When Your Labels Hurt You (and how to fix it)

I remember the first time I found out a name for what had been plaguing me for my entire life.  I remember holding that book, The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, and letting out a flood of tears because FINALLY, I knew wasn't insane.

Growing up, my anxiety infiltrated every inch of my life.  I couldn't stay home alone, as my paranoia drove me to hide under the table until my parents got home because it was the only place that I was safe from anyone trying to break in and hurt me.  I hated going to school so much so that I drove myself to feeling so nauseous that I would gag.  I was usually forced to go, so I'd end up in the nurse's office at some point during the day, begging to call my mother (who sometimes refused to come get me).  Sleeping alone at night was the absolute worst.  I knew something lived under my bed and I would have to leap from my bed to land out of arm's length so the monster could not grab my feet to pull me under.  I would line up all my stuffed animals around my entire body as if they were a barrier so nothing could get me.  I'd tuck my blankets under my feet for the same reason (something I still do at forty years old on occasion).  I was not allowed to sleep in my parents' room for any reason whatsoever, so I was stuck being scared to death in my own bed every single night of my youth.

As a teen, my anxiety waned, but eventually reared its ugly head when I got pregnant at twenty.  I couldn't eat in restaurants, so when my ex-husband's family wanted to take me out without my knowledge, I had to sit in the car because I refused to go in and make myself miserable for no reason.  I couldn't eat in restaurants as a child through adulthood, and my mother always made sure I knew exactly how embarrassed and ashamed she was of me for it.  Imagine every single bite of food that was in your mouth would cause you to almost gag and the noise of the clanging dishes and people chatting in a murmur was enough to drive you crazy.  Yet, my mother forced me to go out and eat with her constantly.

I remember being pregnant and checking out the previously mentioned book from the library and opening it to find a world that was exactly like my own.  As I read it, it felt as though a thousand weights that I had been carrying around for twenty years were lifted within moments.  And the best part, my anxiety was erased for months.  I was finally free!!

Eventually, my anxiety did come back, little by little, and eventually full force and and later, worse than I ever had had it before.  At one point I was home-bound and trying not to die from how horrible I felt.  Actually, I've been at that point more than once.  But only one of those times did I actually want to die.  Anything was better than feeling as bad as I did.  When you're having a panic attack, you literally feel like you will never feel better.  That this is it.  This is all it will ever be.

But then I get always better and deal better, and go back to normal everyday anxiety.  Then it will go away for a bit, then get worse, get bad, and get better.  And so on and so forth.  It's a nasty cycle that I have learned to live with, knowing it's not curable because it stems from the sensory processing disorder that I've had since before I was born.  My brain didn't develop in the way other brains do in utero (meaning I have a mild form of autism) so I am not living my life looking for a cure.

Instead, I live my life as a woman with anxiety.

I've been living my life as a woman who can't drive alone because I have anxiety.  I've been living my life as a woman who can't go places alone or be left home alone (or in the car alone) for long periods of time because of my anxiety.  I've been living my life as a woman who can't have friends and go places with them outside of my home because of my anxiety.  I've been living my life as a woman who can't go for a walk with her dog by herself because I have anxiety.  I don't even consider doing these things (though sometimes I forget, but then I am quickly reminded: "Hey stupid, you have anxiety, you can't do that!").

I lived most my life letting my label define me.  

And that's where it hurts me.

Whereas once the word "anxiety" freed my soul, I live in a world where now it binds it.  I am no longer happy, carefree, funny Em.  I am Em, anxiety sufferer.  I am a victim.  I am defined by these words.

Yet my soul isn't my body, right?  My essence has nothing to do with what my brain and body want to feel.  My personality and who I am are not confined by my biological issues.  Anxiety has nothing to do with who I am.  It has to do with how my brain perceives possible (yet for me, invisible) threats.  Fight, flight, or freeze.

