To be or… To BE? The Power of Labels

Studying foreign languages has been one of my more fruitful pursuits. Unlike many Americans my age, I was exposed to formal instruction in Spanish in the third grade through a pilot academic program. If I’m honest, I didn’t love it at the time. I kept thinking, “I’ll never use this.” Since that time I’ve formally and self-studied Spanish and French on and off for 30+ years. Studies have found that knowing more than one language offers a host of benefits, including improved decision-making and resistance to Alzheimer’s and dementia. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a novice with both languages. But I dutifully practice a little each day. Recently, I found this fascinating and eloquent summary comparing the two “be” verbs in Spanish. Yep, two. It turns out you can be something and you can BE something.

Ser versus Estar

The following is an article excerpt from Duolingo. I truncated it to illustrate my point, but I would encourage anyone interested in practicing a foreign language to check out Duolingo. It’s a fantastic, free tool that has an excellent online community.

One of the hardest things to learn about Spanish is the distinction between the verbs “ser” and “estar,” since in English they both mean “to be.”

“Ser” refers to what something is, while estar refers more to what something does. For example, “estoy enfermo” would mean “I am being sick” or “I am currently sick.” On the other hand “soy enfermo” translates to something closer to “I am a sick person” or “I am sickly.” Below are more examples:

Estar
                                                                        Ser

Estoy feliz = I am currently happy                        Soy feliz = I am happy by nature

Estoy cansada = I am currently tired                   Soy cansada = I am a tired person

Él está callado = He is being quiet                        Él es callado = He is introverted

You can think of “ser” as being equivalent to “equals.” Alternatively, you can think of “estar” as refering to a temporary condition, while “ser” frequently refers to a permanent condition. 

I love that there is a differentiation between the current state and the permanent condition. Like most languages, English only has one be verb. “I am happy,” could mean “I’m a happy person” or “I’m happy at the moment.” Spanish is so much more efficient in the distinction. But the real reason I’m excited about this distinction is because it makes me think about the words we use to describe our feelings and ourselves.

The Impact of Labels

Recognition and naming a feeling or behavior is a great way to begin the problem-solving process to overcome it. The practice is rooted in Buddhist traditions and has been proven effective in psychological studies. However, as in the Spanish separation of estar and ser, there must be a key differentiation between giving something a current state name and allowing it to slip into a permanent label. For instance, saying that we are “anxious about public speaking” can go from an acknowledgement of an emotional reaction to a labeled pattern of, “I am always anxious about public speaking.” The labeled pattern can then become quite limiting. “Oh no, I don’t speak in public; I’m far too anxious.”

I routinely fell into this labeling trap in my early adulthood. I’ll avoid the labeling details here, but I had much more fixed political views at 21 than I do at 43. I used to think silly thoughts like, “I can’t eat that or drive that car or shop in that store because I’m a [insert label].” As I have aged, I am happy to say that I have repeatedly challenged my labels. I’ll take running as a fairly innocuous example. I used to carry the moniker, “I am not a runner.” I would joke that I only ran if being chased or if I was being punished in sports (Coach: Take a lap, Gregory.). I eventually challenged the label that I was “not a runner.” In my early 30’s, I got back into recreational soccer. I started running to become more competitive in my league. A funny thing happened. I began to recognize running as a meditative and restorative force in addition to a pretty good way to build some midfield running capacity. Slowly, I dropped the label “I am not a runner” and started to accept that just maybe I am.

Interestingly, I have found that I can take it too far. I will readily admit that I’m a self-improvement junkie. Is that a label, Gregory? Take a lap! As I take in new information and accept new interests into my life, these new labels can also become burdensome. Over time, I started to describe myself as a runner. Last year, “I am a runner” became “I’m a marathon runner.” That meant that I upped my weekly running totals to 6 days and as many as 60 miles. I began to transfer my current state into a label. It gave way to things like, “I can’t go out to dinner because I’d miss my training run; and I can’t do that because I’m a marathon runner!” Granted, some of this was driven by necessity. I had specific marathons that I had signed up for and I’m not the kind of athlete that I can just show up and knock out 26 miles. But I think the message comes through. Labels can be limiting on both fronts. Labels can inhibit our development and they can box us into requirements.

As I grow, I’m trying to embrace estar in lieu of ser. I want to think about who I am currently without falling prey to the permanence of a label. Clearly, there are things that are woven into the fabric of my being. I stand for justice, equality, liberty, motherhood, and apple pie. And FC Barcelona… but I digress. Take a lap! As I’m getting older, I have fewer free moments and I don’t have time to paint myself into corners. I need to evaluate my labels from time to time and discard what isn’t serving me.

As I close, I’ll leave you with a couple of questions.

What are your labels? 

Are they limiting your progress or promoting a happier, healthier life? 

Is it possible to transition those limiting labels into current state assessments that have room for change?

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