Labeling: Healthy or Harmful?

We label constantly. “She is lazy. He is short. That person looks mad. My friend is a teacher. That family is holy. My spouse is irritating”. In therapy, I find myself suggesting that labeling is helpful in some cases, and harmful in others. So, what’s the difference? In my experience, labeling people is harmful but labeling emotions is healing. Let me explain.

In my experience, labeling people is harmful but labeling emotions is healing.

Think about how often we label our children. “Mikey is a handful. He runs around like the Tasmanian Devil. He is exhausting”. Or “Bella is my star student. She never gives me any trouble, and is practically perfect”. When we label our children, I find that it often becomes something that the child attaches to. So sometimes it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. If little Mikey is told he is a handful, he may continue to be that way because in his mind that’s just how he is supposed to be. Or Bella may become perfectionistic because she feels she can’t make any mistakes. We have to be cautious when putting these defining labels on our children because they trust us and believe what we say about them.

Likewise, we can’t label ourselves, our friends or spouses. “I’m the dictator at home. I’m a loser. My friend is just so put-together. My husband is manipulative”. Like with our children, when we label ourselves we tend to behave in the way that supports our own label. When we compare ourselves to our friends, and label them, it’s oftentimes at our own expense. When we label our spouse in negative terms, we fall into the trap of becoming critical or contemptuous of him or her. Also, labeling is an act of overgeneralization. The label is a blanket statement put over yourself, as opposed to deciphering a particular situation. There is a difference between saying “I made a mistake when I forgot to write down when the appointment was”  or “Mikey’s behavior can tend to be manipulative” versus, “I’m a failure” or “Mikey is a handful.”

Now when it comes to emotions, it is actually healing to label. Mindfulness, which is the practice of becoming aware of the present moment, and acknowledging and accepting our thoughts and feelings, encourages labeling. It helps us gain insight into what we are experiencing. We help our children label their emotions constantly. “Are you feeling tired or frustrated right now?” “Maybe your feelings are hurt, and that’s why you are getting angry”. Labeling our feelings doesn’t mean that we like them necessarily, or that we don’t want them to change. It simply allows us to better understand ourselves so that we can move in the direction of change, if desired.

It can be helpful to consider the simple difference between a person, and his or her accompanying feelings and behaviors. Oftentimes when I talk with parents I point out that it’s ok for their children to experience all emotions, but it’s not appropriate to display all sorts of behaviors. It’s ok that your child is angry; it’s not ok that they punched their little sister. We can think of labeling in this way: It’s acceptable to label our emotions, because that increases our insight into what we are experiencing. It is not helpful to put a blanket statement on a person though, because that overgeneralization leads to negative consequences. The challenge will be to decipher the difference.

Challenge: spend some time reflecting on what labels are already present in your life—and ask yourself if they fall into the harmful or healthy category. 

The proof of love is in the works. Where love exists, it works great things. But when it ceases to act, it ceases to exist. -St. Gregory the Great

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