Day 421: Labeling, again.

On Day 147 (oh, those were the days!) I wrote a post called “Labeling.”  I just re-read that post, and it’s got some interesting stuff in it, plus photos of bunnies (and other spring-inspired images, too).

By “interesting stuff” I mean:

Wow!  I already wrote, there, things  I wanted to say today.

But I think I can find some new things to write about labeling, today, that MIGHT be helpful.

Who might it help?  Me. And maybe — if I’m lucky — you, too

That paragraph, above, reminds me of an anecdote, actually. It’s one I haven’t told here yet.

Years ago, I went to see the monologuist, Spalding Gray, whom I thought was a wonderful story-teller. He was doing a show, at the Brattle Cinema, called “Interviewing the Audience.”


(I found this image here.)

As people waited to enter the theater, Spalding Gray picked audience members out, and asked them if they would agree to being interviewed by him, on stage.

He didn’t pick me. I felt disappointed, I’m sure. And I probably applied some labels to myself, like these:

Unworthy. Unattractive. Not interesting.

My memory is I worked on letting go of those labels, which felt pretty familiar at the time.

Yes, most labels we apply to ourselves are familiar. That’s why they “stick.” And they’re often negative. That’s why “labeling” is in this list of automatic and unhelpful thoughts (also called “cognitive distortions”).

Anyway, back to that long-ago show, at the Brattle Theater.

My then-husband, Leon, and I sat down in the theater, and Leon left to get some refreshments. When he returned, Leon — who knew I really admired Spalding Gray and who also knew, I believe, my yearning to tell my stories — said this to me, “He is having trouble getting people to agree to go on stage. Why don’t you ask him?”

Now, that felt like a huge risk but, throughout my life, I have taken risks, when the potential pay-off seems huge.

I thought, “What do I have to lose?  It doesn’t hurt to ask!”

And those are often helpful things to say to myself, to this day.

So I went back out and approached Spalding Gray.  I said something like, “My husband said you were having some trouble getting people to interview, so I thought I would check to see if you needed anybody else.”

And Spalding Gray said ….

Who are you trying to help: You or me?

And there was something about that question that felt AWFUL, to me, in that moment. I felt like I had been …. unmasked, in a very unflattering way. I froze and replied, robotically, “That’s a good question.”  Spalding Gray then took out his notebook and asked me questions, but the “life” had gone out of me. I just wanted to get out of there. I have no memory of what I said, but I remember walking, dazed, back to my seat.

My memory, also, is that when he took the stage, he said something about feeling guilty.  I don’t know if that was related to our encounter. I’m not even sure I’m remembering that correctly.  In case you didn’t guess, he did not call me up to the stage.

And it took me a while to recover from that. I remember feeling depressed, self-judging, miserable …. for weeks.

I also remember telling that story to a few people, who labeled Mr. Gray in all sorts of ways. The label that sticks with me, right now, was “unkind.”

But why, oh why, did that encounter feel SO terrible to me? Why, oh why, did it take me so long to recover?

I think it was because of labels I immediately applied to myself, in the moment of that encounter.  Spalding Gray’s motives for what he said  — how I (or anybody else) might label HIM —   are NOT important, I’m realizing now.

If we try to guess somebody else’s motives, what are we doing?  It’s another, unhelpful cognitive distortion:  mind reading.

So labeling him, in any way, is neither helpful nor important. What’s important is this:  the labels I applied to myself, that day and for weeks after.

Spalding Gray didn’t knock the wind out of me.  My labels did.

Here are the labels I called myself, because of a one-sentence reaction I received, from an artist I admired:

Self-centered. Narcissistic. Selfish. Phony. Pretending to be focused on others’ needs when I’m REALLY just focused on my own.

Spalding Gray did not call me ANY of those things. He just asked a simple question.

And, I realize now, it’s the same question I  ask myself — in one way or another — whenever I make an intervention as a psychotherapist. It’s the same question I encourage interns to ask themselves, too:

Who is this for?  You or them?

And, if I let go of labels, that is a GREAT question.

So I would like to thank Spalding Gray, decades later. I’d like to forgive him AND me, right now.

May he rest in peace.

One thing that might help me, in my quest for peace? Letting go of labels.  Replacing them with acceptance. I shall try my best, from this day forth.

Thanks to story-tellers everywhere, imperfect as we may be. And to you — of course — for reading today.

Categories: inspiration, Nostalgia, personal growth | Tags: , , , , , | 41 Comments

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41 thoughts on “Day 421: Labeling, again.

