s of late, the box and I are over. Fin, kaput, no longer an item. We had a good run, a glorified jazz square routine, if you will. But after years as a power duo, we bid our adieus. We had inevitably outgrown each other.
The aforementioned dance began in fifth grade. As a blissfully unaware, glasses-wearing, headgear-owning, Junie B. Jones-reading eleven-year-old, I had no idea I was uncool. I was far more concerned with keeping my pencil bag stocked with mechanical pencils (Sumo Grip, hello!) and multi-colored ballpoint pens. But then it happened — a divide of cool versus smart parted the sea of fifth graders, and I felt like I had to decide between the two. From then on, the sneaky, subtle pressure to fit inside a box persisted. Even while pursuing a career, I felt the need to choose just one strength and run with it. But what’s so wrong with pursuing business and being a creative, with being cool and having an incredibly versatile pencil bag? Isn’t there room for both?
The box is an algorithmic way of understanding people. We can try to fit in (even subconsciously) by way of labels like smart, pretty, female, male, intense, creative, anxious, depressed — the list is infinite. But the catch is: No one fits inside just one box. No one fits inside just two, or even three! We know this. We prove this as individuals. To be defined by a single characteristic or stereotype, or denied an inherent complexity, is annoying at best, and limiting, disheartening and damaging at worst. And yet, the general expectation to rearrange complexities, identifiers and roles into a perfectly arranged Rubik’s Cube still prevails in popular culture. I even catch myself doing it, with full knowledge that I shouldn’t. Why?
In search of an explanation, I reached out to psychotherapist and TEDx alum Amy Morin. Author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, Morin is an expert in overcoming challenges — especially when it comes to identity. I delivered my box spiel to the expert, then asked for her two cents.
“One of the big reasons we try to place people [in boxes] is because our brains are wired to look for shortcuts,” she tells me. “It’s a way to help us get through life.” She lists parallel examples, such as our instinct to categorize foods by healthiness and cars by make — it’s an approach to getting through the day without having to over-analyze every detail. “But when we try to sort people, we run into problems. We forget that human beings don’t fit into nice, neat categories.”
The issue is twofold. It relates to self-identification and how we identify others. “Often, identity struggles are a reaction to how we believe others perceive us.” Morin refers to a study that showed girls perform lower on tests when complimented on their appearance. This implies that a focus on attractiveness takes away from cognitive performance. Why can’t the two co-exist without conflict? “We grow up with certain ideas of who we are based on what society, our parents and our peers tell us. Naturally, with some self-reflection, we start to wonder who we really are and if we can grow beyond these roles.”
So how can we avoid the boxed-in mindset? How do we shed the associations — of the Excel-buried analyst, the struggling creative, the anxiety-riddled twenty-something, the pencil-coveting fifth grader — for ourselves and for others? “I think a major part of it is taking a step back and asking: What are some ways my personality is dual?” Morin says. She offers an example: “There are so many tests that will place you as an introvert or extrovert, but more often than not, you’re a combination of the two.”
After reflecting on Morin’s words, I wrote a note to myself: “I am anxious and relaxed, pensive and lighthearted, creative and analytical.” Finding the contradictions within each of my characteristics made me more willing to fully own them individually and as a whole. Amy adds that this is why we can click with more than one type of person or play more than one role at a time. For example, it may seem overwhelming to play daughter, sister, friend, lover and employee all at once, but by accepting each of these roles as part the full self rather than distinct personas, we can cut the endless wardrobe changes (sometimes even literally) and take solace in the fact that we are not actually chameleons/frauds/sociopaths, just whole and complicated beings.
Being human means having the ability to experience a wide range of emotions, so it’s natural that our complexities are highlighted in different ways depending on who we’re with. In fact, the capacity to connect with various individuals authentically is a likely indicator of compassion. And ultimately, isn’t that what our world needs more of?
In an effort to break down the box, Morin outlines four steps in letting go of a mold that limits our perceptions of ourselves and others:
1. Notice when you’re using a box.
“Whether you’re talking about yourself or someone else, try to pay attention to identifiers and how they’re being used. Ask yourself: What do I identify with that doesn’t necessarily identify me? I even try to tell parents to be careful with labels, even positive ones like ‘you’re so pretty,’ or ‘you’re so smart.’ Not only do the labels affect your perception of that person, but [they] also affect that person’s own [perception of him or herself].”
2. Identify the complexity within labels.
“See if you can find the complexity in the label at use. For example, there are infinite types of intelligence. When someone says, ‘Oh, that person is SO smart,’ the implication is that there is a smart box, and there is a not smart box. There are smart artists, smart musicians, smart doctors, smart teachers, and there is more than one way to embody a certain characteristic.”
3. Externalize what doesn’t serve you.
“There’s no reason to let a label define you or place you if it doesn’t serve you. Instead of saying, ‘I’m anxious,’ refer to the anxiety. For example: ‘The anxiety makes it hard for me to speak up in meetings,’ or, ‘The depression I experience can make it hard for me to be as ambitious as I would like.’ These things are not you — they’re just experiences [you have].”
4. Universalize it.
“We all face similar challenges. Everyone is fighting their own battle, and everyone has strengths and weakness. The fight against generalizations and being placed in a box is universal — no matter the subject. Being mindful of that, approaching the world with compassion and consideration for the big picture and accepting duality in all shapes and forms is, by itself, a huge step forward.”
Perhaps the parts of people that don’t fit inside a box are actually the pieces that enable connection, compassion and purpose. And perhaps only by recognizing and attempting to let go of pressures to fit in — both for ourselves and others — can that specific complexity exist, authenticity develop and the kid with a well-curated but mixed bag of tools thrive.
Megan O’Sullivan is an associate editor at Lonny, an online publication featuring accessible design, art, and interiors.
Illustrations by Amber Vittoria; @amber_vittoria.