in a way that works well.”
Iris also believes that psychology should be included in the curriculum: “I think a psychology unit topic in the Year 9 and 10 Health compulsory classes should be taught because it’s a subject that isn’t talked about enough among students and teachers, and some people, like myself, are interested in learning about the human mind to further understand the people around us.”
Life at high school is a time of increasing social interaction, and existential crisis. Which is a great chance to start diving into the depths of identity. By now most people have been scraping up every ounce of independence they can scavenge, going to their share of parties, getting their first job, and maybe even borrowing their mum’s car on the weekends.
But it’s also changed the way we label others. “I believe it has become more offensive,” Rachel has noticed. In primary school you might have heard ‘ugly’, ‘loser,’ or ‘freak’ being thrown around which have morphed into words almost detrimental to a reputation: ‘bunker’, ‘druggy’, ‘drop out’.
Having labels and developing an identity that you’re proud of is a way of setting a good example for diversity and acceptance, but if you have any issues with identity a school counsellor is a good place to start.
“I’m shaping my future career around this [my label],” Cassie reflects. “I’ve embraced it. But we should be careful when labelling others – especially if you don’t know them – some people will definitely handle it better than others.”