  1. Wow, Ann. Celebrity is a heavy burden, and in your moment with Spaulding Gray, he allowed it to pull him down into a sinkhole of mean. I would have been as aghast at myself as you were if I had been the target of such a snarky line. Sometimes we just have to twist the traditional saying and believe: It’s not me, it’s you.

    • Thank you for your take on this, Mark. Every perspective helps. I can think of lots of explanations behind this encounter, but I will never know what was behind his response, or what his intent was. I can only guess. As always, the only person whose mind and heart I REALLY know is … me.

      • Indeed, Ann. I may have projected a bit too much of my interpretation onto his intent.

      • I very much appreciated the intent of your first comment, Mark. Yes, I’m guessing at that, too, but I think I have a pretty good idea about it.

  2. Debbie Terman

    That is an outrageous response from a publicly known figure! How about “Thanks for asking, but I’m all set” ? Forgive him, sure. But in answer to your question of why that encounter felt so terrible: it wasn’t all you, or even mostly you. That was an obnoxious answer he gave, whether or not it was on purpose.

  3. Wow — what an amazing post — I don’t have a lot of time to read it again but the depth of this post is incredible. Funny — I don’t have the same visceral reaction of the others — I think — when I remove my own labels and biases from the question that it is a really, really powerful question for me to look at

    And so true — it is the labels we paint ourselves with that hurt and hinder us the most — perhaps his question was just a normal, gut response he’s created for situations like that (I’m sure he gets many of them) or, perhaps in using your husband as the reason you were there, he decided to have a go at you — regardless — I love how you saw your labels as the problem!

    Wow!!!!!! Love this post.

  4. An amazing tale Ann, one which I’m glad you recovered from and let it help you to become a much better “therapist”. From the perspective of someone who detests labels of all kinds, I understand your desire to free yourself of them. (It’s damned hard work isn’t it?)
    I can see that as a public figure it was perhaps uncalled for, yet I wonder if his ‘snarky’ (can’t think of a better word) response didn’t in a harsh way help you to a greater understanding? Sorry – I’m out of syn today, so I hope this conveys what I’m trying to say. I think you were a trouper – we never get anywhere if we don’t put ourselves forward so I, personally believe, that your attempt to volunteer was, (if you must acquiesce to self serving) was for educational reasons.
    I refuse to read this a fourth time and try to re write it. Well done Ann and come again 🙂 Said with love and understanding.
    Blessings from an unsynced brain
    Susan x

  5. I loved this post very much! What a great example of how we take on so much more than what is said. It’s a great reminder that our own issues will color what we see and hear in the world, and that letting go of those issues/labels will help us be better people and live better lives. Love it!
    And, my guess as to why it stuck with you for so long is that it was a life lesson you had to learn. I’ve found that those encounters that really stick with me and leave me with that sick feeling in my stomach are the life lessons that I have to learn, and that have to be presented in such a way that they stay with me as I learn.
    Doesn’t make them easier to stomach, though! 🙂

  6. Great post.
    Several thoughts: I love the paradox of the question he asked because when he asked it of you, he was crossing a boundary and it was disrespectful. Implicit in his question was an odd kind of misplaced empathy. But we ask OURSELVES this,as you wrote, to create boundaries and make it possible to listen genuinely to others, and respond constructively.
    My understanding of labels is that they are like a batch of cupcakes, made from family recipes that are personalized further by our additional experiences of being shamed or humiliated, as well as being praised and rewarded: we gobble them up! internalized messages from others – unreliable identifiers, for sure, but familiar and in a way, less frightening sometimes, than not knowing who we are and how we should behave in some situations. They are in place to help construct defenses and create identity in the face of an unsympathetic and/or mirror-less world. The thing about them that’s kind of cool is their lack of reliability, or their plasticity, even though, they seem so substantial, in the moment.proof they really are not. – I don’t think they originate in us, thus, the confusion when they get called up in a situation like the one with Mr. Gray. It feels like he is applying the labels, because those labels were generated by you FROM messages or a lack of messages internalized and interpreted in more formative years. I’m quite sure I would have felt awful. I’m quite sure, afterwards, I would have wished I’d called him on it and handed his toxic little cupcake right back to him. But we also know that, he had a lethal recipe of his own, and that’s the saddest part of HIS story.

    • This comment was so full of amazing thoughts, I read it twice. Thank you, thank you. Also, I am definitely going to find a cupcake today. Love!

  7. Hi Ann … I read your whole post and then looked Spalding Gray up on Wikipedia because I didn’t think I’d ever heard of him. It turns out that I had read about him once in a newspaper article, but only because he’d thrown himself off the Staten Island ferry.

