“I don’t believe any of you suffer as I do,” cried Amy, “for you don’t have to go to school with impertinent girls who plague you if you don’t know your lessons … and label your father if he isn’t rich …”
“If you mean libel I’d say so, and not talk about labels, as if pa was a pickle-bottle,” advised Jo, laughing.
- Little Women, L.M. Alcott
You know, I think little Amy was onto something though. Libel may not be a good thing but labels are so much worse. Whether it’s at home, at school or at work people see you a certain way and then label you up like that pickle jar. And labels are sticky things, especially when you’re trying to get rid of them. Sometimes the labels are annoying, irritating because we can see that they aren’t true, like when all our friends and relations label us as hot-tempered. Sometimes the labels are unfair because they limit us, like when we are dropped for not being ‘cool’ enough or for family circumstances such as in Amy’s case. Sometimes the labels become true simply because we’re so used to having them stuck on our foreheads.
As a child, I don’t remember being anything but me. There were no labels, no specific roles or groups that I fit into. There were broader ones for family demographics and circumstances but as a child they were my normal and, with a limited world view, I didn’t really know that there were others. I was never really comfortable being me, sometimes I felt totally adrift and lost, a round peg in a square hole but I didn’t know yet about labels. I was never encouraged to plan for a future, there were no labels to earn or yearn for, not even mother, university student, worker. There was nothing only me.
But there was a problem with me, me was still a label and it was something that I grew increasingly aware of and uncomfortable about. Me wasn’t good enough. Me was never good enough in fact. Partly self-conscious, partly learnt. And then I learnt another word. The f-word. It was a word that followed me all through my teenage years and made me never reach out for those other labels, those of certain roles or groups, the ‘hats’ that we wear in life. There was no point, me wasn’t good enough.
I do wear several different metaphorical hats in life. I am a wife, I am ill, I am unemployed. These are categories that please census, that define my demographic. But again, I still am not conscious of wearing them, I shrink back from describing myself in such black and white terms. I can’t be a wife because me is not good enough to be. I can’t be ill because me is only making a fuss about nothing. I am unemployed not because of long term health issues or a stinking recession but because me is not good enough.
I have learnt to describe myself by what I do, hesitatingly however: I do bake, I do knit, I do photography. But there is always a qualifier, oh but I’m not very good at it, oh but everyone else is so much better, oh but I make so many mistakes. Why? Because me is not good enough.
However much I loathe the word ‘pride’, I do having something of the sort in being me. As I’ve grown older, more stable, more mature, more realistic I see that there are good qualities in my personality and that there are things that I can do, however much I feel the need to qualify or downplay them.
But at the same time I see that being me has held me back, is holding me back. It’s principally a question of how people see me. For example, I may be passionate to the point of fiery, my trigger is always injustice, but I am not the hot-tempered, angry person that so many people feel the need to tell me that I am. For example, because I am ill sometimes I am physically limited in what I can do however that doesn’t mean I don’t know what or how to do something, I am not stupid or incapable however much people feel the need to think that I am. For example, my house may need decorating and sometimes I get behind on the housework but that does not make me a bad housewife however much people spread this ‘fact’.
I need to look closely at the ingredients of this label, to find out who me truly is and then to believe that rather than anything else anyone cares to say or believe about me. I don’t think me has to be a failure, I don’t think me has to be not good enough.
I have lived with that f-word hanging over my head for a very long time. It’s seriously disheartening. It means you don’t even bother trying because you already know the outcome. It means you don’t take yourself seriously because no-one else ever has. It means you don’t get on with living life because it’s already messed up before you begin. But if you don’t try, if you don’t take yourself seriously, if you don’t live your life, then you will fail. Self-fulfilling prophecy. The dangers of labeling.
So, yes, I will still be me but I will boast (OK, maybe hint at) of my new improved recipe, I will be the person who I dream of being and I will risk to strive for and achieve the things that I dream of.
I am a pickle jar but the contents are up to me.
Linking up with this week’s Just Be Enough prompt
Some culinary side notes: I think that Jo was referencing the American English ‘pickles’ or gherkins whereas in English English (confusing, I’m sure) pickle is a chutney (the brown stuff in the jar). And what label someone who has five types of chilli sauce on the go deserves, I’m not sure either.