The Provisonal Nature of Labels

Green tea in coffee cannister demonstrates the provisional nature of labels.

Labels feature widely in organising. At the most tangible level there are the literal physical labels that go on jars, folders, and boxes. Rice. Beads. Taxes. Memorabilia. Then there are the descriptive labels that are applied to people. Neat freak. Messy. Disorganised. ADHD. Hoarder.

When organising physical objects the act of labeling is a logical extension of the process of sorting and categorizing. For the sake of convenience “like is put with like”. Sometimes the category used for grouping is obvious and easy to remember, but it can be helpful to use a physical tag as a reminder. A clear label saves having to work out the category later, and allows others to understand and follow the system.

For many people there is a sense of satisfaction in creating neatly labelled categories. As humans we love to make  groups. It’s part of understanding the world to notice the similarities and differences between things. At the interpersonal level we want to join groups, and identify others as belonging to groups.

A specialised type of labelling occurs when symptoms or behaviors are grouped together into a diagnosis and applied to individuals. Expressions used to describe the way people organise themselves are often derived from diagnostic terms, such as OCD, ADHD, and Hoarding Disorder, whether or not they strictly apply. For those who understand the definitions, a diagnosis is a shorthand way of sharing information quickly. Giving a name to a confusing collections of symptoms can be helpful, because the name may be a stepping stone to understanding and treatment. However it can also feel like the label consumes the person’s identity. The risk is that we begin to relate to the label rather than the person.

And this is the dilemma we face every time we assign a label. The very thing that makes labels useful, is also their greatest weakness. When ‘like is grouped with like’ the separate items seem to lose their individuality. Features that caused them to be selected into the group are accentuated, and other features are ignored, or submerged in the group identity. Its a short journey from labelling to judging, and adjectives and expectations are easily attached to groups of individuals based on assumptions about their collective nature.

These problems with labels arise when what began as a tool for understanding starts to take on a fixed quality, as if they represented a permanent or complete truth. We need to remember that the labels began with a sorting process. Like was put with like using abstract criteria for a particular purpose. But this ‘sort’ is always provisional. Things could have been sorted differently, to create an alternative set of categories with a different emphasis. Labels are imperfect representations of reality, and there is always the possibility that categories may include too much or too little, or emphasise some factors at the expense of others, creating a distorted view.

How can we benefit from the information that comes from these grouping and labelling processes without losing sight of what is important? I may be helpful to remember that groups, categories, and labels fall into a intermediate zone between the individual and the totality. This zone is conceptual rather than actual – an idea rather than the essential truth. Ultimately each item, each person, remains unique. At the same time, each is part of a greater whole, that includes everything and everyone.

We can reduce there risk of being trapped in our own mental labelling systems by tuning in to the reality of the situation as it unfolds before us, even while keeping provisional conceptual groupings in mind.  This applies whether you are revising a filing system that doesn’t work, or seeing a person who struggles with clutter with fresh eyes. We can also retain our perspective by zooming in to focus on the inherhant nature of the individual, or zooming out to see the wider context as a whole. In this way we can handle labels with a lighter, gentler touch. Labels can be a tool for making sense of the world in a certain light, but we mustn’t mistake the symbol for the thing itself.


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