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.