What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. William Shakespeare
My husband and I just returned from an island hopping trip to the Mediterranean in celebration of our 20th anniversary. On our trip, we stopped in Dubrovnik, Croatia and toured their ancient walled city. Busy with merchants, musicians, and tourists, the air was saturated with lavender, olive oil and rose water, and fish. We were transported to medieval times. Oh! What a place!
One of the most interesting things I learned about their earlier culture, was how they identified women’s’ status. Years ago, a woman’s only hope of happiness was in marriage and bearing children. She couldn’t own property, manage her own money, or walk by herself through the city without an escort. With these restrictive rules in place, it was very important to be able to identify a woman’s status quickly. So, they developed outward identifiers- labels- to aid in the process.
These dolls represent traditional dress of women in the 16,17, and 18th centuries. A woman seen wearing a white hat was married and off the market. A woman wearing a black hat with a cross was a widow and available given the condition of timing. The woman who wore a blue ringed hat was young and available. A woman wearing a red ringed hat was older and still waiting.
Honestly, can you imagine the process of identifying yourself, your relationship status, your lot in life every day by the hat you wore? I guess we still do this in minimal ways by wearing a ring on our finger or selecting “In a Relationship” on Facebook. But I wonder if women of the past ever wanted to scream out, “I’m more than the Hat on my Head!”
We humans love a good label. We use identifiers all the time- foody, computer geek, hippy, cougar, blue collar, millennial, rich kid, athlete, band geek, old maid, evangelical, Lutheran, republican, democrat, conservative, thug, liberal, stay-at-home-mom, tiger mom, dance mom, etc etc etc.
Finding labels for ourselves and others is actually a very natural thing for humans to do. It’s a cognitive process that helps the brain quickly categorize new information and file it away.
Assimilation and Accommodation
The well-known child psychologist, Jean Piaget coined the word assimilation to mean the modification of new information to make it fit into an existing schema. This is a first step in cognitive development. A 2 year old child may have a kiwi for the first time and can easily assimilate this kiwi-eating experience with the knowledge he already possesses that fruit is sweet. We make sense of other people compared to what we already know. We assimilate the information about other people into our existing schemas and we categorize them like so.
But there is a further step of cognitive development Piaget noticed while studying children, and it is called accommodation. Accommodation is more of a mind bending process. It requires the modification of the schema to fit new evidences and experiences. In essence, the child’s internal world must accommodate itself to new, and possibly contradictory information that the outside world presents. If the child is presented with a lemon that looks like a fruit and is called a fruit, he must make room for the fact that it is sour, not sweet. This new information makes him think differently about fruit in general. What he thought he had all figured out, was not completely true. There was more to it.
Accommodation is a step of maturity.
Labeling people and ourselves is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just a natural thing. The early Croations did what was expedient for their time, values and culture. The brain, in its earliest stages of development assimilated new information into labeled categories to help with understanding. This comes naturally. But to stay at this primitive level of understanding keeps us childish.
Expanding our understanding by the process of accommodation, requires us to make room for people who don’t fit the mold, or stereotypes that don’t hold true, or things like forgiveness and second chances and complicated processes like grace.
Maturity requires us to make accommodations for the lemon in our life. True, it’s not sweet and I can’t eat it like I eat other fruit, but here it is. What am I going to do with it?
If you’re single and you don’t want to be, you may naturally label this as a bad thing. Instead, use your higher cognitive processes and make that lemon take on a new meaning. Explore all the possibilities that the lemon gives you.
If you compare yourself to other people, falling somewhere above them or below them, choose the process of accommodation to give yourself a higher meaning than mere labels and identifiers could supply. Refuse the comparison trap, and replace it with self-acceptance.
Are you tired of the way you see yourself, or how other people see you? Then maybe it’s time to re-invent, re-prioritize, re-discover the real you.