As you might assume from my content on this site, I carry a lot of labels. Some are less well-known than others, and some carry inaccurate connotations. Some I am constantly working for greater awareness of, and others I keep quieter about. These labels have been immensely helpful for me, whether they are as specific as a microlabel on the spectrum of aromantic and asexual identity or as broad as the unifying and nebulous umbrella terms that I’m not sure where all I fit within.
Naming is important to self-concept and acceptance of our identity, but there are equally important stages that we move through before and after we first say, “Hi, my name is ____ and I’m ____.” These aren’t strictly linear, but they are numbered for the sake of organization:
- Awareness—Congratulations! The first step to putting descriptive words to your experiences and self-concept is to be mindful of how you are interacting with the world and what you see around you, particularly in ways that potentially diverge from the scripts and norms you were given. Notice what’s important to you, what may be missing, and what you feel drawn to.
- Curiosity—What does this have to teach you? Are you just reexamining assumptions and norms or is this a new part of yourself that putting a name to might lead to healthy changes? Don’t get too overwhelmed with labels, plans, and changes yet, simply stay curious and open to new growth.
- Learning—Research what others with your experience are saying, from a diverse array of angles, not just stereotypes or dominant narratives. This may be uncomfortable as you push past assumptions, but don’t worry about the identity part yet for yourself or taking stances on intercommunity issues. You’re gathering information as an observer to become more informed.
- Connection—Ask others you trust or who have expertise in this area, especially lived experience alongside connection to the community and knowledge about things you are learning. The goal isn’t to find a guru but to try to find a whole community that is accepting and welcoming of those exploring and doesn’t gatekeep or enforce rigid behavior rules of who is “in” and “out.” If they seem like potential friends and not moral purity police or a clique to impress, you’re on the right track.
- Fitting room—You may return to this place often over your lifetime as you add and change and mix labels, but for now try on some names for your experience and new identity based on what you’ve learned that feel right to you. Something that makes you nervous isn’t all bad, especially if you aren’t sure you’ve “earned” it or “count” or are “enough.” Those are incredibly common at this stage. Hold the term loosely, working through any self-judgment or shame you might feel about claiming it for yourself. Doing this work with a therapist can be really useful, as well as with those connections you’ve made to educators in this area and research you’ve done. However, when in conversation with those who already hold that label, be aware that they are obviously in favor of it for themselves, may try to persuade you to claim it, and will likely not welcome any reservations you have that rest on prejudice or biases against them as a community or individuals. Be kind and considerate of others’ feelings and perspectives as you question your own and keep things about what fits true to your experiences and identity, not about your hesitancy to become “one of them.” Using time in therapy for this can be wiser for this reason so you can work through misconceptions and negative feelings.
- Naming—Start thinking of yourself with this new identity name, knowing it is the best information you have about yourself in this moment. It is just one part of the whole of you, even if it feels huge right now. It can help to practice before sharing with others, thinking through what information is important and what the terms involved mean to you. What does this change in you and how are you going to integrate that information into your life for a more authentic, healthy identity, even as you continue to grow and evolve as a mature person?
- Grief—Finding a new identifier or name for your experience can be liberating, but it can also come with layers of grief. You may regret not knowing earlier; you may resent those who should have helped you along the way and did not; you may wonder how no one saw the signs, have trauma from situations related to this identity, or grieve being forced to conform to norms you could never fully fit. You may lose people, organizations, and places you love or feel comfortable in. Grief in this journey can encompass a wide array of experiences from discomfort to profound loss and can include every stage, including anger and bargaining and denial, not just sadness and acceptance. You may be surprised at the emotions you feel as you begin to examine your past, verbalize your current experience, and connect more with others’ similar experiences. This is normal, and again, something you may want to work through in therapy as you come to accept both the grief and pride in your new self-concept.
- Pride—Share what you’ve learned about yourself with those you love and who need to know! This could be only a few people or the whole world, and there is no deadline or rush to share it. It is your information to reveal or not. With close connections, you may want to be clear about how you feel about it so they know how to react, and be prepared with a few resources if others want to learn more about your identity and ways they can support you in it. Starting with those you already know and trust (especially if they carry the same or similar labels) can help ease you into more difficult conversations. Try not to generalize if someone reacts poorly; it doesn’t mean everyone else will. It is simply one person’s reaction, and others can celebrate with you or grieve with you or talk through it with you in the ways you need them to.
- Get involved—Chances are, there are others out there like you who aren’t aware of this part of themselves. It’s your turn to be one of those connections in stage 4 if you want to be or perhaps create resources and raise awareness like in stage 3. Or you can support your community in whatever way feels best for you, even if it’s more subtle, quiet, or behind the scenes.
Caution: It can be tempting here to conform to “tells” or expectations of your group. The battle at this stage is to stay true to your authenticity in both directions: with the others in your life who may resist this change in you and with the new community you’re part of that may have a preexisting culture, norms, and expectations. These can be as subtle as speech patterns and lingo or as obvious as appearance and lifestyle preferences. Be careful as you find yourself changing your behavior, opinions, presentation, and more that these are truly changes that make you happy, not what you think you are “supposed to” say, think, and do as a member of this group, especially if those cultural unifiers begin to ostracize, judge, or exclude those who don’t conform. Some of those expectations might be healthy with good motives, and others might be silly or even harmful. Stay grounded and true to your own journey, not in anyone else’s concept of “cool” or “enough.”
- Stay open—Others’ experiences aren’t going to reflect yours exactly. You know how important it was when you were exploring this part of yourself to have people who could hold space for that. Avoid generalizing everyone’s experiences in the way you personally experience this label, and stay open, curious, and nonjudgmental as you continue to learn and grow, raise awareness, and welcome others in. Even if someone ends up moving on from a label you embraced, their time in that space was still a vital part of their journey, and the same applies to you as well. Don’t let your entire self-concept rest on this name, and continue to hold it loosely even as you identify with it and work for stronger community around it, knowing that “home” and belonging lie within you, not in a label or specific group or lifestyle. At the same time, endeavor to be a safe refuge for others finding that sense of belonging within themselves as well. You never know when they might teach you something too, just when you thought you had become the expert or educator!