Why Do People Label Themselves?

I watched Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet (excuse me, Romeo + Juliet) with one of my boys this week. Yes, I skipped the part where they frolicked in bed, but not before my son caught me with a "Dad, should I be watching this?" What a snot that kid is. I know my job.

Anyway, in the story the characters rail against the stars more than once. Because the stars came up in the movie, the boy and I were able to talk about astrology, and why people are into it. Waging hopeless war on destiny is a hoary and honorable and very pagan theme in tragedy, but opposing one's fated sea of troubles is only for the noblest among us. For the rest, the stars provide comfort, even in distress.

This same week I was driving with the elder daughter when she asked "Dad, do people still go to palm readers?" That "still" was an interesting choice of words, because I've tried hard over the years to crush any chronological snobbery the children might have, but such things are hard to escape.

Yes, daughter, people still go to palm readers.


I'll tell you why. For the same reason they're into astrology.

Also this week I stumbled across an online quiz. Well, a couple, actually. One said my brain was 80% female and 20% male. I think that's because I wouldn't choose an action flick if I had the guys over, and because after shopping for jeans, which the quiz made me do, I wouldn't just grab a slice of pizza, but would sit down at a cafe and take leisurely refreshment. I'm such a girl.

The other quiz is the one I want to tell you about. I stumbled across it via this Wall Street Journal article, which discussed HSPs, or Highly Sensitive People.
Meet the Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP—someone who responds more intensely to experiences than the average individual. Experts say HSPs process both positive and negative information more thoroughly, and so they can easily become overwhelmed by stimuli. They are acutely aware of sensations, whether of taste, touch, sound or smell. And they are particularly sensitive to emotions—their own and those of others. 
Research studies show that about 20% of the population fits into this category, and the trait is found in the same numbers in men and women.  
HSPs are currently having a moment: Last week, the First International Scientific Conference on High Sensitivity or Sensory Processing Sensitivity was held at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, with panels on sensory processing sensitivity in children and what we can learn from successful people who are highly sensitive. There is a documentary in the works titled “Sensitive.” (The trailer features Alanis Morissette, a self-proclaimed HSP.)
The article mentions a guy, a successful college professor who cries at sight or sound of anything patriotic, as an example of an HSP. And he's not just sensitive to patriotism. That good ol' religion gets him too.
Mr. Hassard first noticed he was highly sensitive in his early teens. Singing in his church choir, there were songs that he says he “had a hard time getting through” because they moved him so much.
Perhaps, if he does not believe, but cries at hymns anyway, he is indeed highly sensitive. But Mr. Hassard, I cry nearly every Sunday over at least one of the hymns. That's not to suggest that Christians should cry over hymns, but lots of Christians do cry over hymns. Because of Jesus and redemption and whatnot.

Still, as I read this article, I was intrigued. After all, I don't just cry at the foot of the cross. I cry when I read Felix Randal (o is he dead then?). I cry when credit card commercials show me how my children's dreams can come true if I just join the right bank and get the right card. I cry when the Mighty Ducks win. I cried through most of the new Cinderella movie. I write blog posts entitled 8 Things I Can't Do Without Crying. Yes, it's clear.

I'm a highly sensitive person. But am I a Highly Sensitive Person? The Wall Street Journal provided this link to a quiz designed in the 90s. I took it. And I include the quiz here in its entirety, all twenty-seven questions. Twenty-seven is a lot, so you know it's comprehensive.

Turns out I'm an insensitive lout who just happens to cry a lot, because only ten of these apply to me. I don't get to be an HSP. I don't get to use this label.

Now, knowing one's self is surely a virtue. If you or someone else decides you're an ENTJ or Anal or whatever other label, that might be helpful to you.

And many people suffer from maladies medical or psychological that can only be helped once diagnosed, and diagnosis requires labeling.

But why this cultural mania for self-labeling? Why do we want to put a name or an acronym on everything about ourselves? Why do we all want to know if we're introverts or extroverts, if we're Visionaries or Protectors?

Is it because we want to know ourselves?

No. We label ourselves for the same reasons we read horoscopes or go to palm-readers.

We do it because we want things to not be our fault. The fault must be in our stars, because the alternative is unthinkable: that we might be responsible for being the people we are.

Now certainly our environments and experiences shape us, and traumas almost inescapably scar and limit us (almost inescapably; more on that at the end). But let me suggest this: the impulse to label is as pagan as astrology. It takes away our responsibility, and it takes away our need to repent. I'm glad I'm a crier, but crying at credit card commercials is a weakness. And if I am so sensitive that I fall apart when I have myself and my family to look after, or if I am so insensitive that I fail to care about myself and my family, I am sinning. That requires repentance, and confession, and grace, and Jesus.

If we can escape sin by pretending it doesn't exist, or better yet, by spinning it into a virtue ("HSPs process both positive and negative information more thoroughly"), we're golden, and don't need Jesus. Thank God we were able to find that loophole!

As I close this article, I remind the dear reader that I am not attacking the naming of things. But consider the impulse, the motivation. Is it really something that needs to be named, to be made a thing? Or is it simply you? You will never escape the need to repent, not as long as you are in this body, this poor potsherd. Come to Jesus, just as you are. If you don't like to talk to people, or if you can't handle loud noises, fine. That's your broken self. That's who you are, and those are the burdens you bear. Don't let a label mediate between you and Jesus. He is your mediator before the Father. And that's all the buffer you need.


  1. This is pretty good and also convicting, I've thought of this but never connected the ideas. I think we see it also in medical stuff, like people saying that they can't sleep because of their chronobiology and looking for genetic reasons why they stay up late etc.

    I've certainly been the type to try to label away my flaws, and in my case it had to do with bad parenting, so maybe there is that component - my parents parenting consisted of them telling me to 'snap out of it' and that I'm a horrible person, but as an adult I can label myself as an INTJ. Maybe INTJs are really horrible people but it would have been nice to have a parental figure actually shepherd my difficult personality into something usable. Maybe this is part of the fallout of the epic parenting fail of the past century.

    1. I think surely you're right: fallout of the parenting fail.


Post a Comment