Why I Love Labels, Part 3

I truly love labels, but I also acknowledge that labeling a child can cause the child to self-limit. To combat this, I use two cool exercises with my students. I also use these exercises when I’m feeling limited, and they help me overcome self-stigma and stagnation.

The I Can List

A common exercise to improve self-estem in students with disabilities, diseases, or differences involves listing the things that the student can do despite or because of her diagnosis. When I use this exercise, I ask my students to begin by very specifically describing their illness. I’ve found that students with mental illness sometimes believe that they are limited in ways other than those included in their diagnosis simply because they are unclear about what their diagnosis really means.

After each student has identified and described her diagnosis, I have her list the things she can do in spite or because of her illness. It’s important to include personal things that are difficult or took a lot of work.

Child-Kiri would be in awe of the things I can do as an adult. I’d love to show her this I Can list:

I can…

live 3,000 miles away from my family and hometown
fly six hours to see my family
say “okay” and “I’m bored” without whispering or thinking “shut up”
sing onstage in front of tons of people
make new friends
spend the night away from my significant other without having unbearable separation anxiety
ride the subway UNDERGROUND and even in the dark!
wait calmly in a stalled elevator
navigate large crowds
etc.

Even if a student’s I Can list is very short, there’s merit in the exercise. Remember, it’s always amazingly beneficial to emphasize and reward partial successes. Also, have the student include accomplishments and abilities that aren’t directly related to her illness. For example, I can…

write pretty awesome fiction and creative nonfiction
sing
do the splits
etc.

Exploring Identity

The second exercise I use to help my students avoid self-limiting is an original activity I’ve yet to name. I love this exercise and use it all the time with students of all ages.

Step 1: Have each student make a list of ten (or whatever number is age-appropriate) of their most prominent traits. I like to have everyone write “I am:” at the top of the page. Be sure that each student includes both positive and negative traits. While some of the traits can be physical or external (I am beautiful or I am poor), most should focus on personality and ability (I am smart or I am bad at math).

Step 2: Ask each student to convince you, either orally or through an essay, that the traits they’ve listed do NOT in fact describe them at all.

Step 3: Have each student make a second list, this time of the traits they wish to embody. I call this the “ideal traits” list.

Step 4: Now ask each student to convince you that each trait on the list is NOT ideal.

Step 5: Have students revise their ideal traits list. You’d be surprised how often they convince themselves with their own arguments!

Step 6: Finally, have each student share an example of a time when s/he embodied each of her ideal traits. It’s important to end on a positive!

Much of what we think of as our “selves” seems to come from habit. We practice thinking of ourselves as smart or boring or disorganized, and we increasingly inhabit those labels. Labels are incredibly useful shorthand for complex realities, but they are not curses or life sentences. As the poet Dorothea Tanning said, “It’s hard to always be the same person.”