Not long ago, I decided to adopt a puppy and excitedly told my sister about it. She said, “Annabella, you are not a dog person. You are too busy. You really shouldn’t.” I responded, “Says who? Your mind? I can choose to be a dog person if I want to.” Her obvious disapproval most likely was related to her concerns about my future pup.
I shared with my sister, my reason –the higher value that motivated me to become a dog mom. She understood, but continued to discourage me to do so. I said, “I am not going to let that label get in the way of how I choose to live my life.” She then agreed to coach me through the training months as I began to fall in love with my puppy.
Are you stuck with a label?
As you grew up and experienced multiple situations that may have been unpleasant, external voices (e.g., words from others) and internal voices (e.g., words from your mind) may have influenced the way you see yourself now. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
“I am” Practice
Go ahead and write the following words on a piece of paper:
I am __________ I am __________ I am __________ I am __________
Then complete the sentences. Just write what shows up in your mind. Don’t overthink it.
I am kind. I am honest. I am an anxious person. I am bad.
As you read those sentences (positive or negative), ask yourself, “Am I that way 100 percent of the time whether I am alone or with others?” It may feel like it, but are you really that way all the time, everywhere, with everyone 24/7? No, you’re not.
Next, erase or cross out the period and add: or not to each sentence.
I am kind or not. I am honest or not. I am an anxious person or not. I am bad or not.
How do you feel when you read those new sentences, and what is your mind saying about it? Just notice your thoughts.
Now, cross out all the words on each sentence except for the words “I am.”
Imagine what life would be like if you didn’t have to be attached to those labels. Who are you when you are not stuck with the content of those words? Ponder that.
Slowly repeat the words “I am” aloud four times. “I am. I am. I am. I am.” Pay attention to your feelings as you say those words.
Have you noticed that you are more than any roles, stories, thoughts, or feelings about yourself? Can you recognize that you may have more options as to how you see yourself? Are you willing to create some flexibility with what your mind is telling you?
Next time you refer to yourself with a permanent label, recognize they are related to how you feel or think.
For example, if you wrote:
“I am kind,” acknowledge the thought by saying, “I’m noticing the thought that I’m being kind right now.”
“I am honest,” acknowledge the thought by saying, “I’m noticing the thought that I’m being honest right now.”
Do you notice the difference?
When you feel anxious, instead of labeling yourself as “I am an anxious person,” you can acknowledge the feeling, “I feel anxious when I go to social gatherings.”
When a thought, “I am bad” shows up, you can acknowledge the feeling and the thought, “I feel bad when I remember yelling at my best friend last weekend.”
Notice how the labels others or your mind have stamped on you are influencing your everyday living. Can you recognize it is impossible for anyone to be a particular way 100 percent of the time, 24/7 each minute of their lives whether they are alone or with others?
Acknowledging that those labels are related to thoughts and feelings and other internal events (e.g., evaluations, memories, sensations), can enhance your ability to choose how to respond to what others or your mind say about you. None of us need to be ruled by any labels any longer. Most importantly, we don’t need to let them get in the way of us having a vital and meaningful life!
Steven C. Hayes, A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters (New York: Avery, 2019).