Our brains love to categorize things.
It’s a very animalistic thing to do if you think about it. You don’t want to have to keep figuring out if the approaching animal is a zebra or a tiger. Once you know what kind of animal it is by how it looks and you know what that animal does, you can protect yourself accordingly.
Those stripes mean zebra. Zebras don’t attack. I’m safe.
Those stripes mean tiger. Tigers attack. I’m not safe.
So labeling something can be a way of protecting ourselves. And not just from physical danger. We also use labels to protect ourselves from experiencing emotional pain.
When we know what to expect, we save ourselves a lot of suffering. Take that friend who is always late. Once we categorize her that way, we can plan our own actions. We can show up late too or bring something to fill the wait time. If we never put her in that category, we might keep showing up expecting her on time (wanting the tiger to show up as a zebra) and get disappointed, frustrated, or hurt over and over again.
How do we end up with these categories?
Personal Experience. The tiger shows up and attacks. The tiger shows up and attacks. The tiger shows up and attacks. Eventually we know what a tiger looks like and that tigers attack.
Word of Mouth. We are told what a tiger looks like and that they attack without ever having to experience it firsthand.
Because of this understanding, we can take the appropriate action for when the tiger shows up.
If someone in our life lies to us, then lies to us again, and lies to us yet again, eventually we might call that person a liar. When they show up, we expect them to lie and act according to that expectation. Other times we are told that someone is a liar and can’t be trusted, so we act with that assumption. It’s all an effort to protect ourselves.
So it all makes sense when we are talking about tigers and physical danger, but there is a big down side when we are referring to people. Once we dump someone into a category, it isn’t always easy for them to crawl out of that box. That friend might show up on time over and over but still remain our “late” friend. Someone might tell us the truth over and over but if we’ve pegged them a liar, we won’t trust them no matter what they say.
Rather than seeing each fresh action as its own incident, we make it about who someone is.
Instead of she didn’t show up, she is a flake.
Instead of he drank too much, he is a drunk.
Instead of she lost her temper, she is out of control.
The same thing happens to us. People are putting us into categories that we can’t break free from and WE are putting ourselves into categories. Talk about danger. This is incredibly dangerous because we might decide to trade in feeling guilty for an action to being ashamed of something we believe we are.
And shame, my friends, has no business when we are on a mission to love.
I guess the question becomes this… is there a way to protect ourselves without having to label people?
Can we come to each experience with fresh eyes and allow other people a fresh moment while at the same time not being naive and at risk of harm? And even more important, can we release ourselves from our own labels so that we get to meet each new moment as a fresh and new experience? I think so.
If your partner cheats on you repeatedly, you don’t have to keep giving the gift of a fresh start in YOUR relationship. You can move on to something that is a better fit for you, but do they have to BE a cheater?
If someone lies to you over and over, you don’t have to believe what they say. But do they have to BE a liar?
I’m not going to tell you what to do. I’m just going to share what I strive to do. I try very hard not to label other people according to their actions and I try even harder not to label myself. It isn’t always easy. In fact, sometimes I really struggle with it. My animal mind wants so badly to categorize.
But I’m at the point where I am committed to following my heart and my heart wants to love. That isn’t to say that I don’t protect myself by steering clear of people and situations that are not a good fit for me. But just because they are not a good fit for me, doesn’t mean they belong in the “bad” category. I don’t think anybody deserves to be in that box. We all deserve love.
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