Opinion: How labeling myself held me back

When people asked me what I was up to, I could no longer answer, “I’m doing gymnastics,” which had been my answer since I was 5 years old. Without the label “gymnast,” I did not know who I was. (Unsplash)

I still remember my heart dropping to my toes as my parents broke the news.

“We’re moving,” they told me plainly.  

My 15-year-old self was perfectly happy with my life at the time. I was in the middle of my sophomore year of high school, I had a close-knit group of friends and most importantly to me at the time: I was a gymnast. 

The move would fall in the middle of my competition season and it would likely be hard for me to join a new gym in the city we were moving to. Being a gymnast was a core part of my identity. It was how I introduced myself to everyone, it was my “fun fact” I shared in get-to-know-you games and it was where I found most of my confidence.

The idea of having this part of myself so abruptly ripped from my life was hard to comprehend.

Once my family had moved and I could no longer call myself a gymnast, I slipped slowly into a major identity crisis. It wasn’t a crisis where I bought a whole new wardrobe or changed my taste in movies, but one which plummeted me into a depression. I went to school, came home, immediately got in bed, woke up to eat and went back to sleep. I repeated this cycle for the next year of my life.

When people asked me what I was up to, I could no longer answer, “I’m doing gymnastics,” which had been my answer since I was 5 years old. Without the label “gymnast,” I did not know who I was.

So I quickly slipped into a new label: the “new kid.” I took this one on wholeheartedly and I did exactly what the “new kid” should.

I isolated myself, ate lunch in the bathroom for a week or so, hid in the back of the classroom and cried on the way home from school.

Depressing, I know. But at the time, this was my identity. I was not McKell, I was the “new kid.” I was the depressed kid. I piled on more and more negative labels as the years went on.

I am weak.

I am boring.

I am not good enough.

Some days I tried to counter the negative labels with positive ones. I was a daughter, a sister, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I was kind, I was smart, I was loyal. And although recognizing some of my strengths helped, I couldn’t shake the chains of the negative labels I had been accumulating for so long.

Years later as I transitioned into college life, I found myself questioning these labels and roles I identified with for the majority of my life.

When the layers of labels peeled back, who am I really?

For me, an answer came while sitting on the grass at a park near my home in Arizona in 2021.

I was reading a chapter from the book “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle, a book which has since transformed my life. 

“The ultimate truth of who you are is not I am this or I am that, but I Am,” Tolle wrote. 

The sentence stopped me in my tracks.  

I read it over and over as I realized this was one of those “aha moments” Oprah always talks about. 

Who I was, was not the labels I had been placing on myself all those years. The magic of my worth was simply that I existed, and that I had the ability to breathe, live and learn. 

This epiphany catapulted a journey of self-discovery, self-love and growth. As I kept this nugget of wisdom tucked away in my back pocket, I began to notice how often I let these labels control my life and how often they stopped me from trying new things.

I am bad at math.

I am not a good runner. 

I am so emotional.

I am not good at communicating.

I am not creative enough.

The voices of self-doubt and hesitation seemed to have a permanent residence in the back of my head, controlling what I was capable of and reminding me what I lacked. 

Labels can be helpful for some people, but in my case, I was misunderstanding them for identity.

This tendency to label myself quietly blurred the lines between reality and fiction. I was making decisions and basing my self-esteem on these labels, rather than having an understanding of my unwavering worth as a human.

Every Sunday at church growing up I echoed the voices of other young girls around me, “We are daughters of our Heavenly Father, who loves us and we love him.” 

This sentence always brought me peace as a teenager. I understood that no matter what, I was a daughter of God and He loved me. I always believed what I was saying, but I didn’t fully understand this truth until years later following my awakening.

God loved me for my essence, not because of my degree, my ability to do geometry, or run a marathon. He didn’t care who I was or what I did, He simply loved me because I existed. This truth brings me incredible peace.

So while I understand the urge to constantly define ourselves, I believe peeling off our labels and being brave enough to stare straight in the face of our most vulnerable and truest selfs, is a magical part of life. I believe this rawness is what connects us all as humans and that beneath all the labels, we are souls with infinite and unchanging worth.

I still have to fight back the labels that subconsciously tell me who I am and who I am not every single day. However, I am grateful to now understand that I am worth more than the labels I let define me for so long.

“You realize your true identity as consciousness itself, rather than what consciousness has identified with. That’s the peace of God. The ultimate truth of who you are is not I am this or I am that, but I Am.”


– McKell Park

Senior Reporter

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