If our true selves had to do with how our bodies work, then we'd become our diseases and our limitations.  We'd be "One-Legged Joe".  Or "Cancer James".  Or "Depressed Donna." But does having one leg, cancer, or depression have anything to do with who you are?  Absolutely not.  Our bodies are separate from our souls (the parts of us that represents who we really are).  Our souls don't have legs to lose or cells to mutate or uneven chemicals in their brains.  And they don't have anxiety to freak out when presented some sort of stupid situation that makes no sense to freak out over (like some unknown person knocking on the front door).

Although, I think it would be better to identify with labels that DO represent my inner essence: mother, artist, lover, seeker of knowledge and truths, caretaker, nature lover, etc.  I know I am these things, deep down in my core, because when I am participate in what they mean, I feel right at home.  I feel like me: safe, secure, and happy.  But anxiety feels foreign (and assholey), like some kind of jerk that has taken up residence in my brain that has no business being there (and it certainly wasn't invited).  It feels like something that's happening to me, not because of me.  I was born to be a mother, an artist, a funny person.  I was not born to cry and hyperventilate when I accidentally turn the wrong way and get on a road I am not familiar with.

Our labels when we first learn of them can free us, but when we start becoming those labels, when we start identifying with them as a part of who we are?  That's when they hold us back.

Recently, I put this to the test.  I said "I am going to take the dogs for a walk."  I took three dogs for a walk down my alley and thought to myself "If I make it, and I feel fine, I'll keep going.  Fuck anxiety!  I will DO THIS!"  And I did.  I walked down two alleys and came back home.  I was out of breath and a little anxious, but I did it anyways.  Some days I am not strong enough to even try something like that, but I've learned that if I tell my anxiety to fuck off and pretend like I don't have it?  I feel better.  I do better.  And I become more aware of the fact that I am not my anxiety.  I am strong, independent, and capable.

My label is something that happens to me, not because of me.  Most days, it tells me I can't do something.  It dictates my life because I believe its lies.  But on those days I choose not believe it?  On the days I decide that I am all the good things about who I actually am instead of what my anxiety says I am?  I become those good things.  I embody my true essence.  Because my labels do not define me.  They may define me tomorrow, but for that moment or that day, I won't let them.

I can't always choose, but when I do, I feel powerful and more like myself.  And the more I choose, the better I feel.  The hard part is choosing even when I don't feel like I can.  But we always have a choice, just some days are so much harder than others.  And it's okay to sometimes choose to be your label.  Sometimes it just feel better to choose to be comfortable than to choose to fight.

But when you can fight?  It's so worth it.  

So, how do you figure out the good labels to fight for?  How do you remind yourself of your true essence of who you really are?

First, we need to take stock.  We need to make a list of everything who we are.  I LOVE to make mind maps and make college paintings, so that's what I have created for you.

Your Soul's Essence Art Collage Project:


  • Paper or journal
  • Poster board (or more paper)
  • Paint
  • Glue (I like using gel medium, they have cheap Artist's Loft brand at Michael's)
  • Magazines
  • Canvas, any size you like
  • Any other art supplies you like: charcoal, nail polish (I like using this for clothes on the people I collage)

