It does what it says on the tin

Imagine if I came into your kitchen and removed all the labels from the tins, leaving you unsure whether you were about to add baked beans or coconut milk to the pan on the stove? As well as an exceptionally odd thing to do, you would probably find it frustrating, confusing, and time consuming as you tried to make order out of the chaos I had created.

I think we can all agree it would be a distinctly unhelpful thing to do.

Why then are so many of us, including therapists so averse to people claiming their own labels? It came up again in this month’s Therapy Today, with neurodiverse people describing their experiences of therapists refusing to accept they were neurodiverse, and in the process causing harm. Its something we see in other areas too, anti-lgbt therapists are campaigning for the right to refuse to accept clients’ LGBTQ labels, and even worse for the right to relable them via conversion therapy, to replace baked beans with a coconut milk label as it were, ignoring what is actually in the tin.

When you dig into people’s objections to labels the same lines seem to be trotted out over and over again, and it feels that it would be helpful to explore these objections in a little more depth

  1. You don’t need to limit yourself with a label

The idea that labels are limiting usually comes from a place of internalised prejudice and ignorance. A label simply describes with current state of something, be it autistic gay, bi trans or any other descriptor. It doesn’t tell us what the person is capable of, who they are in their essence or who they might be in 5, 10 or 15 years time. I don’t mean that someone neurodiverse might be cured, but given that most of the “symptoms” or diagnostic criteria for autism are simply descriptors of stress responses to an allisitc world we don’t know how someone might be with the right adaptations and access requirements in place).

There is also an aspect here of believing that if someone has an identity label now, that’s it, forever, fixed and immutable. When it comes to gender and sexuality this is true for some, but not all. Both gender and sexuality can be fluid, change, move between different poles. Shameless plug, but I wrote an entire chapter on this, on how a label can change, and still be right. The limitation isn’t in the label, but in the minds of those who view a label as something static and beyond change.

  1. But you don’t look/seem/act X

Refutation by stereotype should, by 2022, have been confined to the dustbin of history but it still gets trotted out from time to time. So, just in case people need a reminder – autistic people have empathy, trans people dont need to conform to gender norms, gay people dont need to be butch or camp, bi people dont need to be in multisex relationships, asexual people can be sexy, disabled people dont need to “perform” their disability 24/7 for it to be real.

  1.  Others will treat you worse if you adopt that label.

As an anti-oppressive practitioner this is actually a complex one, because it can be true. Structural oppression and prejudice exist, some labels are more dangerous than others, some groups are treated worse than others. This is where the concept of inviting in can be incredibly useful – no one has to come out in situations which would endanger them. However, fundamentally the problem here isn’t with the label, but with a society which treats those it determines to be otherwise than those it accepts. 

  1. Your label makes me uncomfortable.  

            This one sadly is all too common, people refuse to sit with their own discomfort and instead project it onto other people. It is often dressed up with concerns about language, or the risks of  number 3 combined with what some have described as “concern trolling” but however it is presented, it is not OK. If we are uncomfortable with anothers identity, it is on us to own, interogate and explore that, and this goes double for therapists.

  1. Arent we all just human beings?

The refusal of the entire concept of labels is one I tend to associate with white people with dreadlocks and various culturally appropriative objects on their office shelves. When we erase the fact some margenlised groups are treated worse, have their humanity denied, in the case of things such as chattel slavery were not even deemed to be human beings, arily waving our hands and claiming we dont see race/gender/sexuality is in many ways a violent act. 

Refusing to acknowledge labels exist also denies people the benefits of community. Part of the reason it can help to determine exactly what flavour of neurodiversity we have, or where in the pick and mix of gender and sexuality we sit, is that it means we can meet with others like us. Be it reading blogs, podcasts, tik toks, books, or in person, community matters. We might be picking up tips, understanding our challenges more, making friends, whatever the outcome, research shows that for marginalised people community can be one of the most protective factors. Removing the ability to access that protection can leave us isolated and more vulnerable to harm, including self harm and suicide. 

Five of the most common objections, I am sure that you have heard others, and feel free to add them in the comments. It’s worth noticing how these are about one person projecting their idea of what a label means onto another, ignoring how the other might experience that. It is of course very different when an individual says, I don’t want/need/like labels. We all have the right to self identify or not. It’s like the description of the cat and the box that often seems to go around social media. If you try to put a cat in a box, be prepared to be scratched, let the cat choose the box for itself and it will soon be curled up inside and purring. 

Labels are boxes, yes, and some people find boxes confining, especially if it’s not one they have chosen for themselves. However, very often we are like the cat, finding the place where we feel safe and comfortable and saying – this is the place where I choose to be.

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