Labels, Emotions and Expectations

“What’s wrong with you? You should have known better…”
“I expected more from you…”
“You are….”

Labels, unfortunately, do not stigmatise children but adults alike. And it’s usually labels heaped on you by loved ones that hurt the most. One can choose to be bothered by it, or let it turn on deaf ears — that’s what most people would advise. But no matter how strong or resilient one’s self-esteem is, these labels creep on you and gnawl away one’s confidence. So when self-doubt manifests itself even for a fraction of that second in a quarrel you are having or a position you’re defending, you start to believe that those labels are truths. Methinks, there’s nothing inherently wrong with expectations. I expect my students to do well in life. I expect a friend to care. I expect a lover to show some intimacy — all of which are not without one-sided expectations, nor without reciprocation, i.e. I expect myself to do the same for them: I teach well, I care deeply, and I love wholeheartedly and intimately. We all expect something because expectations are tied up with ideals. And ideals are what dreams are made of. But when an expectation comes with a label, it is an attack. An attack on one’s integrity as a person. An attack that undermines one’s identity (yes, even the identity you’re trying to build up). An attack that sours and even breaks the years of trust and friendship you once thought was rock solid.

At the same time, when you are not given the space to be authentic with your feelings — often riddled with negative ones such as fear, anxiety, anger — you perceive yourself to be unimportant in that relationship. While that label of “unimportance” is arguably self-inflicted, it is a manifestation of a negative belief system, a sum total of values acquired by you inflicted by others during your formative years or through societal expectations of you. It is an amalgamation of labels re-labelling itself again and again, this time without an expiry date.

Children are not born with negativity or low self-esteem. But when peers, adults and parents continuously say, “Don’t do this. Are you that stupid?”, “Stop being so weak”, they internalise these as truths. Or when advertisements tell us we are not good looking enough, we look at the mirror and agree. Even if a tad subconsciously. And so I hit the gym or join a yoga class not for health or fitness reasons, but just to look better.

I am not one without self-esteem problems, especially being a man of under average height. Growing up, I always stood as the shortest in class, placed at the front of the queue whenever we had to march in a single file while barricading myself from insults hurled at me. Yes, peers in primary school had toxic tongues. And even through adulthood, I have heard a woman abhorrently criticising men who are shorter than her; i.e. she would never date a “dwarf” (her words).

I asked, “How short is he?”
“Oh, about 1.7…” was her reply. (She is 1.9m tall, by the way.)

A “dwarf” at 1.7m? Naturally, I compared myself to that towering figure. I am 1.6m. Okay, wait. More precisely, I am 1.57m. I try to “elevate” and cheat myself of those 3 centimetres. No ones know, right? Another frail attempt of mine to boost an ego. Deflated? Perhaps, if you insist.

Then I think of the insidiousness of her joke and the jokes we tell — short jokes, fat jokes, thin jokes, ugly jokes, sissy jokes, gay jokes, blonde jokes, bloke jokes, ah beng and ah lian jokes, mat and mina jokes, bayee what colour jokes, some of which I had been guilty of participating just to feel belonged in the group. Yet these jokes are based on perceptions, often poisoned by prejudices of a certain nature and perpetuated by society and family.

Perceptions are labels.
A label is a name.
People are identified by names, often not by volition of their own.

Paradoxically, the most politically-correct terms hurt even more. I’m short, and that’s a fact. I don’t feel offended when people say I’m short. But when words such as “dwarf”, “midget”, “vertically-challenged” come into the context, I know it is an insulting veneer brimming with deep-seated prejudices. Today, I turn it around and convince myself that it is in my DNA or genes to “look up” to people. Anatomically speaking, I am literally looking up. So, I interpret my height symbolically, and joke that I show respect wherever I go in an attempt to feel better.

Coincidentally, my Chinese name is 周敬民 (with 周 interpreted as “thoughtful” in 周道; with 敬 as “respect” in 尊敬 — or “hormat”/”salute” in the Malay language; and 民 as “people” in 人民). I am blessed with a Chinese name that expects me to behave decently towards people. It becomes an idealised vision of my identity that is always in formation.

This does not mean I am inoculated from henceforth. I am still learning not to be offended and, by logical and somatic deduction, not to offend others. Indeed, the former is very difficult to do.

If adults go through them constantly, children by far suffer even more. They are at the worst end of taking the brunt. But this sort of protection is unnecessary if we only learn to love one another, show some compassion and empathy, and have respect for each other’s feelings. Again, I emphasise, both good and bad feelings. You can’t tell a child, “Be strong. Stop crying. Be a man. You know better than to do this…” because those reinforce negative stereotypes and trivialise “negative” emotions. Emotions have no value. Emotions don’t fit into “positive” or “negative” ones. They just are.

When someone tells another, “Stop being so negative”, we have already done a performative act (in John Austin’s term); we have already labelled that person as negative in this example, even if that person did not think of herself/himself as being negative. Like a priest saying, “I bless you”, the verb “bless” performs the action of blessing. Like a traditional male-female marriage that is to be solemnised in the words “I pronounce you husband and wife”, the verb “pronounce” performs the sacred action of making the union legal. So in these instances, saying something is equivalent to materialising that action and then making it somewhat temporally permanent. Likewise, expectations and labels stick. When we say “you are (this)”, “you are (that)”, these labels fossilise and entrench themselves deeply in the emotional bedrock of one’s identity.

We can have an opinion of others. We often do. In fact, we should. But when those opinions come not from a place of love, respect and compassion, they hurt deeply. And when we hurt, please don’t dismiss our feelings as unimportant or us as immature. Showing emotions is not a sign of weakness. And showing vulnerabilities do not make us any less of a human.

On this International Women’s Day (8th March 2013), I take this opportunity to salute all women, and men who love and respect women. I salute my mom for singlehandedly taking care of the family when my dad passed on when I was 13 years old. My mom’s faith and my late dad’s compassion make me who I am today. Also, I salute the people behind this video “Labels that stick” who know that all of us, especially children, need a healthy dose of validation.