If you ever saw the movie Mean Girls or have had the chance to experience the play on Broadway, you will quickly understand the title of this blog.
Recently, a visit from my adult daughter yielded a painful story regarding her 9th grade experience at a new high school. Part of the pain of being at a new school with a new (much larger and more rowdy) bunch of peers is attempting to figure out how to fit in and what label to choose. This same story was played out in the Mean Girls movie and play, but is very real in life whether it be as a child, a teen or an adult.
As we navigate life, where do we fit? What is our label? Who is our tribe? Because we are hard-wired to connect with others, we are eternally seeking our “position” within various groups. Who can we hang with? Who gets us? Who affirms us? Who can we seek out when life seems to be in the toilet?
And for good or bad, labels pop up in the search. In high school, are we the “jocks,” the “dweebs,” the “burnouts,” the “smart kids,” or do we have the chutzpah to simply be US? Typically, the answer is no. But this seeking of labels is not just for high school kids.
As we reach adulthood, is our label spouse (then what happens when our spouse leaves or dies?) Or, are we parent (then what happens when our children grow up and move away?) Do we have a professional label (and what do we do when we leave that profession or are asked to leave?) Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief as the saying goes. What are we?
We are a society that is ingrained with labels. Labeling immediately helps us categorize individuals as we meet them and seek to peg them to a place in our minds. “Hello, nice to meet you. What do you do?” is a typical variation on an introduction to someone new. We hear the answer which is usually a label and then think, “Oh, you are a (fill in the blank.)” And at that point, this person goes into the mental filing cabinet of “who/what.”
The first time I traveled with my tripod lashed on the exterior of my backpack, people in the airport would say, “Oh, are you a photographer?” After I apologized for banging them on the arm with my tripod, I immediately said, “Oh no, I’m just traveling with some camera gear.” After a couple of these responses, I said to myself, “Really? You’re going to deny that you have a passion that fills your soul (photography)?” That’s like denying your child is yours. But I erroneously felt this label was reserved for those who were professional (i.e. made a living from the art.)
And when I left my position as President of a company that I had identified with for 35 years, I felt adrift because the label was gone. It took me a bit of time to come to grips with the fact that I was NOT my labels. They are simply words that help others file us into the file folders of their mental desktops.
Labels do help us communicate, but the power that we and others give these labels should not exist. Clarify but don’t qualify. I’m tempted to just answer the question, “What do you do?” with “I’m happy and living a life of joy every day.” and I never wear pink.