What’s in a name? And what names do you call yourself?
First, the story of two kinds of Pepper
A few years ago, I met a young teenager who was bagging groceries for me. I saw from her name tag that her name was Pepper. “That’s a very unique name,” I said cheerfully. When she didn’t smile back, I asked her if she liked her name. “Not really,” she said glumly, looking down at the floor.
Just a couple of days later, I met another Pepper (what are the chances of that?). This Pepper was a phone rep who was answering a question for me about my phone bill. She was upbeat and happy, and I couldn’t resist asking her the same question—did she like her name? “I love my name!” she said. She told me that she had actually changed her name to Pepper because she had a difficult time in junior high school. So in order to make herself “more perky” and put some “spice” into her life, she adopted “Pepper.” What a contrast—one girl felt imprisoned by her name; the other liberated by it.
At a book signing on the East Coast, the importance of names came up again when I met a woman who introduced herself as Irene. She had a foreign accent and when I asked her where she was from, she told me she had come to the United States from Poland 17 yrs ago with her family. At the time, she had known only three words of English and, she confessed, she had cried a lot.
As I went to sign a copy of my book Honor Yourself for her, I asked her for her name. That’s when she told me that years ago she had started calling herself Irene so people would stop mispronouncing and misspelling her name. But her real name was “Irena.”
She spoke that name in beautiful, soft accents, as if she had reached into her heart and shared with me a precious part of herself that she had been hiding away. I could see that “Irena” reflected who she really was and that perhaps she had been sacrificing that secret self in her attempt to fit into her new environment.
I shared with her that my new book is about honoring ourselves deeply in ways that really matter. She stopped for a moment, then said, mostly to herself, “Maybe I should use my real name now. ‘Irena’ makes me feel happy.” A huge smile broke out on her face. As she said goodbye and walked away, she turned back to look at me, her face still lit up with thoughts of “Irena,” and she said, “Thank you. Thank you.”
The Power of the Names We Call Ourselves
Those incidents got me thinking about the power in our names and how we think about our names—and, even more importantly, the power of the “names” (the labels) we give ourselves. I mean those demeaning names we sometimes use to castigate ourselves in moments of frustration (as in “What were you thinking, you stupid idiot moron!).
I started to wonder what would happen if I paid more attention to what I called myself to make sure it resonated with the person I really was deep down—with that precious part of me that begs to be honored, respected, and nurtured. What would happen if I talked to myself as tenderly as I do to my kitties or as gently as I would talk to a vulnerable little child who is lost—or as respectfully as I would speak to a king or a queen?
We all want to honor ourselves more, and the names we give ourselves is a good place to practice.
Replacing Criticism with Compassion
“Where there is criticism, there is not complete love.”
—Supermundane: The Inner Life (Book I, 1938)
When we love another, we don’t criticize her or put her down; we encourage and support her. Likewise, when we love ourselves, we don’t criticize ourselves; we encourage and support ourselves. Remember, the real you is a spark of the Divine—worthy of the greatest love and honor.
- You don’t have to save those tender terms of endearment for your favorite friends or pets. Think of your own “pet name”—one that you would like to be called by when you’re feeling upset, disappointed, or vulnerable. A name that captures the sweet part of you.
- Or if that approach doesn’t appeal to you, trying giving yourself a “royal name” (make up your own or try out this Royal Name Generator for some fun).
- Then the next time you begin to take aim at yourself with the sledgehammer of criticism and its accompanying negative label, instead call yourself by your pet name or royal name. See if it helps you put what’s happening in perspective. See if it helps you become more compassionate, patient, and less judgmental toward yourself. See if it helps awaken the real you.
I’ve been practicing this myself. The other day when I started to get irritated with myself, I was amazed what happened when I caught myself just in time and called myself “precious” instead of “stupid.” It neutralized the situation right away. It injected compassion rather than criticism into the moment. Instead of letting a bout of self-criticism take over and drain my energy, calling myself by a compassionate name helped me see that the incident wasn’t such a big deal. And that helped me let go and move on to bigger and better things in my day. Thank goodness!