Anxious self-identification: a personal reflection on identity labels

As I moved from school to university and slowly dragged myself into adulthood, labels – self-definitions or professional diagnoses – have kept me anchored to identities and to communities when I would have otherwise drifted. They helped me make sense of who I am, and they gave me some sense of purpose when I was in a very low place. As life has gotten in the way and I’ve slowly faded out of many communities and even, sadly, some close friendships, I have found myself problematising my relationship with labels: how they impact upon my sense of self, my self-esteem and my happiness, and not always in a positive way.

I want to preface this by saying that it has been life-saving for me to have a language to describe many of my experiences of misogyny, ableism, and biphobia, and to have access to communities who ‘get it’. Several years ago now, in a women’s self-help group on Facebook I wrote asking for help after I lost the ability to speak and had hidden for hours in the dark. There’s a name for that, one woman kindly wrote. It’s a meltdown. Have you considered you might be autistic? I thought only men could be that, I remember thinking. These initial supportive and inclusive interactions sent me down the rabbit hole which eventually led to a professional diagnosis, access to online communities and people who understood what was happening to me. It was amazing.

I remember then, each new Facebook post in our women’s and non-binary autism group would be “does anyone else get ___?” and a chorus of “omg! me too!” would follow. It was great for my self-esteem because it meant I wasn’t weird. My autistic ass struggled with face-to-face and group socialising, and this was the next best thing. Does anyone else struggle to make eye contact? Does anyone else feel like they walk funny? Does anyone else cut the crusts off their bread because they don’t like the mouthfeel?

I’m still guilty of this now. Everything I experience I can, in some way, cleverly link back to my autism. It makes sense I’d react that way, or think that way, because I’m autistic. I read this one article, and it says autistic people are more likely to do this, or that, so I guess that means I must do it too. And when I make that link in my head, a wave of calm washes over me, and the world and my place therein makes sense again.

It’s life-affirming to be able to make these links, to understand one’s condition, and to relate to other people with the same experiences as you. And it is not simply a social bonding exercise: self-identification and forming communities around identity labels can be a crucial first step in any grassroots activist organising. How can you fight for your collective rights if you aren’t really sure you’re a valid member of that group? If you can’t identify the defining characteristics of your struggle?

I think there came a point where the self-validation I got from identity labels became a bit toxic to me. This constant anxious search to link experiences to feelings to identities to collective experience is exhausting; it is overthinking, and it is unhealthy, and for me personally it was a sign of my discontent with my life. After reflecting on past interactions, I wonder if I would play up my more stereotypical autistic traits in conversation to vibe better with members of the community, or, worse, use them as an excuse not to learn and grow as a person. In 2016 Social Justice Twitter, every day was a new line in the sand, a new cancelled individual, a new abuser using their platform to manipulate and silence vulnerable individuals. I was in the thick of it, embracing my naturally autistic black and white thinking, keen to demarcate ‘us’ and ‘them’. And during those years when I was at my unhappiest, I was also mean and uncharitable in countless many interactions with people both online and off, and burnt many, many bridges due to my inherent (and therefore, somehow, excusable) inflexibility. I cringe to look back at it.

I am profoundly interested in how people produce themselves out of the words they speak, the words they use to describe themselves, and out of the interactions other people have with what you present to them. I have no idea how I come across to people these days, but what troubles me is that I seem to remember feeling more secure in myself back when I had a string of labels at the front of my mind when I described myself. Even though at the time that was all I really had to cling on to, when I was mean, quick to cut people out, directionless, and felt that coping mechanisms like mindfulness, CBT, habit trackers and grounding exercises were all somehow an affront to my identity.

I’m at a point where I’m questioning: how do I grow my self-esteem and self-confidence so that I am my own independent self, informed by these facets of my identity but not a sum of them? Am I wrong to want to do this – is it a sign of privilege that I can countenance a life that is independent in some way from this web of descriptors? Is my slowly drifting away from them a sign that I’m moving to the right as I get older? And finally, how do I write and create unapologetically, and in so doing, create/produce myself?

I’m happy to be working on my relationship with these facets of my identity. After moving to a new city 6 months ago, identity labels have been the main way I’ve found new people to connect with, and it’s been wonderful, enriching, and healthy. And beyond that, through writing and other creative pursuits, I’ve finally been taking the time to explore and learn who, exactly, I am.

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