“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”William Shakespeare
You’re likely familiar with the line above from Romeo and Juliet, spoken by Romeo about the fact that Juliet is a Capulet, his family’s sworn enemy. His words speak to the frustration he feels that her last name has the power to keep them apart, to create a division between them. And while the premise is obviously fiction, there’s an important truth buried within as well.
Names have power.
Names are words, after all, so this should make sense that they hold power. Think about someone you know that means a lot to you. Maybe it’s your mom or dad. Maybe it’s your sister or your aunt. Perhaps your grandmother, or your best friend since you were a toddler, or your favorite high school teacher. It doesn’t matter what role they play in your life, just that they are important to you. Think about why they are so important to you and allow all your positive feelings to seep in. You’re likely wearing a smile at this point.
Now think about the last time you met or heard about someone with the same name. Can you picture it? When you met that person, what were your thoughts? Your feelings? Were you immediately drawn to them in some way?
While that person may have simply been a naturally charismatic person, you likely felt a connection to them anyway.
This is because of the positive association we tend to attach to the names of people who are important to us, which carries over to new people we meet simply as a result of their shared name. We give them an instant advantage in our perception of them for no reason other than their name. Even if we’re conscious of this bias, it’s likely to happen anyway. Because that name has power to us.
This in and of itself isn’t a good thing or a bad thing; it just is. And as long as it doesn’t encourage us to ignore red flags about someone, I’m inclined to think it’s more on the positive side of things—there’s enough negative judgment in the world. I’m fully supportive of a more positive skew to how we judge and interact with others.
But there is a down side.
My kids (4 and 5 1/2) love to help my husband and me do adult things. It likely won’t last much longer, but right now they want to help with everything. Cleaning the litter box, vacuuming, watering plants (indoors and out), doing laundry, and the list goes on. One of those things used to be unloading the dishwasher.
Yes, I said “used to be” because about ten months ago, as we were running the first load of dishes in the dishwasher as a few guests lingered from our joint fall shindig and oldest daughter’s 5th birthday party, it was brought to my attention that there was a growing lake on my kitchen floor. It seemed the kids had—in their infinite excitement to help—jumped onto the dishwasher door one too many times and it was no longer watertight.
I was a bit aggravated, of course—the dishwasher was pretty new—but it wasn’t a huge deal for our family. My husband and I both grew up without using dishwashers and had only started using them once we had our second child. We would just go back to washing dishes by hand like we always had.
There was a bit of an adjustment period, but we quickly got used to not having a functional dishwasher, mild irritation only creeping in around holidays or when we had a houseful of guests to clean up after. However, when schools closed due to COVID-19 and we suddenly had the entire family home all day, every day, the volume of dirty dishes skyrocketed.
After about two months of shelter-in-place, I decided I needed to get serious about finding someone who could help us figure out which pieces needed replacing so our dishwasher no longer leaked. I reached out to someone in the neighborhood for a recommendation and she quickly responded by forwarding me contact information for the handyman their family uses. I saw the letter E for the contact box pop up on my message preview and felt some relief that she knew someone who could help with our dishwasher.
A while later, I grabbed my phone and headed into my office, intending to place the call to the handyman while I got myself set up to work for the afternoon. I punched in my phone password, pulled up my text messages and looked down at the handyman’s contact information just as I was shutting my office door behind me.
I froze, my hand still resting on the door handle, and couldn’t breathe for a moment. A wave of nausea passed through me as my eyes were glued—unblinking—to my screen. I couldn’t move as everything in my peripheral faded into blackness until I couldn’t even see the outer edges of my phone. All I could see was the name on the screen.
After a moment, the screen dimmed and I wasn’t sure if it was the phone or my vision that was responsible—they seemed equally likely scenarios. It turns out it was the phone; the screen went black a few seconds later. I shook my head, feeling as if I was coming out of a trance, and noticed that my eyes were about to overflow with moisture.
Anger and frustration began to well inside as I stepped back out of my office to the bathroom in the hall and splashed cold water over my face until I felt the danger of crying had passed, then headed back into my office to work.
A messy business
As I’m writing this, it’s been about a month since I received that handyman’s contact information, and I haven’t been any more able to call the number than I have been able to stop thinking about that name.
You see, that name is the same as one of my childhood molesters.
As the days began stacking up with my inability to call the number, my anger and frustration grew. It’s just a damn name! I thought I was past this… just call the number and get your dishwasher fixed. Don’t project your shit onto this guy just because of his name; that’s not fair to him.
But then I remembered something: healing is so far from linear. You may think you are over something and you are reminded of it unexpectedly and you’re suddenly in the thick of it again. That’s all part of processing past trauma. Here’s the thing, though.
It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. And it doesn’t mean you’re failing.
There’s no rule that says once you’ve started to heal that you can never have a setback, never again feel gutted by those things that happened to you. There’s no rule that says you can’t be viscerally impacted as an adult for something that happened to you nearly thirty years before. There’s no rule that says just because you’ve talked about it in therapy, you can’t still be triggered and find yourself emotionally at battle all over again.
Healing is messy and painful enough as it is without us judging ourselves harshly. As much as we need to show compassion for others in this world, we also need to show some compassion and gentleness toward ourselves. We need to remember that what we accept and understand for others—that healing is a lifelong process—also applies to us.
That it’s OKAY if a name is so much more than a name.
Katherine Turner is the author of Finding Annie, a contemporary romantic women’s fiction novel that explores the power of love and human resilience in the wake of trauma and abuse. She blogs about mental health, trauma, and ways we can be more compassionate as a society. Sign up for her newsletter to stay up to date and get the first five chapters of her novel Finding Annie free!