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Have you ever felt yourself pigeon-holed by someone else?

    "Oh, you're an introvert, you wouldn't like that." "That's not the kind of thing you'd want to do."

    Have you ever worked really, really hard to change an aspect of yourself, and then found yourself at a family reunion, or a meeting with someone ho has known you from way back when, where the memory of you as you were is so strong that it overwhelms any awareness of what you have worked so hard to become?

    "You've always been that way, might as well accept it."

    Have you found yourself pigeon-holing others, just because? Pigeon-holing, by the way, is often, though not always, a more politically correct work-around-term to avoid admitting that what is really happening is stereotyping. As a person from England living in the UK I find that folks often pigeon-hole (or stereotype) me according to what their perception of an English woman might be (even though I've lived in the US for many years).

    I know many people who feel that being pigeon-holed by others keeps them stuck, even though they have worked hard, often for years, to change whatever might have led to that perception. Others of course cannot change, nor would they want to, the basis for their being pigeon-holed. We cannot change our race, our age, our height, yet all can lead to pigeon-holing. He is tall, so he must have been on the basketball team in high school, and must be a good athletic. She is young so she must not know much. And so on.

    When we pigeon-pole people we put them, in our thinking, into a box. Think of the derivation of the word. A pigeon-hole was a small recess in which pigeons might nest. But then, and this is where our current meaning comes from, it came to mean one of those tiny slots in a desk into which people sorted paper or envelopes. This paper belongs here, that one there, and so on. Each piece of paper belongs in one specific slot and no-where else. No matter that one paper might have references to the topic of half a dozen different slots - it belongs in one place.

    So to its meaning for people. Diana is a coach so she belongs in the coach slot. Or she comes from England and belongs in the English slot. No matter that I am also, a college instructor, a Toastmaster, a writer, a mother... you get the drift.

    We are all multi-dimensional, and pigeon-holing denies us that, just as it denies us the right to grow and change.

    A few days ago I was touched, therefore, when Cathy, a correspondent on an email list to which I belong made a suggestion about un-pigeon-holing. She was referring to an incident where friend A, in distress over a current situation, had tried to talk with friend B, but had heard back only the feedback about what friend B had pigeon-holed her as early in their twenty-year friendship. Turning to a friend for support, as we are all told to do in times of stress, she felt totally unheard.

    Cathy, thoughtful as ever, made a suggestion that I thought should be shared far beyond the confines of that email list, and with her permission I share it with you. She wrote:

    "They have known each other for 20 years. That seems like such a long time to be kept in the pigeon hole of someone else. So, wanting to comfort my friend, I said :

    ''Well, I decree that tomorrow is 'Pigeon to butterfly' day. I decree that every third 18th of the month is Pigeon to Butterfly day. It is the day given us to let go all the 'definitions' we build of people in our lives and keep for so long that soon we forget the whys and remember only the hole we keep another human being in, in our minds.'

    'So, if my math is correct, that means that four times a year, if we think of it, we can revise our list of names of people in our mental pigeon hole gallery, and set them free of our preconceptions.

    'So, I guess my goal is to empty my gallery.'"

    I like the idea. The butterfly has long been a symbol of transformation. Just as the caterpillar goes through a metamorphosis and eventually emerges from its chrysalis, so can we change our selves and become something very different from what or who we were "back in the day." We would not dream of categorizing a butterfly, light and beautiful, as a caterpillar just because that is what it used to be. Why, then, do we turn a blind eye to the progress that the people around us make as they struggle to change and grow? Cathy designated the 18th of every third month as Pigeon to Butterfly day - a day when we can resolutely discard the remnants of the pigeon-holes into which we used to try to squeeze ourselves those around us. On that day we and they can take on - and henceforth be seen as owning - the attributes of the brilliant and beautiful butterfly.

    My only suggestion is that, although we might focus on it on those "special" days, we might even more often endeavor to avoid pigeon-holing our friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Each of them has butterfly potential. Let us focus on that, and on the progress that they and we are making toward it. Let us do that each and every day!

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    � 2006 by Diana Robinson, Ph.D.
    Diana@ChoiceCoach.com
    Choices Success Strategies Coaching
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