My friend Lila and I had been trying to make plans for many months. But when the day came, I was feeling worn out and sick, and called to cancel. I spoke in stutters, I apologized, I was torn. I hate disappointing friends.
Lila sighed with restrained annoyance. “What’s your sign?” she asked.
I was stunned. I had hoped Lila would offer a friendly dose of “Are you okay?” But she didn’t. She blurted out, “Are you a Pisces?!”
“No.” I wasn’t enjoying this conversation.
“You’re a Gemini!” It sounded like an attack.
“No, I’m a Leo,” I said defensively.
“Really! You don’t seem like a Leo at all. I never would have guessed. So,” she concluded, “We’ll get together another night.”
I hung up feeling awful. Lila was hurt that I had cancelled; I felt misunderstood and ignored. We missed an opportunity to connect in a mutually caring way.
What is this compulsion we all have to use categories with each other?
What’s your sign? What’s your favorite kind of music? What car do you drive? Do you like Burning Man? These are some subtle and not so subtle ways to pigeonhole someone. A Prius means you lean to the vegan-loving left, a Hummer means the opposite. Right?
Categories can be useful—to help us makes sense of the chaos, both internal and external.
- Categories can help us understand how to best to approach each other. If you like alternative music, then I might approach you via counter-culture topics; and if your preference is show-tunes, then I would choose very different inroads. It helps to know these things! It saves time. As Elliot Aronson points out, categories can give us a “shorthand way of dealing with complex events,” and is an essential part of surviving and dealing with the day to day.
- Categories can help us contain our emotions. They can, as Lila attempted to do, help us NOT take things personally. If I had conveniently been a Pisces (apparently characterized by fickleness), then Lila could see my actions simply as part of my nature, rather than directly aimed at her. Also, the chaos of life can sometimes feel overwhelming. Being able to see it in an organized way, understanding the whys and wherefores, (whether accurate or not!) can provide relief from the anxiety.
- Categories can offer a lens with which to foster acceptance. That friend who spends inordinate amounts of time holed up in his RV: we might perceive him as avoidant, lazy or depressed. However, if we view him through an archetypal lens, we can perceive a hermit. Aha, so he likes it that way! And then his behavior becomes right on target, maybe even quaint.
Of course, psychologists are notorious for their use of categories. That’s what a diagnosis is. Mea culpa. We use the lens of a diagnosis to best understand and then treat specific behaviors and emotions.
But what of those times when we use categories to avoid connecting with each other and to avoid feelings that arise?
- We use categories (or stereotyping) as a way to stay separate from and unaffected by others. A variety of “isms:” racism, ageism, you-name-it… these are lazy ways to classify and dismiss people. It keeps us ignorant and disrespectful of the other. Even if our blanket assumptions are favorable (as with celebrities, clergy, or perhaps librarians), the person can feel burdened by the inaccurate attributions and his/her individuality gets erased.
- We create an US vs. THEM dynamic to distance ourselves from unpleasant traits: By placing others in a separate group (“They are fascists,” is an oft-heard accusation these days), we can feel better than the “bad” people over there. Then there is the false assumption that “my people are not capable of such bad behavior because we are in a different tribe.” Sigh. If only.
- We classify others as a way to detach from our feelings. To avoid feeling hurt by my actions, Lila put me in a dismissible category: a Pieces. She could then keep happy thoughts (about herself, about me, about our friendship). But in dismissing it, we both missed out on the authentic damage-and-repair that makes up the stuff of life.
- We put other people in a box as a way of dodging our responsibility. If I deem the other person “a bully,” then it’s easy to dismiss his words as “mean and meaningless.” When, in fact, he might have a point.
- We put ourselves in a box, as a means of cutting off. If I deem myself “a space cadet,” I can ignore the desperate longings, unease, and messages from my very core. Dangerous business.
The juice of life is found in experiencing the connection with self and with other, even if our logical mind protests. It’s messy. It takes time and attention. Categories can keep you on the periphery of meaningful human engagement, or they can serve to deepen your authentic, textured relationship to life. Which do you prefer?
Aronson, E. (2007). The social animal, 10th ed. New York City, N.Y.: Worth Publishers.
by Laura O’Loughlin, M.A.
Supervised by Susan Frankel, Ph.D. (Psy14552)