We make sense of the world by giving things labels and names. Be it people, objects, experiences or ideas. That’s what allows us to distinguish this from that, in from out, us from them. What’s in a name or label you might ask? Well, sort of everything. Because, in a sense, naming is knowing. 

Symbols for reality 

Language is a system of symbols that tries to describe the real world. By naming things, we make tangible what might otherwise be missed or ignored. And, that creates the possibility for greater exploration and understanding.

The Inuit people, for example, identify up to 50 different types of snow. Because their survival depends on a deep knowledge of it.  And, it was only after the formal recognition of PTSD as a  specific diagnosis did the development of effective treatment take place. Recognition and naming led to further research and understanding.

Understanding yourself 

Where naming can be missed in everyday life is in relation to knowing yourself.  In relation to your feelings and emotions, fears and worries. In a culture where comments like, “pull yourself together”, are still widespread, it can feel difficult to acknowledge even to yourself how you feel. Let alone share with others. 

By noticing what is going on for you and naming it, you bring into the light what might otherwise be hidden. By recognising for yourself that; “I feel [hurt]” or “I really fear [failure]”, you can begin to see more clearly your inner state and what you might be suppressing. And, that gives you choice.  

Suppressing feelings and emotions is never a good idea. It tends to be like the “banned books” list. Trying to expunge them ironically only increases their popularity, often giving them a cult status. 

Use with care 

As with anything, naming and labelling have a dark side. And, we tend to be more aware of this when it comes to people. How labels can hurt and ostracize individuals and even entire communities. But, the problem is more general. 

Symbols (names and labels) can too easily become permanent and erroneously fixed. “I feel [angry]” can easily be distorted by your own mind to “I am an angry person”. And, you can fall into the trap of defining yourself in partial ways as being such-and-such.   

Such partial definitions might very well be pointing to certain repeating habits and behaviours, which because of their frequency warrant recognition. But, it is one thing to observe a repeating pattern, it is quite another to believe that such a pattern is set in stone and must continue forever. That such a pattern is somehow an eternal truth.  And, that is the danger here.

Names and labels can too easily take root and take over our lives. 

Final words 

So, while naming is knowing, when it allows us to see what is suppressed and what is unsaid, it must always be used with great care. With the knowledge that a name is merely a fluid symbol and that the reality it describes is often transient and far, far more complex than can be ever described using symbols.


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