Why labels are destructive


Build a resume that doesn’t simply tell a story about what you want to be, but who you want to be. Oprah.

It’s as simple as this: labels and stereotypes can prevent us from being who we want to be.

Let’s face it, sometimes it feels good to call our ex-partner a narcissist after they hurt us or suggest “perhaps you have this condition, or that condition, or this addiction or that addiction” when a friend comes to us for help – but ultimately, labels are meaningless as everyone’s experiences and feelings are so different.

Several top psychologists and psychiatrists have said there is nothing positive about “labels”; they are unhelpful and there is no mental health test to scientifically and/or medically prove someone’s conditions.

“Generally speaking that person learns to believe that they have whatever that disorder or disease is labelled which in turn gives them a very good reason to not have to be responsible for themselves. They are the victim,” said Suzanne Kellner-Zinck.

This week Happiness Weekly discusses why labelling isn’t helpful and how you can avoid labelling others, focus on yourself and moving forward.

The history
Categorical labelling is a tool that humans use to resolve the impossible complexity of the environments we grapple to perceive. Researchers began studying the cognitive effects of labelling in the 1930s and over time it’s been discovered that there generally isn’t one single label for one thing – everyone has different ideas of what a label should be – and through labelling, we form a lens for people to see ourselves or others through and they may become incapable of perceiving the subject independently of that label.

Why labelling is destructive
“In the majority of cases the person who has made the decision to shed the label is able to create healthier ways of being in the world and in so doing no longer fits the label given. In fact what I have found from my work is that if people are given the chance to be accepted for who they are and have the opportunity to shed the label by doing and thinking in a manner that would no longer support the label, amazingly enough they are healed and able to move on in their lives in a much more productive manner,” said Suzanne Kellner-Zinck.

Last week I attended a meeting for Co-dependents Anonymous (CODA) out of years of curiosity about addiction meetings (similar to Alcoholics Anonymous) – perhaps it was a Fight Club moment. But as I sat there and listened, each person who presented said “Hi, my name is … and I’m co-dependent”. And it happened every time they spoke about themselves. I listened respectfully, but I couldn’t help but think that people aren’t their condition and by saying it aloud like that, that it could hinder taking responsibility. People could actually think “It’s ok if I act like this or do this, because I’m this!”

Labelling can often cause discrimination. When using labels we may innocently be taking short cuts in language to describe something quickly – however, it’s important to be mindful that we may also be creating stigma to a person and it could be received as being offensive.

For example, if you talk about a person with a condition, such as a “person with diabetes”, it comes across that they won’t be rejected by society, have trouble finding a job or be stigmatised at school. But if we call them “a diabetic” – it makes it sound as though they are their condition and everyone with diabetes is the same, with the same emotions, experiences and problems. Of course this is incorrect: they are humans like the rest of us, and that is why we should say “a person with diabetes”. From this example we can see how labels can lead to a person becoming an object rather than the person behind the label.

How to avoid labelling someone
Labels are just shells that contain assumptions and stigmas towards a person. Next time you are tempted to label someone based on something they have done or in describing them, think carefully before you say they are a condition, rather than having a condition that may impair them. It’s important to know the distinction and always respect each other.

  • Be honest with yourself, don’t discriminate or hold judgemental ideals. Know the areas that you’re particularly prone to stereotyping people (for example, people who have hurt us are not necessarily “narcissistic”)
  • Consider when people have made assumptions about you that were untrue, and how you felt. Labelling doesn’t substitute the facts
  • Think of a time when you incorrectly labelled someone – was it an assumption? How did you feel when you got to know the individual to realise you were incorrect?
  • What causes you to label someone? Before you stereotype someone again, consider all the facts to ensure you’re making an accurate assumption and don’t appear foolish
  • Instead of stereotyping, adopt logic, critical thinking and actual facts before speaking. Allow people to prove themselves
  • Aim for diversity and exposure – surround yourself with your stereotyped group and see how you feel. Labelling often springs from unfamiliarity with a group and the desire to see an individual as representative of their group rather than as an individual
  • Be accountable – act as though the labelled group or person can hear you when you speak about them.
  • Develop empathy – consider how the other person would feel if they heard you, listen to complaints from minority groups
  • Accept that everyone is different and diversity is the spice of life! It would be boring if we were all the same
  • Catch yourself in the act – tell your friends and family that you’re trying to make the change to stop labelling and stereotyping and ask them to catch you in the act. Make sure you hear them when they pull you up, and always try to pull yourself up first
  • Correct others when they label someone – it will make you more conscious of the changes you need to make as well. Avoid racist or sexist jokes and stories, disengage in anything that will hinder your progress
  • Educate yourself – research as much as you can about the label you tend to use. Generally we tend to use labels when we’re not educated in a specific area
  • Avoid getting personal – even if they do. Don’t hold a grudge – learn to forgive quickly. Instead of taking things personally, be open to new situations and opinions and see them objectively
  • Don’t compare yourself to others – it encourages you to judge which is what leads us to labelling people
  • Never assume others are judging or labelling you – this is a very bad habit. Always tell yourself that it’s not all about you, this will help you step out of situations rather than complicating things and creating negative assumptions
  • Actively stop yourself from making quick assumptions. Being quick to judge others hampers your change to build good relationships with this person or group in the future.

What has been your experience with being labelled or stereotyped?


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4 responses to “Why labels are destructive”

  1. cjnewsome says :

    Beautiful and an impressive piece. Cheers to you.

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