    I don’t know why he said what he did to you. It seems cruel. I mean, even if you wanted to participate for selfish reasons that would be perfectly fine, wouldn’t it? Maybe even better? It’s entertainment that he was offering, after all, not a soup kitchen. I wonder if he was in the grip of some awful depression that day, and whether he beat himself up after it as much as you did.

    I couldn’t watch more than a couple of minutes of his monologue. It didn’t hold my interest. But your posts always do. I’m sorry that this person you admired hurt you like that, but you made a post out of that that made me reflect on my own encounters with various people. And now I remember that something I said to someone could be taken two ways. I’m going to call her up and make sure that I didn’t accidentally hurt her.

    Now, here’s something humorous and random, to make you smile. 2Cellos performing AC/DC’s Thunderstruck in front of a Baroque theatre audience:

    • As always, I find your comment so illuminating and helpful. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for reading and writing as you do. Now, I have to go watch your gift of humor and randomness. Yay!

  8. Here’s the Youtube link for 2Cellos:

  9. Thank you for this powerful, thought-provoking, and enlightening post, Ann.

  10. Sometimes people are just plain rude! I cannot imagine why he would have acted in such a manner. You approached him quite humbly and not at all self centered. I think it was nice of you to offer to be interviewed and then, maybe he did feel a little guilty later. We will never know. But I have been there, like a deer in the headlights, when someone said something that I interpreted as very negative. Upon time passing, like you, I may say he was being a little pendantic. (It is giving me the red line, I mean, he was kind of being like a snobby professor-type.) Not sure how to spell it, sorry! We all need to put perspective and thought into our responses, trying not to be defensive. I could relate to the shutting down defensive mode, been there, done that! Smiles, Robin

  11. It was part of the performance. Once you’re in the theater, it’s on, baby! it’s why i prefer my performers to be two-dimensional. And hey, it’s OKAY to try to help yourself. The Puritan tiger crouched behind that witty repartee just makes me want to go punch a circa-1970s-New-England-Catholic now. Which means–myself. But I have since given up that kind of self-violence. Except when watching football.

  12. ” but I will never know what was behind his response, or what his intent was. I can only guess” I liked your reply to Mark. A wise man once said, “Take no offense.” Which to me means, give people the benefit of the doubt and assume they didn’t mean to hurt or offend you. Better way to live. Gail

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  14. I left your current post for this one, because the name Spalding Gray sounded familiar but I wasn’t sure he it was. He sounds like an ass. lol

    But in seriousness, he probably wanted to expose you. Wanting to expose someone isn’t necessarily a good or a bad thing (in fact I sort of lean towards good) because it sounds like this led to a lot of reflection for you and you in the long run benefited from the experience.

    From your point of view though you were nervous fan, approaching somebody who you admired. Afraid you would sound too anxious you coined it in a way you thought was neutral. But inside you weren’t neutral. You wanted to be interviewed by this person you admired. He saw through it. Not hard really because why would anyone come to his show just to casually go on stage because he was having trouble getting volunteers.

    As soon as he saw through it, the ball was in his court. He could expose you. Or he could realize that he had an admiring fan for whom it would mean a lot to get interviewed on stage and just say sure and make his fan happy.

    It’s funny we get made at people for revealing the truth. And that sometimes we don’t want to know the truth. Or at least have it out there as the classic man trap question “Do I look fat in this?” seems to indicate.

    Whether he was just trying to be provocative or was an ass the truth remains. You did really want to go up there because you thought it would be a wonderful experience. The fact that you write this blog means that you want people to know you. You want to know people. You want to engage and be engaged. There is nothing wrong with that pride because that pride is built on substance and you give back. You aren’t self-centered at all from what I can tell. At least no more than me for wanting to put my thoughts out into the world via my blog and hope that people like what I have to say. 🙂 It’s okay to want to speak and be heard as long as you remember to listen too. It’s clear that you do.

    • This may be one of my most favorite comments, ever. Really. As always, I learned a lot from you — from all the depth and insight you packed into this response. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for speaking and hearing as clearly and helpfully as you do.

      • You flatter me too much Ann. Which I secretly enjoy, but would rather the truth of that not be exposed. Thank you for your sincere compliments. I’m married in real life, but if your blog asked to marry my blog, my blog would say yes because your compliments make me feel all melty. lol I’m getting spoiled with these instant responses. 🙂

      • I am definitely more available for instant responses, these days, and, yes! My compliments are sincere. Also, my blog is flattered by your blog’s feelings.

      • lol Thank you for the smiles.

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