Labels can lead to a lack of agency.

I don’t like being called an empath. I don’t like it a lot.

I know it’s supposed to be complimentary but it makes me feel pretentious. The label makes me sound like I’m preternaturally gifted and while I fantasize about that possibility occasionally, I’ve come to accept I’m not magic. Hogwarts will not be calling.

My doctor tells me I’m what they call an HSP. A “highly sensitive person”. I read up on it because knowing yourself is a good and necessary thing.

The description seemed to fit. My basic takeaway is that HSPs are very observant in all kinds of ways. Unfortunately, sometimes they don’t filter the information they take in all that well. This affects their behaviours and tendencies. It can make them a little high-strung. It can make them hold back from social interacting.

It’s the quality of being “very observant” that I think about when someone calls me an empath. I am not an empath. I am – or at least try to be – empathic. It’s a choice. Luckily it comes easily to me because people who are HSP are sensitive to other people’s emotions. Something to do with mirror neurons, which is when our brains fire in sympathetic response to another’s emotions or experiences, giving you a sense of what other people are feeling.

As an HSP, I observe things other people might miss, things that help me form an impression. Like body language, tone of voice, movement, the way words are put together, and the words that are chosen. Once the information is collected, it gets filtered and I get an idea about other people’s states of mind.

But it’s something I do. It’s not something that just happens. Yes, I have a tendency, and yes, being HSP makes it easier, but I make the choice about what to do next.

I don’t like labels that are nouns very much, beyond basic descriptive ones like “brown-eyed girl” (my favourite Van Morrison song and the only one I know).

This position is a shift for me and proof-positive that change is possible. For a long time, I preferred to be pigeon-holed. For a long time, I preferred labels. They’re an effective shorthand.

I’m depressed. I’m anxious. I’m bulimic.

Everything you need to know about someone in one pithy phrase. Except they don’t tell you everything. They are a piece of the whole and don’t provide complete and comprehensive pictures.

I used to love labels but I’ve come to believe they’re limiting. I thought making myself into a thing was liberating. I thought of it as owning the label. I’ve decided otherwise. People are complicated. We can’t be summed up with single words or short phrases.

Labels also strip us of our agency. They take away our ownership of our behaviours. Our lives become something that happens rather than something we direct.

Allying yourself to a label is easy but it doesn’t help with growth. It doesn’t help with recovery.

I’m not a label. I’m not an empath. I’m someone who chooses to be empathetic, notwithstanding that it’s mostly in my nature. I could choose to behave otherwise if I wished.

Although, there would probably be guilt.

7 thoughts on “Labels can lead to a lack of agency.

  1. So bizarre but we are on the same wavelength, I swear! I wrote a post several weeks ago and kept pushing back publishing because of other topics I wanted to cover “in real time” and it is very very similar! You are so right on with this! We are a mish-mosh of wonderful and not so wonderful traits and behaviors and every thing in between. Great post! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading it. I find that happens to – I’ll have a post I’m working on or thinking about and then bam! there it is by someone I follow in my feed. The synchronicity pleases me. Blessing and stay safe.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What you have written is beautiful. It made me think about why I like to put a label on myself. And that I think is because any complex thing is usually understood through a number of smaller and less complex points. The fact that we are highly sensitive doesn’t identify us as only that kind of people, but it rather opens doors to understanding our complex lives.

    Liked by 1 person

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