  1. Get out your journal or a piece of paper make a list of all the words that describe you.  Are you a sister?  A mother?  A lover?  A reader?  A writer?  Someone who fights for causes they believe in?  List all your hobbies and aspects of your life that you enjoy so much so, that when you do these things, you feel wholly you. 
  2. Then come up with an archetype word for each one.  "Mother" is already an archetype, but if you're an "Artist", are you a specific type of artist?  What about a reader of books?  What could you call that?  If you read non-fiction and fill your head with knowledge, then you could call it a "Seeker" or a "Student".  If you read nothing but fiction, then you could call it "Book Lover" or something similar. 
  3. Then, get a piece of poster board (or another piece of paper).  Write your name in the middle and put a circle around it.  Then write all your archetypes around it with circles around them, connected to your name.  From each archetype you can write as much as you want for each one.  Just make it as detailed as you can. 
  4. Step back and look at this magnificent piece of paper that holds all your amazing on it!  When you're all done, make sure you keep this so you can refer back to it whenever you need to.
  5. Now, go through your magazines and find pictures that fit each of your archetypes (can be people, or just photos or even words--I used a cat picture for my "Seeker" archetype! haha).
  6. You can choose one archetype for each painting if you like or do them all in one (I did both!). 
  7. Slop some paint on your background and use an old credit card to smear it around, being careful to not create mud (which is the brown that happens when three or more colors get too mixed). Be as messy as you want.  Use your fingers!  Just create a background that speaks to your soul.  I chose pink and blue for mine (to represent both my feminine and masculine sides). 
  8. I dripped some white from the top, and when it dried, I used a white paint pen to make curly dangles from the drips (see below).
  9. I used black around the outsides of the canvas and used the credit card to pull the excess onto the painting itself on each side. 
  10. I drew a mandala with a cat magazine photo in the middle with the word "seek" repeated as part of the mandala around the inside edges for my "Seeker" archetype.  I cut a photo of a mother and child and repainted their hair for "Mother".  I am also a novice photographer so I found a silhouette picture of a photographer in the bottom right corner.  I found a wedding photo from a wedding magazine to represent the "Lover" archetype in me, and painted the man's hair to match my husband's hair and the girl's hair as long and flowing to represent how I'd love to have my own hair.  I stamped words and pictures all over it for all my other archetypes.  I drew music notes because I am a lover of music and a musician. 

Looking at this reminds me of who I am and how I want to feel as much as possible.  I don't strive for perfection.  I don't think I need to feel like this every single day.  Life doesn't work like that.  If you are living with labels like PTSD, depression, anxiety, bipolar, fibromyalgia, or anything else, then you know that you are living with managing your issues that develop of these things.  And some days we will feel great.  Others we'll feel good.  Others, we will feel okay.  Others, we'll feel not so great.  And others we'll feel horrible.  That's okay.  The challenge is to realize that on the days we don't feel great, those days DO NOT DEFINE US.  Even if they outweigh the great and good days.  We can create more great and good days by realizing we can sometimes choose to tell our issues to fuck off and do what we want to do anyways, even if we don't feel great doing them.  

We can still dance when we're in pain, if we really want to.  

I am proud of every single time I drive, even when I am panicking.  Those are still good days to me, even though my anxiety didn't actually go away.  Some days, I just can't do it, though.  And on those days, I make life good by doing something different that my body allows me to do.  I choose whether or not a day is good, even if my issues are bugging me.  I try not to let my issues define me or how I view my life anymore.  It's all about our mindset and we choose to see our lives.  Even on the hardest days, we can find those things we can do, and let that dictate how we see our experiences.

I no longer identify as "Em, the woman with anxiety".  I am "Em, the woman who does whatever the fuck she wants, who happens to be bothered by some asshole who lives in her head whose name is anxiety".  

I can't control that asshole most days.  He usually stomps his little baby feet and whines to get his way.  I can sometimes quiet him with some breathing exercises or some other technique, but what works the most?  Is ignoring his ass and marching along as if he wasn't there, even when I can hear him screaming in the background, threatening to take over if I pay him any attention.  God, what a domineering, controlling baby he is!  

But, like I said, sometimes I give him the attention he wants (I don't always have a choice), but if I can, I'll tell him to fuck right off and go whine in the corner alone.  

And then I embody one (or many) of those archetype labels instead (for me, painting is one thing that always makes that baby be quiet!!).  I try to become who I want to be by choice, instead of letting my negative labels dictate who I am on any given day.

And I hope by identifying your essences that actually define you (the pieces of your life that make you wholly you), you can find your way to being "Joe, the Mentor" or "James the Artist" or "Donna the Life Architect", instead of the ones that hold you back.  Like my anxiety, the asshole friend who lives in my head 😏

Please share with me any paintings you do from this project!  I'd love to see your work and how awesome you are 💗💘💓

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