Oh, labels. We love them and we hate them, and for good reason. For some, the label feels like a restrictive box, and it’s too limiting. For others, finding the right label brings the sweet relief of finally having figured it out and knowing what you’re dealing with, and life gets easier after that.
I’ve been on both sides of the label camp, and to me, labels are extremely helpful if and only if they are the right label. As Mark Twain put it, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
So let’s start by looking at when the right label is really helpful in the world of neurodivergence. Imagine you are the mother of a toddler, and this toddler is prone to throwing frequent fits where they scream at the top of their lungs and throw everything within their reach around the room.
Your first thought is ‘temper tantrums,’ and you do all of the ‘right’ parenting things to discourage such behavior. But if anything, the behavior only gets worse over time.
If and when your child finally gets the diagnosis of autism (a label!), you are likely to learn the difference between a temper tantrum and an autistic meltdown. They may look identical, but the causes are different, and so the response to them needs to be different as well if you hope to do anything about it. Learning that your child is autistic might give you the key to getting to the bottom of these outbursts.
Once you know your child’s nervous system is in a heightened state of threat when the outbursts occur (rather than a behavior that they can control), you can start figuring out what exactly overwhelms their nervous system and how to better meet their sensory needs. A calmer child who feels safer more often is going to have fewer and less severe outbursts, and that is going to make you calmer as well.
And speaking of the nervous system, let’s look at the role of the amygdala when it comes to labels. The amygdala is our fear center of the brain, and it is the part of the brain that tells us when there is a perceived threat.
When there is something undefined/unknown/unfamiliar, our amygdala is more likely to get activated, which explains why humans tend to have a fear of the ‘Other.’ Once we are able to get to know someone/something, to put a name to it, to define it, the fear diminishes.
I think that is a big part of why it can feel so relieving when you finally get a diagnosis for something you have been troubleshooting for years. There is an enormous amount of stress in uncertainty. If you have had a mystery illness or condition, you may have wondered if you were dying, going crazy, etc., and doctors may have treated you as if you were making it up. Or they may have treated you for the wrong thing, which was profoundly unhelpful.
Being able to put the right name to it can make all the difference, even if the illness or condition is serious and there is not an easy road ahead. Knowing what you are actually dealing with is incredibly helpful, because now there is a clearer path to follow. The amygdala relaxes, and the nervous system settles down.
And what about finally feeling understood? Seen for the first time! The puzzle pieces coming together, the clarity after all the fog. Ahhhh…..That is when a label can be a lifesaver! That’s why you see newly discovered/diagnosed neurodivergent people so passionate or intense sometimes once they finally figure it out. It can be a huge relief and a total game changer in terms of finding the right career or living environment.
I think too about our relationships with other people in our lives. Perhaps you had a dad who you have been holding a grudge against because it has always felt like he just wasn’t very interested in you. He usually showed up late to your birthday parties, never seemed like he was giving you his full attention when he talked to you, and often seemed lost in his own world that you never had access to.
Then you found out that he was multiply neurodivergent—has ADHD and autism. Ok, probably your frustration with him is not going to vanish as soon as you find that out, but it might give you an an internal ‘AHA!’ Knowing that those things were about his wiring rather than a lack of interest in you might help you start processing your feelings toward him, and may help build a bridge of understanding between you. You may very well still have grief (and you should give that all the time it needs to process), but something might shift. So many of our differences can create rifts and misunderstandings, and filling in those pieces can be an important part of healing.
So those are just a few examples of when having the right label really matters. They can shift our understanding of ourselves and those around us, give us a new lens to see through that can bring a lot of things into focus, and equip us with better tools to navigate our relationships, career paths and the environments that we live in.
In my next post I’ll tackle the other side of labels—when they can be confining, inappropriate and limiting. As with most things, labels are not either good or bad, and knowing how and when to use them is the key to living as your best and most authentic self.
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