Yesterday I wrote about a major part of the “story” of my life that I had been hanging onto. This got me thinking about how I describe myself to others and how I think about myself. I was reminded of an opportunity that I was given recently to look at exactly that.

Last year I attended a weekend workshop at the Kripula Centre in Massachusetts called “Wit, Words, Wisdom and Women”. It was run by the fabulously talented mother and daughter team of Ellen  and Katie Goodman. I was attending the workshop as its description felt exactly like what I needed at that time, “How to discover your authentic writing voice”.

Over the course of the weekend we did many exercises including one around labels. We were asked to pair up and then individually write down as many words describing ourselves as we possibly could in the short time frame we were given. I love challenges like that being the competitive soul that I am so I scribbled like crazy; “Daughter, Sister, Aunty, Niece, Friend, Sister in Law, Lawyer, Coach, (they were coming thick and fast now), Photographer, Internet Marketer, Traveler, Tourist, (time nearly up!), Yoga Enthusiasts, Sports Women. “STOP! Time up”, grinned our presenters, knowing full well what was coming next.

Ellen Goodman

Ellen and one of her many wonderful books

Looking around the room I saw a happy bunch of women who had achieved the task given to them, or so they thought. “Now each of you take turns to describe yourself to your partner, without using any of the words you have written down”. Every woman in the room looked horrified. We all thought we had done so well writing down as many labels as we could possibly think of that there was silence in the room as we tried to grasp this turn of events. I turned to my partner with a dazed expression on my face and I had to confess that I was having a complete mind blank and would she mind going first. In the end it was a team effort with me suggesting some labels for her which then gave her momentum to further describe herself. I was then able to describe myself as a Tall, Athletic, Tramper (that’s hiking to you Northern Folks), before our time was up. As you can see I really did have a mind blank!

This was a powerful lesson for me as it showed just how much I had defined myself by my previous job descriptions and the roles I had in relation to others. Of the 17 words I had written down only a third of them described things I liked doing and none of them really described who I uniquely was as a person.

It is very easy to use labels to describe ourselves or pigeon hole others. I don’t even think we are aware that we are doing it and by doing so we limit ourselves and others. When asked what I did I used to say “I am a lawyer”, as if that was the sum total of who I was rather than simply a description of my current job role.

I think we need to be constantly reminding ourselves to look at ourselves and others in a much broader way and on far more generous terms. How often do we miss learning something wonderful about another person because we have already limited them by a self imposed definition and, because of this, stop asking questions, stop being curious? Imagine the talents that we might share with the world when we begin to see ourselves, and those around us, as unique, extraordinary creatures with many talents to share.

Take some time to let go of your self-limiting descriptions of who you are. Instead look to define yourself in terms of something other than your job title. At the end of the day, each of us needs to recognise that no label, no matter how descriptive, will ever fully capture our uniqueness.

“Up to a point, a man’s life is shaped by his environment, heredity, and movements and changes in the world about him; then there comes a time when it lies within his grasp to shape the clay of his life into the sort of thing he wishes to be . . . everyone has it within his power to say, this I am today – that I shall be tomorrow.” Louis L’Amour

Today I am Strong, Curious, Adventurous, Creative and Humorous. Tomorrow? Perhaps the same and perhaps so much more.

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