Labels, nick names, pet names, and icons—those small descriptions identifying someone’s perception of you, or the way in which you identify your perception of someone else
Okay, I can hear you all going, “Huh?”
Did you ever meet someone and say to yourself after speaking with them for a few minutes, “Man, he’s a real techno-geek…”, or “Wow, she’s a real airhead…”? Well, those are both examples of labeling or assigning icons to someone based on your perceptions.
And before you start telling yourself that you would never do something like that, think back to your own childhood and your own relationships with your family…uh-huh, that’s right. Everyone does it, even your own parents and siblings. What were you? “Little Troublemaker”? “Little Man”? or “Maybe Dad’s Little Princess”?
That was my icon/label, which probably was fine up until I reached the age of about six, from then on it didn’t fit, but my parents never noticed, and I’ve been fighting against their mindset and label ever since.
Read on and maybe you’ll understand a little more…
* * *
As my brothers and I came back together to take care of my father, during my mother’s illness, I found that the familial patterns they tried to reintroduce just didn’t fit. You see, once I reached puberty, I was never comfortable with my family. It seemed as if they were always expecting someone else—someone more “traditional”, more “dutiful”, more “amenable”, and someone more “pliable”. Instead, they got me (whatever that was).
Because I was uncomfortable with the “roles” they had devised for me, I left home quite willingly as soon as I could (which means as soon as I could escape to college and away from parental controls). From then on, I only made brief forays into the world of family—weddings, funerals, Christmas, and an occasional Thanksgiving. Each time I went home with the hope that it would be different, and each time I was disappointed and frustrated. (Talk about being a slow learner;-)
After every short exposure into the familial experience, I would still find my father thinking of me as his “little princess”, my mother trying to turn me into a “mini-her”, my oldest brother trying to play macho-protector (“my hero”), and the middle child (my other brother)—unsure of his own role—convinced that I (like all women) should be the epitome of the 50’s woman—a combination of the Stepford wives and the mother from the Donna Reed show.
Every time I left one of those family gatherings it would take me several days to work through the anger, disappointment, and frustration, which left me jittery and stressed, with a headache and upset stomach.
Why couldn’t they just see me for who I was? Why did they continually try to push me into some ridiculous, outmoded (and in some instances, not even close) mold or make we wear some outrageous label that didn’t even come close to describing who I really was?
I had never been a traditional female, so my middle brother’s attempts to make me fit his ideal of the typically, traditional female and their roles in society and the family always frustrated and angered me. But since I saw that he did that with every female, I didn’t take it completely personally, so it didn’t bother me nearly as much as my parents’ labeling did. The same was true of my oldest brother. He felt (and still does) that his machismo and bravado were the way to win women’s attention and affection, and once “won over” they were to be protected from everyone else. This included mothers and sisters. Therefore, this was another labeling that I could more or less ignore, since it was applied to all females and not just me.
No, it was the labels directed solely at me that troubled me the most, and filled me with such frustration and anger.
My mother’s continued attempts to turn me into a miniature of herself probably angered me the most. Although we shared some similarities in physical features (short, stocky—what some might call dumpy—with reddish, blonde hair), our personalities were complete opposites. Yet, no matter how much I tried to make her see this, she absolutely refused to recognize me as an individual. (See the entry, “Killjoy”, to understand a little more about my mother’s personality traits.)
The more she held on to this icon, this label, this perception of me, the less I wanted to visit. I wasn’t that person, and I was tired of trying to pretend that I was. If my parents couldn’t accept me for what and who I was, then I didn’t want to see them.
I can see now that my father never fully understood why I cut myself off from the family, but has merely assigned that period to “the troublesome growing up period” I was going through. (He doesn’t seem to notice, or maybe he just doesn’t want to, that this period lasted for nearly twenty years.)
* * *
When I met my future husband’s family, they had no expectations of who or what I was. So, there were no “icons” or molds that I had to fill—other than that of “woman my son loves”. And since that icon came easily, we all got along wonderfully. We began spending all our holidays with his family, or at least as many as possible. Why? Because I didn’t have to be someone I wasn’t, and neither did Dale. His parents hadn’t assigned a role to Dale other than “youngest child”, and since that defined him, as well as his actual position within the family, it was also an easy one for him to “live up to”.
Visiting with his family was a wonderful release. There were no two-day decompression periods. No anger submerged inside like landmines, ready to explode at any moment, but unseen by those who unexpectedly triggered them. It was just a joyous time of friends gathering, talking, playing board or card games, laughing, having a good time, then going our separate ways again. His parents and family simply accepted me for who I was (although my father-in-law did have a tough time getting my first name right), but their only label was “youngest son’s wife”, which allowed me to be whomever and whatever I wanted to be.
As for my family, well, it never improved. Even after getting married, they still tried to fit me into their old molds. It didn’t seem to matter how much I had changed or grown, or how many years had passed. None of them could seem to move beyond the old labels. After several years of poor interactions with my family, my spouse even came to agree that it just wasn’t worth all the aggravation.
And it wasn’t just me who was being given these badly fitting labels. Because my mother kept insisting on trying to make me into a miniature of herself, she tried to assign an icon of “miniature daddy” to my husband. Although quiet like my father, my husband is not really that much like my father; in fact, I think they’re really quite different. My father was more of a man of action, while my husband is a man of study. My husband prefers to read and study and think about a task or problem before actually doing something. Now, that’s not to say that my dad didn’t think or plan what he was going to do, but he was more prone to simply dive in and give an idea a try, while my husband will study the idea from every possible angle first.
When my mom died, my husband and I had been married nearly twenty years, and my family and I were almost completely estranged. I had tried so many times to reconcile, but my parents (my mother especially) wouldn’t, or couldn’t, move beyond their originally labeling of me, so I chose to stay away most of the time.
At my mother’s funeral, however, there was a slight shift—not much, but a little. I realized that it had been primarily my mother’s influence that had kept the original labels in place. Now, without my mother there to enforce the labeling, my brothers, but especially my father, were willing to let me move beyond my original icon to something a little closer to who I was then.
It wasn’t perfect, and we still had a long way to go, but it was a welcomed, and long overdue, adjustment to their understanding of just who and what I was (and am). It’s been nearly seven years since my mother’s death, and my dad came pretty close to accepting me for who I am before he died. Because I no longer care to fit any preconceived notions of who I am or what I’m about, we actually argued and verbally sparred, and that was okay. I think my dad actually enjoyed this sometimes, because it helped keep him feeling young. After all, if you know everything, and everyone always agrees with you, then there’s no more learning, and without learning, what’s the point?
So, I kept my father guessing, and sometimes myself, as I shifted my role as I saw fit. And since neither of us never knew from moment to moment who I was going to be or what I was going to do, it became very difficult to assign me an icon, because it’s hard to give a name to a moving target.
(For more information about icons and families, see the book, Michael on Life and Relationships.)