Emotions, labels and boxes

change Nov 10, 2018

I hate labels. Labels box me in. They limit my understanding of myself to the arid landscape of language - ignoring the vast amount of nuance lying beneath the surface.

For many years, I had a number of emotional issues. Because I did not know enough about my emotions nor their purpose, I could not understand the messages they were trying to give to me. I spent a long time adopting various labels for the combined effects of my emotions. These labels limited the extent of change that I believed was possible.

For example, I used to think I had Bipolar Disorder. I was hospitalized a couple of times, and took medications for it. I read a lot about the condition and over time adopted many beliefs about myself that weren't true. Because true Bipolar Disorder has no known cure, I believed I could do little to improve my situation beyond taking medication and struggling through. However, seven years after being diagnosed, I finally saw a counselor who paid closer attention to what I said, gave me a couple of personality tests, and determined I did not have Bipolar Disorder. Instead, in his assessment, I was on the Autism spectrum. I stopped taking the medications and I began to realize that a lot of beliefs I had about myself were false and they had boxed me in. They had prevented me from moving forward. Unfortunately, however, I suddenly had a new label for array of symptoms - a new box to hide in.

For about four years after my change of diagnosis, I believed I had Asperger's Syndrome, a high-functioning version of Autism. Again, I read a lot and began adopting many false beliefs about myself. I again became stuck because I also believed this label was incurable and unchangeable.

Thankfully, I was not destined to remain in a stuck mindset. A true tidal shift in my approach to my constellation of symptoms began when, as a requirement for a class I was taking at the time, I read the book Mindset by Carol S. Dweck. The premise of the book, based on extensive research, is that people who have a belief that their abilities are fixed are less likely to be successful than people who believe their abilities can be developed. I began taking a closer look at my attitudes about myself, and began trying to pay more attention to what was going on inside me. Slowly, but steadily, I began to change.

But having Bipolar Disorder and Aspergers are not the only labels I have adopted and jettisoned over the years. In the back of my mind from about age 14 I began to wonder if I were gay. I even asked my dad and my bishop about it. Though I received little help from them, I found ways to cope and largely ignore the feelings I was labeling as same-sex attraction. One of my methods of avoidance in particular was to avoid eye contact with others. Up until a couple of years ago, I had largely shoved the question of whether I was gay into the back of my mind. I no longer remembered why I wasn't looking others in the eye - nor did usually I notice that I was avoiding it. About the same time that I read the book Mindset, I began working on emotional intelligence and re-discovered the reason I was avoiding eye contact. I finally confronted my feelings that I had labeled as same-sex attraction head on.

As I've worked through this final, more emotionally and intellectually pervasive label of same-sex attraction, my primary effort has been to understand my emotions and the information they give to me. A very difficult hurdle to get over was the idea that my same-sex attraction was immutable, that it was impossible to change. After all, that is, again, a primary feature of this label. That commonly understood feature of unchangeability, however, is not grounded in research.

For a moment, let me define change. Most people think of change in the context of same-sex attraction as a complete eradication of the feelings. But what does that mean? Does it mean that I stop caring about members of my same gender? No. It means that I stop sexualizing the feelings. The vast majority of the feelings that today are associated with same-sex attraction have absolutely nothing to do with sex. Today's interpretation of those feelings - of caring for others of the same gender, of appreciating their looks, of wanting their company, of enjoying warm hugs - is that they mean that people who feel them must also want and need sex with people of the same gender. This gay identity construct is a very recent, very western phenomenon.  

While there is plenty of research looking at biological factors, there is almost no recent research on environmental factors that are involved with same-sex attraction. It's simply not a question that is politically safe to ask as a researcher. In addition, there is also very little research on people's ability to change. The APA has released a statement that says, in part:

"efforts to change sexual orientation are unlikely to be successful and involve some risk of harm, contrary to the claims of [sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE)] practitioners and advocates."

But, if you dig deeper and read the report supporting this statement, they admit they actually have no idea if recent change efforts (which are very different from some historical change efforts) actually produce change:

"We found that nonaversive and recent approaches to SOCE have not been rigorously evaluated. Given the limited amount of methodologically sound research, we cannot draw a conclusion regarding whether recent forms of SOCE are or are not effective."

In my case, by having a mindset that assumes growth is possible I have come to realize that the feelings that I feel of caring about other men and wanting the best for them and wanting to feel valued by other men are actually quite normal. It is only because I have been afraid of them and avoided others of my same gender for so long, and because of the pervasive narrative about such feelings, that they became sexualized. In addition, what I had previously labeled as attractions are actually feelings of envy or admiration for some characteristic I see in the other man.  

Had I approached my experience of same-gender attraction with a fixed mindset, accepting the label and all that it implies, I would not have experienced the revolutionary change that I have.

I hate labels - they box me in - so now I have broken free.