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Labeling

Dr Elizma van der Smit. May 2019

· Mind

Labeling is when you attach a negative label to yourself or to someone else. This distortion, a more severe type of overgeneralization, occurs when a person labels someone or something based on one experience or event.

Instead of believing that he or she made a mistake, people engaging in this type of thinking might automatically label themselves as failures. In other words, you allow your mistake to define you.

Chances are that you suffer from this distortion when you call yourself names or terms that carry negative connotations. When this happens, your brain takes these signals and run with it, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For Example: You make a mistake on a form you filled out and it's sent back to you. So, you decide “I'm such a loser” or “I'm so stupid” rather than thinking “I made a mistake as I had a busy day when I was filling this out”.

More examples of labeling statements include:

  • “I’m such a loser.”
  • “I’m a failure.”
  • “I am fat”

The unintended consequence is that you begin to feel like a loser even though you’re not. Your body has been primed to respond to negative thoughts and so it responds accordingly.

Labeling is a cognitive distortion in which we generalize by taking one characteristic of a person and applying it to the whole person. Because I failed a test, I am a failure. Because she is frequently late to work, she is irresponsible. If someone responded in a brusque way, he is a jerk. Rather than more objectively thinking about the behavior, when we engage in labeling, we globally describe the whole person. As a result, we view the entire person through the label, such as jerk, and filter out any information that doesn’t fit under the umbrella of the label.

Labeling causes problems when we apply it to others. If you label your husband as uncaring because he appears not to listen to you when you talk about your day, it can feel miserable. You’re married to an uncaring person. But if you consider the behavior as the problem rather than the person, it becomes easier to discuss with him and potentially solve. For instance, it may be that he needs time to unwind at the end of the day, or has difficulty concentrating in general.

What should I do?

  • When we notice ourselves engaging in the cognitive distortion of labeling, there is one simple solution: objectively describe the behavior we notice. That person is late to work. I failed the test. She spoke to me brusquely. You may find that fewer negative feelings are stirred by this more objective, more accurate language. Even better, problems that have felt unsolvable, or people who seem impossible, may become much more manageable. 
  • Rather than focus on labelling the whole person, think about some different behaviours — positive, negative and neutral — that you see in this person as well as yourself.
  • As yourself, "Would everyone label this person in such a negative way? Why not?
  • You must consider that a human life is an ongoing process that involves constantly changing the physical body as well as having an enormous number of rapidly changing thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Your life is therefore an evolving experience, a continual flow. You are not a thing. That is why any label is constricting, highly inaccurate, and global. Labelling means that you have a fixed mindset, but in life you can always grow, improve and change. Nothing is permanent and there is always a move you can make towards a better life. You have to innovate your way towards a better life.

This post is for informational purposes only. It should not be considered therapy.This blog is only for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered therapy or any form of treatment. We are not able to respond to specific questions or comments about personal situations, appropriate diagnosis or treatment, or otherwise provide any clinical opinions. If you think you need immediate assistance, call your local doctor/psychologist or psychiatrist or the SADAG Mental Health Line on 011 234 4837. If necessary, please phone the Suicide Crisis Line on 0800 567 567 or sms 31393.

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This blog is only for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered therapy or any form of treatment. We are not able to respond to specific questions or comments about personal situations, appropriate diagnosis or treatment, or otherwise provide any clinical opinions. If you think you need immediate assistance, call your local doctor/psychologist or psychiatrist or the SADAG Mental health Line on 011 234 4837. If necessary, please phone the Suicide Crisis Line on 0800 567 567 or sms 31393.