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I'm a poet! I'm an artist! I'm a writer!

A story about finding confidence through labels

Sometimes, labels are amazing! It means having a community, fitting in, or having the words to describe myself! This is a story about how I hesitated to use labels (like artist, writer, poet), and how embracing them has boosted my confidence and self-esteem.

an abstract drawing using oil pastels filled with swirls and swiggles
A part of a series titled: Lunch Break Nerves

A circle in a world of straight edges

I've often had people tell me that having labels means putting myself in a strict box. It reduces me to just the label and ignores the multifaceted and multidimensional person I am. Which, I can see the logic in that. I would hate to be labelled as just one particular thing. As a child, I was the quiet, shy one. It kind of became my identity and what others saw.

I remember writing essays in high school about the consequences of labels and how they can stereotype someone. It could mean forcing people to fit inside a square box, even if they were more of a circle. It was reducing someone to a characteristic, and not seeing the person as a whole. There's definitely some truth in that.

I wanted to avoid labels. To use a label meant to fit in while also being an outsider.

I realized just how much I was avoiding labels because I knew I was more of a circle in a world filled with straight edges. (There's a queer pun somewhere in there.) I certainly felt that labels used to describe me were not about fitting in, but about how much of an outsider I was. The shy and quiet label meant I was the weird one. I was the tomboy because I didn't dress in the conventional way girls were expected to. I was the smart one, which meant I was someone people could ask for help. I was the bookworm, the band geek and the nerd. I was the Asian kid which meant I was, well... Asian. Everyone else in the seminars was described as athletic, intelligent, kind etc. I was referred to by the colour of my skin, as the token Asian in a lecture hall full of Caucasians. These labels were used to show others how much of a circle I was in this straight-edged world.

Labels that describe me

Those labels were labels that were assumed or placed on me. They weren't labels I would choose for myself (with the exception of a bookworm). Perhaps that's why labels always seemed like a negative thing. The labels I had were all how others saw me, and not how I saw myself. When I first found a label to describe myself, it felt right. It felt like I could belong and that I wasn't alone.

The first label I gave myself was "asexual". I was relieved to know there was a word to describe my experiences and there were others in the world just like me. The second label was "depressed". I didn't necessarily have a choice in this label, but it also felt right. It was a word to describe my experience and what I was feeling. It made me acknowledge that I needed help and that I wasn't okay.

Those first labels felt right. They were what I considered an accurate description of me. But those labels, like asexual, depressed and queer, were just fundamental parts of me. If I was to describe it, I would say they were facts about me. There was certainty in it. It wasn't based on some vague value system or if I was good enough. It just is. I am asexual; I am depressed; I am aromantic.

Other labels that were attached to my ability or how I perceived myself were different. I wouldn't label myself as a poet, an artist or a writer. I didn't think I was good enough at it to warrant such a label. I knew writing was something I did and was somewhat good at, but to call myself a poet was too much. Poets are people who are talented, who publish their work and those who have a way with words. I was none of those. I wasn't an artist because I never studied how to paint or sculpt. I didn't know any of the painting techniques. I just painted in the way I wanted to.

If I were to sum it up, I didn't think I was good enough for the labels. I saw others as artists that I couldn't compare to. They had passion and commitment to their craft. I liked to dabble in everything, from writing to painting, to guitar playing and singing. I fell short when compared to others. I was not serious enough about it, so to label myself as a poet, an artist or a musician was to discredit others and their hard work.

Labels of my choosing

I wouldn't say I had low self-esteem. I was confident in what I could do and what I couldn't. I knew what my strengths were as an artist. I just didn't think I was good enough, or professional enough, to warrant a label that implies being an expert.

During my expressive arts therapy training, my classmates all had art modalities they were good at. Some of them were professional dancers, some wrote books. Some of them went to art school while others could play the instruments. I couldn't help but compare myself. I didn't have any formal training in any art disciplines, nor did I consider myself good enough to identify myself with them. I would introduce myself with "I like to write" or "I dabble in visual arts" instead of "I'm a poet/writer" or "I'm an artist". Again, there was the idea of inadequacy.

My classmates would call me a poet or artist, and I would feel my whole body reject that idea. I was also called an activist, which I also didn't believe in. There was always something in me that said "no" or "but you can't be because of this" or "you're not that great".

In the first year of the training, we had a painting weekend. We painted for a whole day in silence. As I looked at everyone else's paintings, I thought they were all amazing. They all were so different but beautiful. I looked at mine and hated it. I may have hated it, but my classmates kept praising my painting. One of them said they would love it as wallpaper. It was the first experience for someone else to like what I created, even if I didn't like it or think it was great. Perhaps that's the start where I began to change the way I saw my creations.

A painting with a pink background and dark leaves and flowers descending downwards
Title: Let the Darkness Bloom and Flowers Fall (2018) The painting I did on that painting weekend.

It took a while, but I started to refer to myself as a poet or visual artist. I didn't necessarily believe that I was worthy of the label, but I also didn't want to keep denying it. I just called myself that and rolled with it. Eventually, though, there was a part of me that switched. I changed from thinking I wasn't good enough to think "hell yeah I'm a poet!".

It might be some sort of process where the more I tell or call myself something, the more I believe it to be true. Or, it could be I just changed what my perspective on "professional artist" is. Either way, I began to have confidence in what I created. There was a certain aspect of pride and ownership. I was good enough at my craft! I wasn't just good, I was great!

It's not like I lacked passion for it. It's not because I wasn't professionally trained. A part of me now thinks about "professional" and goes, who says? Who says what is professional or not? Who are they to tell me whether I'm a poet or artist? I say I am and therefore I am. It's about my process and what the artwork means to me. It's about what I think of as beautiful and moving. My art and poetry touch me and that's what matters.

There's a certain level of confidence and self-assuredness when I used those labels. It was no longer a label that had a vague value system of being good or an expert. Labels like poets or artists became labels like asexual or aromantic. It became a fact as if they are a part of me. I am an artist. I am a poet. I am a writer. I am whatever label I choose or choose not to be.

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