Unstick that Label

Confession: I used to be a personality test junkie.

I’ve always been fascinated by personality types. I read my first personality psychology book when I was in middle school. As someone who always felt a little different, I craved the chance to understand myself and the people around me. I knew there was power in knowing my own strengths and weaknesses and how other people perceived me.

In high school, I got sucked into taking online personality tests, ranging from serious to fluffy, but even the light-hearted ones had some legitimate insight. Sometimes the results were so accurate, it was a little eerie. I felt understood. I felt seen.

Over the years, I’ve watched aspects of personality psychology enter the public consciousness—the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Enneagram, the DISC profile. They’ve moved out of the realm of psychological research and into the workplace.

At first, I celebrated the use of these tools. After all, doesn’t society benefit when we better understand ourselves and the people around us? But then I started to notice something—I saw people making assumptions based on results.

“Oh you must hate details,” someone told me. (Not true.)

“So that means you don’t like to talk to people, huh?” someone else remarked. (Not true.)

I reached a point where I stopped sharing my results in professional settings, even if asked, especially since I often found myself in educational programs and workplaces where my personality type was uncommon. Instead of providing insight into my personality, I saw how my results encouraged people to stick a label on me and shove me into a box. A series of letters or colors or numbers allowed other people to skip the work of getting to know me as a complex human being and gave them permission to pretend they already did.

The truth is, personality test results can provide a lot of insight. But there are a lot of things they can’t tell you.

My results can’t tell you that I’m smart and I work hard at everything I do. They can’t tell you that although I’m creative, I’m also remarkably logical and objective. They can’t tell you that I’m comfortable on a stage because I started acting when I was eight or that I have a master’s degree in management. They can’t tell you that I was on the math team in high school (I don’t even like math) or that 90% of the messages written in my high school yearbooks talk about how nice I was. (True story. I just found my yearbooks the other day.)

I am not one set of characteristics. Who I am is both innate and learned. I’ve been shaped by my experiences and my choices, driven by the traits I value. I change, I adapt, I become the person I want to be. I’m the one who decides who I am and who I will be, not a test, and certainly not other people.

So you can keep your labels. They don’t stick to me any more.

The Day the Killing Stopped

I used to be a killer.

It’s hard for me to admit that. I never wanted to be a killer. But it just kept happening. Things kept dying in spite of my best efforts. And by things, I mean plants.

The first time it happened, the victim was a healthy aloe vera plant. It wasn’t sickly. It wasn’t circling the drain. I just happened to notice a few bugs in the soil, so I stuck the plant outside, hoping the critters would find a better place to call home.

Unfortunately, the temperature dipped below freezing that night. Such is life in the NC mountains (where I was in college at the time). The next morning I discovered the limp corpse of my aloe vera plant. Cause of death: freezing.

But that was a fluke, right? A blip. Not entirely my fault. Up until that point, the aloe vera plant had been totally alive. So okay, an accident. It happens.

I don’t fully remember the next plant, but I think it was a casualty of a long-distance move, too much time spent in a hot car. And it was followed by a long string of slowly dying plants.

I didn’t get it. I followed the instructions that came with the plants. I did exactly as they directed. Why were the plants always dying under my care? I’ve always loved nature. I was the kid who grew up outside, playing in the dirt and climbing trees. I felt at peace lying in the grass, staring up at the sky. Why was nature rebelling against me?

Then. One day. Something changed.

It was a gray fall day when my husband and I were wandering around the garden section at Lowe’s. A shelf full of small purple plants caught my eye. They weren’t in great shape, but I recognized them, vaguely recalling them gracing the yard of a childhood home. An employee saw me looking at the purple heart plants and called over to tell me they were fifty percent off.

My husband wandered over to me. “We can get one if you want.”

“I don’t know . . .” Images of previous victims flashed through my mind.

“Hey, at least it’s already half dead, so you won’t feel bad if you kill it.”

My husband’s confidence in me was overwhelming. We bought a plant.

I took home the tiny little sprout and separated out the dead portions, putting what was left in a new pot with fresh soil.

“Please don’t die,” I whispered as I gave it a good drink of water, promising it I’d do whatever I could to give it a fighting chance.

And something amazing happened. The plant lived. Not only did it live, it thrived, growing rapidly and producing so many tendrils, I’ve made half a dozen more plants from cuttings.

What happened? It wasn’t that this half-dead plant had a miraculous ability to live (although I’m nearly convinced it’s immortal). Something powerful changed in me: I stopped following the instructions.

Once I started doing my own research online, I realized how wrong the instructions that come with each plant actually were. One told me to give the plant a cup of water every week. But here’s what I later learned: the amount of water a plant needs depends on the temperature, the humidity of the air, and the water retention of the soil, just to name a few factors. So by following the directions with all the other plants, carefully doing exactly as they instructed, I was destroying my plants.

I’m happy to report that since the day I got the purple heart plant, I have managed to nurture not only that plant and all its descendants, but five other plants as well.

So if you want to know how to keep something alive, whether it’s a plant or a relationship, here’s my advice: throw away the instructions.

This is what a non-dead, very happy, sunlight-loving purple heart plant looks like.